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Gymnastics 101: Olympic history

Mary Lou Retton 1984
USA Today Sports

Gymnastics 101: Olympic history

From the rope climbing event to the Fierce Five. 

Athens, 1896: The earliest years of Olympics gymnastics competition feature a variety of events, many of which are later discontinued. Rope climbing joins such current standards as parallel bars and vault on the original program. Club swinging appears in 1904 and 1932. In Athens, Germany wins five of the eight competitions, host Greece celebrates two champions, and a Swiss gymnast prevails on pommel horse.

Stockholm, 1912: Growing up in Modena, Italy, Alberto Braglia had taught himself gymnastics in a barn. In 1908, he steps away from his job at a tobacco factory to win all-around gold at the London Games. Soon thereafter, he is declared a professional for earning money as "The Bullet Man" (or, as posters read, "The Human Torpedo"), stunt work that once leads to a broken shoulder and ribs. His amateur status ultimately restored, Braglia defends his title in Stockholm. He then takes to the circus, once performing for the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace, before returning to the Games as coach of the victorious Italian men's team in 1932.

Paris, 1924: At the Paris Games, Czechoslovakia leads the gymnastics standings with nine medals, ahead of Switzerland (seven) and France (six). The all-around champion is a lawyer-to-be from Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia), Leon Stukelj. Famous for his longevity, Stukelj wins silver on rings at the 1936 Games at age 37, then incorporates gymnastics into a strict exercise regimen to which he adheres well into his nineties. Stukelj dies in 1999, four days shy of his 101st birthday.

Los Angeles, 1932: In Los Angeles, Romeo Neri leads Italy to the men's team title and is also crowned the all-around champion. A stadium in Rimini, Italy, is later named after him. Also in L.A., the rope climbing gold goes to Raymond Bass, who later becomes a submarine commander in World War II.

Berlin, 1936: German gymnasts Konrad Frey and Alfred Schwarzmann each win three gold medals in Berlin. Both survive World War II, after which Schwarzmann, a baker from Nuremburg, earns a silver medal on high bar in Helsinki at the age of 40.

London, 1948: The 1948 gymnastics event must be moved indoors because of rain at Wembley Stadium, and the arena isn't ideally designed for judges to have the same views of a routine. This further complicates a competition in which, as the official report notes, "there were differences of opinion on the value to be placed on any particular movement." Still, it is unclear why one befuddled judge awards a 13.1 -- on a scale of 1-10 -- to a gymnast in the women's competition.

London, 1948: In London, shortly before the gymnastics competition, Czechoslovakian gymnast Eliska Misakova, 22, becomes gravely ill and is hospitalized. She dies of infantile paralysis the day of the women's team competition. With Eliska's sister, Miloslava, contributing the team's second highest individual score, Czechoslovakia wins gold. A black ribbon is attached to the Czech flag when it is raised at the medal ceremony.

Helsinki, 1952: The Soviet Union makes its foray into the Olympics in Helsinki, and is an instant success in gymnastics. Its men and women sweep the team events, and two natives of Ukraine win the all-around titles: Viktor Chukarin, who finishes with four gold and two silver medals, and Maria Gorokhovskaya, whose seven-medal tally (two golds, five silvers) remains the single-Games record for women in gymnastics (today, only six events are contested).

Melbourne, 1956: Less than a month before the Melbourne Games, Soviet forces roll into Hungary to crush an uprising. Two gymnasts become unwitting proxies for the conflict: Soviet Larisa Latynina and Hungarian Agnes Keleti, who combine to win all of the individual women's events, even tying for gold on floor. Latynina takes six medals (four golds, one silver, one bronze); Keleti, a 35-year-old Jew whose parents perished at Auschwitz, wins four golds and two silvers. Upon conclusion of the Melbourne Games, she defects to the West. Latynina goes on to become the most decorated Olympian in history, with 18 total medals earned in 1956, 1960 and 1964.

