Rhythmic Gymnastics at the Olympics

As our anticipation of the 2012 Olympic Games grows every minute, here is a brief overview of rhythmic gymnastics' history as an olympic sport.

1984 - The First Steps 

In the 1970s and early 80s the number of gymnasts from around the world who chose rhythmic gymnastics increased. Gymnasts from the United States first appeared at the championships in 1973. This is almost 40 years ago now, so let's relax and stop assuming that rhythmic gymnastics is only popular in Eastern Europe. Rhythmic gymnastics entered the Olympic programme in 1984 with an individual all around as the only event. Unfortunately, as a response to the American-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, 14 countries from Eastern Europe boycotted the 1984 Olympics, which were held in Los Angeles. These countries included the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany and Bulgaria (but not Romania). As a result, Lori Fung, a Canadian of Chinese origin became the first Olympic champion in rhythmic gymnastics. 

1988 - The Real Competition

Luckily, in 1988, there was no political nonsense to deprive talented athletes of their dream Olympic moment. Thirty-nine gymnasts competed in the preliminary round of the all around competition and twenty made the final. A gymnast's score in the preliminary round, divided by two (the "prelim" score) was added to gymnast's score in the finals (the "final" score). Each of the routines in was judged by six judges, highest and lowest marks were dropped, and an average of four remaining scores was gymnast's score for the routine. Marina Lobatch of the Soviet Union, one of my favorites from the 1980s, won the Olympic title, followed by Bulgarian Adriana Dunavska, and the rising star Alexandra Timoshenko. Curiously, Dunavska and Timoshenko had both become all around European champions that same year along with the Bulgarian Elizabeth Koleva, who did not participate in the Olympics. The scond Bulgarian competitor, Bianka Panova, who received 8 scores of the perfect 10.000 at the 1987 Worlds, dropped a club and finished 4th. Here is Lobatch, lovely commentary in French:

1992 - Timoshenko and the Spanish Conquest

In 1992 in Barcelona, Alexandra Timoshenko dropped the ball and still won the gold medal. She was followed by Spanish Carolina Pascual (quite an achievement for Spain!) and Oksana Skaldina. Maria Petrova of Bulgaria, who was the 1992 European champion with 4 perfect 10.000s was fifth after numerous errors including the zipper of her leotard opening during her hoop routine:

1996 - The First Rhythmic Groups at the Olympics

The 1996 Olympics added a new event: rhythmic gymnastics groups of 5 girls! Spain won the first group gold medal, followed by Bulgaria and Russia.

In the all around event, this was, in my opinion, one of the most unfairly judged competitions of all times. Ekaterina Serebryanskaya of the Ukraine won despite dropping the ribbon, and Yanina Batyrchina of Russia, also with a drop, was awarded the silver. Elena Vitrichenko of the Ukraine, who performed cleanly and beautifully somehow deserved a bronze only. I already wrote about this here. Sad days for gymnastics come and go. Let's hope they mostly go into oblivion.

2000 - Barsukova Surprises the Bravest Among Us

Russia won the group gold in 2000 in Athens, followed by Belarus and a very strong Greece. But Greece winning a bronze in the groups was not the biggest surprise. As everyone expected Alina Kabaeva to win the all-around individual gold, she made some errors and only achieved third place. The wonderful Yulias, Yulia Raskina of Belarus with silver, and the champion Russian Barsukova, surpassed Alina.

A cold princess, unforgettable and swan-like , the 2000 Olympic champion, Barsukova:

2004 - Kabaeva, the Queen

Kabaeva certainly redeemed herself by winning the gold at the 2004 Olympics. She was followed by another fan favorite from Russia, Irina Tchachina, and by the legendary Ukranian Anna Bessonova. I know many think Bessonova deserved better than bronze but I think both Kabaeva and Tchachina performed very strongly. Tchachina should perhaps regret the errors she made as she was fully ready to outshine the charismatic Kabaeva. But you could not outshine Kabaeva, an outstanding, diamond of a talent, without being flawless. And while, in 2000, Barsukova was capable of flawless execution, neither Tchachina, nor Bessonova came close to flawless in 2004.

Among the groups, Russia won the gold, followed by Italy and Bulgaria.

2008 - Kanaeva, the Queen

Bessonova won another Olympic bronze in 2008. The surprise silver medalist, Inna Zhukova from Belarus, stepped up as a real star in the competition of her life. If you think that Bessonova was "deprived" again, please remain quiet and watch Bessonova videos in peace at the comfort of your own home and without besmirching other talented people. Inna Zhukova is one of the cleanest, strongest and most modest athletes of our century. I only wish the rest of us shared some of her physical and mental strength. Her silver medal was more than deserved.

Evgenia Kanaeva of Russia, who has since then become the most successful rhythmic gymnast of all time, won the gold without leaving a shred of doubt about her outstanding class. The group winner was Russia, followed by the host, China, and Belarus with bronze.

Not that I think anyone has forgotten this magically light and sweet ribbon routine by Kanaeva, but here it is:

This concludes my overview. The 2012 Olympics may bring even greater surprises, especially among the groups. Italy, Russia, and Belarus all look equally strong, all with some very original routines performed by gymnasts who are really pushing the limit of mastery in group performance. Bulgaria and Spain will fight for their medal chances as well. Among the individual gymnasts, Kanaeva looks poised to win another Olympic gold but other strong competitors follow her lead.