Rome, 1960: Orphaned at age 12 and raised by his grandmother, Ukrainian gymnast Boris Shakhlin would go on to become one of the most decorated Olympians ever. A two-time gold medalist in 1956, he dominated the 1960 competition. With Rome's ancient Caracalla Baths restored as a stunning backdrop, Shakhlin hauls in seven more medals, including four golds (all-around among them). In 1964, he would return to earn silver in the all-around. With his steely physique and resolve, Shakhlin is nicknamed the "Man of Iron."

Tokyo, 1964: The Soviet Union's Larissa Latynina adds the last six of her record 18 Olympic medals, but is defeated in the all-around by Czechoslovakia's Vera Caslavska, a 22-year old secretary from Prague. Caslavska comes home with four medals: three golds and one silver. She goes on to become a star of the 1968 Mexico City Games and the winner of seven individual golds, the most ever by a female gymnast.

Mexico City, 1968: Four years after winning all-around gold in Tokyo, Vera Caslavska publicly rejects Soviet involvement in her native Czechoslovakia. When the Soviets invade to crush the Prague Spring, she flees her training camp to avoid arrest, hiding in a small town and keeping in shape by swinging from tree limbs. After three weeks in hiding, she joins her team in Mexico City, where she wins six medals (four golds, two silvers) and is embraced by fans -- her floor exercise to the tune of "The Mexican Hat Dance" is a particular crowd-pleaser. The shadow of politics is never far away: Caslavska shares floor exercise gold with Soviet Larisa Petrik, and is said to have bowed her head during the Soviet anthem. Back home, the Communist government makes her personal and professional life difficult for more than 20 years. She later serves as president of the Czech National Olympic Committee and a member of the IOC.

Munich, 1972: A captivating performance by a 4-foot-11 85-pound Soviet pixie cements women's gymnastics as one of the most popular Olympic sports, particularly for television audiences. Petite 17-year-old Olga Korbut becomes the first gymnast ever to do a backward somersault on the uneven bars -- "I don't believe it!" a stunned TV commentator says of her performance. She wins individual gold medals on balance beam and floor, plus a silver on uneven bars. A fall and a missed remount eliminate Korbut from individual all-around contention. Even in the U.S., anti-Soviet sentiment did not keep Americans from being charmed by the "Munchkin of Munich."

Munich, 1972: The Japanese men had been going strong since 1956, when they took silver in the team event. A streak of five straight team golds (1960-1976) ends when the nation boycotts the 1980 Moscow Games. In Munich, 5-foot-3 Sawao Kato leads a Japanese sweep of the men's all-around and parallel bars; Japan also goes 1-2-3-4-5 on high bar. In all, Japan wins 16 of the 24 men's gymnastics medals awarded in Munich. Kato, who defended his all-around title in Munich, would add silver in 1976 to become the only man with three all-around medals.

Montreal, 1976: Japan's Mitsuo Tsukahara made a mark on gymnastics history with his vaulting style. He was the first to perform the vault sideways, starting with a cartwheel, hitting the horse in the middle of the move, and springing off into a back-flip. The move was considered daring when he first performed it, but it became so commonplace as to be included in women's compulsories. Going into Montreal, Tsukahara already had four medals to his name. He adds five more: two golds (high bar, team), a silver (vault) and two bronzes (all-around and parallel bars).

Montreal, 1976: The two Soviets who had dominated in Munich -- all-around winner Lyudmila Turischeva and multiple-medalist Olga Korbut -- are due for some disappointment in Canada. There, a new gymnastics darling emerges: 14-year-old Romanian Nadia Comaneci. Though lacking Korbut's charisma, Comaneci makes up for that by becoming the first person ever to score a 10.0 -- gymnastics perfection. Scoreboard designers clearly didn't see this coming, as they only left room for three digits, leaving them to post 1.00 when the judges' decision came through. Comaneci racks up a total of seven 10s en route to five medals, including the all-around gold.

Moscow, 1980: Charges of favoritism in the scoring of subjective events has long been part of the Games. Among the most notable cases is the women's all-around final in Moscow, where defending champion Nadia Comaneci of Romania needs a 9.90 on balance beam to tie Soviet Yelena Davydova for gold. After delivering a near-flawless routine, she waits for half an hour as the judges bicker and ultimately produce a score of 9.85 -- thanks to 9.8s from the Soviet and Polish judges. The silver is among four medals Comaneci wins at the 1980 Games. In 1989, she defects to the United States, eventually marrying fellow gymnast Bart Conner, a 1984 gold medalist.

Los Angeles, 1984: Vera Caslavska...Olga Korbut...Nadia Comaneci... The U.S. had never produced a gymnastics star like that, much less won any individual medal in women's Olympic competition. Then came Mary Lou Retton, a wide-smiling 16-year-old born in a West Virginia coal mining town. In her first major international competition, Retton becomes the face of the Los Angeles Games after rallying with a pair of 10s in her last two events to pass Romanian Ecaterina Szabo for the all-around title. Retton, with four other medals (two silvers, two bronzes), would join the list of famous athletes to grace the cover of a Wheaties cereal box.

Los Angeles, 1984: In Los Angeles, three members of the U.S. men's gymnastics team (Peter Vidmar, Mitch Gaylord, Tim Daggett) are competing in their home arena, UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. Joined by Bart Conner, James Hartung and Scott Johnson, they win the team gold medal in a major upset over the world champion Chinese team. In addition to the men's team medal, the men win several individual medals: Vidmar's silver in the all-around and gold on pommel horse; Conner's gold on parallel bars; Gaylord's silver on vault and bronzes on rings and parallel bars; and Daggett's bronze on pommel horse.

Seoul, 1988: Coming into Seoul, Vladimir Artemov of the Soviet Union had become known as the "permanent runner-up" for repeatedly finishing second at major competitions. But in Seoul, Artemov steps it up, winning the all-around title and adding golds on parallel bars, high bar and in the team event, to go along with familiar silver on floor. His performance overshadows that of teammate Dmitry Bilozerchev, who had overcome a shattered leg to win the 1987 world all-around title. In Seoul, Bilozerchev takes the all-around bronze and ties for the gold in rings and pommel horse.

Barcelona, 1992: Vitaly Scherbo, a native of Belarus representing the Unified Team, arrives in Spain having made a bold promise to his mother: that he would win three gold medals in Barcelona. But he is twice as good as his promise: After leading the Unified Team to the team title and winning the all-around crown, he wins four event finals on the same night -- parallel bars, vault, rings, and pommel horse -- to become the first gymnast ever to earn six golds at a single Games. Late in 1995, Scherbo's wife is severely injured in a car crash, a personal setback that also threatened his gymnastics career. But in 1996, he returns to win four bronze medals at the Atlanta Games.

Atlanta, 1996: In Atlanta, with a solid lead entering the final rotation -- vault -- the American women seem poised to capture the nation's first women's team title in Olympic history. But on vault, Dominique Moceanu makes two mistakes, and with the second-place Russians still performing on floor, Team USA appears to need a solid score from Kerri Strug to clinch the victory (four of a team's five scores counted). On her first vault, Strug misses her landing and severely injures her left ankle. At the urging of coach Bela Karolyi and her teammates, the 18-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., goes back out and sticks her landing, then collapses in pain. With her ankle in a soft case, she is carried by Karolyi onto the gold-medal stand. Though the U.S. ultimately would have won without Strug's heroics, the gutsy performance makes her a national star.

Sydney, 2000: The women's all-around in Sydney seems cursed. First, the vault apparatus is set incorrectly -- nearly 2 inches too low -- causing a string of crashes before the mistake is noticed. Russian Svetlana Khorkina, a 5-foot-5 giant in this sport, lands on her knees, and American champion Elise Ray makes two poor passes. Khorkina declines a do-over offer and ultimately places 10th. Meanwhile, the all-around winner -- Andreea Raducan of Romania -- tests positive for a banned substance and is stripped of her gold. Raducan claims that a team doctor had given her a common, over-the-counter cold medicine containing the banned substance pseudoephedrine.

Athens, 2004: Once a men's gymnastics dynasty, winning five straight Olympic team titles from 1960-1976, Japan decisively reclaimed gold by finishing nearly a full point ahead of the United States. The silver is America's first medal in the team event since 1984 and the first at a fully-attended Olympics since 1932.

Athens, 2004: In 12th place with two events to go, Wisconsin's Paul Hamm makes a big comeback and emerges from an even bigger controversy with Olympic gold. Hamm, the first American to win an Olympic men's all-around title, outscores South Korea's Kim Dae-Eun by .012 points in the event's closest-ever finish. The bronze medalist, South Korean Yang Tae-Young, claims a scoring error on his parallel bars routine cost him the victory, and although officials acknowledge a mistake they do not overturn the final results. In October 2004, the Court of Arbitration for Sport denies Yang's appeal; his bronze and Kim's silver are the first Olympic all-around medals for South Korea.

Athens, 2004: Carly Patterson becomes just the second American woman to win Olympic all-around gold and the first since Mary Lou Retton 20 years earlier. The 16-year-old from Texas defeats three-time world champion Svetlana Khorkina of Russia, who finally wins an Olympic all-around medal, a silver, in her third Olympics. At 25, Khorkina is the event's oldest medalist since Vera Caslavska won gold at age 26 at the 1968 Mexico City Games. By finishing with the bronze, Zhang Nan earns China's second - ever Olympic medal in the women's all-around. For the first time since 1972, Romania is shut out.

Beijing, 2008: American Nastia Liukin claims all-around gold ahead of her teammate Shawn Johnson, who narrowly edges China's Yang Yilin for silver. Liukin becomes the third American woman to win Olympic all-around gold and Liukin and Johnson become the first American women to go 1-2 in the all-around. Liukin ties the  U.S. gymnastics record of five medals at one Olympics set by Mary Lou Retton (1984) and Shannon Miller (1992).  Johnson picks up four total medals, including gold on the balance beam. In the team competition, the U.S. women struggle and finish second behind host-country China by more than two points.

Beijing, 2008: Host country China is dominant in gymnastics, picking up the men's and women's team titles, plus the men's all-around gold won by Yang Wei. Nine of China's 14 gymnastics medals are gold, including six of seven individual men's gold medals up for grabs (all but vault). Maybe the most controversial gold is that won by He Kexin in the women's uneven bars finals. He and American Nastia Liukin earn the same amount of points, but He wins gold due to a complex tie-breaking rule.

Beijing, 2008: Considered underdogs after falling off the podium at the world  championships preceding the Olympics and finishing sixth in qualifying in Beijing, the United States wins a surprise team bronze medal. Forced to use alternates when 2004 Olympic all-around champion Paul Hamm and his twin, Morgan, suffer pre-Games injuries, the Americans hold off Germany to win the team bronze medal.

London 2012: After winning a bronze medal at the 2011 World Championships and earning the top team score in the qualifying round, the U.S. men's team seems assured of a spot on the podium at the London Olympics.  But error-ridden performances leave the Americans in fifth place. The Chinese men win their second straight team gold, and as the competition came to an end Great Britain and Ukraine are in silver and bronze medal position. But Japan, in fourth place after Kohei Uchimura botches his dismount off the pommel horse, files a protest appealing Uchimura's score. The appeal is accepted and Japan is moved up to second place. Great Britain receives bronze, their first team medal in gymnastics in 100 years, and Ukraine is pushed off the podium. Uchimura also claims a gold medal in the men's all-around, followed by Germany's Marcel Nguyen and U.S.' Danell Leyva.

London 2012:  The U.S. women--soon to be known as the "Fierce Five"--decisively win team gold, the first American team to do so since the "Magnificent Seven" in 1996. U.S.' Gabby Douglas wins all-around gold over Russia's Viktoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina. The other American in the all-around final, Aly Raisman, ties for third place with Mustafina but loses the tiebreaker and doesn't receive a medal. In the event finals, Raisman earns a gold medal on the floor exercise and a bronze medal on the balance beam. 


Gymnastics 101

Learn more about gymnastics:

Basics | Competition format | Scoring | Qualification | Venue | Equipment | Apparatus | Glossary | Olympic History

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