The first Olympic medals for excellence on the best apparatus (see: website, name of) came at the 1952 games in Helsinki. Because when you think of a celebration of summer, you think of Finland.
Team gymnastics had appeared in three previous Olympics (1928 Amsterdam, 1936 Berlin, and 1948 London), but those games did not award medals for individual performance to women the way it did to men because women existed only as sentient collective globs until 1952, when science figured out how to break them off into individuals.
While beam medals were handed out for the first time in 1952, no separate event finals were held at these Olympics. Individual medals were based entirely on scores from the team event, much like the current NCAA format.
In another olde-tyme departure, competitors in 1952 were permitted a second attempt of their compulsory routines if they didn’t care for the first one and wanted to retake the SATs to see if they could get a better score—though the second score had to count, even if it was worse than the first.
Most significantly, the Soviet Union made its Olympic debut in 1952 and immediately went, “I WANT ALL THE MEDALLSSSSS,” taking both gold and silver on beam, but also charitably allowing Hungary to win a bronze because of throwing scraps to the peasants.
Our very first Olympic all-around champion, Maria Gorochovskaya, was forced to settle for the silver medal on all four events, finishing second on beam behind her countrywoman and all-around silver medalist, Nina Bocharova, who excelled on this piece in particular, outscoring Gorochovskaya in both the compulsory and voluntary competitions. (Voluntary was the original name for optionals.)
In compulsories, Bocharova and eventual bronze medalist Margit Korondi tied for the top score with 9.460, but Bocharova separated herself in the voluntary competition with 9.760—the third-highest score of the entire games, trailing only her own compulsory vault at 9.800 and Agnes Keleti’s Olympic-leading 9.860 on floor. Keleti, who would go on to win beam gold four years later, was in the medal mix after compulsories but fell to fourth after a weaker voluntary showing for 9.530.
Beam routines at the 1952 Olympics were composed primarily of choreographic elements to demonstrate balance, lots of walking across the beam with fancy hands while looking cotillion-y, with the occasional press handstand and scale thrown in. Elements that we would currently classify as acrobatic flight and acrobatic non-flight were yet to be introduced, though holds were common. One of Korondi’s routines survives, in which we can see her receiving…a spot?…a rap on the knuckles from the schoolmarm?…for her mount, a press handstand in straddle.
In the men’s competition, the US delegation was impressed that all the competition apparatuses were arranged on (GET THIS) some sort of a raised platform and that six teams could work simultaneously on all six apparatuses. The women’s competition, however, was held in Hall B, which was not raised onto a podium. I know.
Per the national Olympic report, the US women’s team was distressed to arrive in Helsinki and learn that the trend in gymnastics was moving toward “movements and choreography of dance.” EW YUCK.
“The emphasis is now on beauty, grace, and choreography, and tends away from strength, power, and sustained movements.” So good thing we fixed that.
The 1956 Olympics in Melbourne continued the format from Helsinki of having no separate event finals and awarding beam medals based on scores from the team competition. The rules did change, however, to prohibit those compulsory do-overs from 1952.
Melbourne largely became the games of Keleti and Larisa Latynina, with only an error on compulsory vault from Keleti separating the two and allowing Latynina to take her first of two Olympic all-around titles. When it came to beam, however, Keleti was the stronger athlete and took gold while Latynina finished in a tie for fourth.
Despite the fairly large margin of victory, Keleti’s did not have the best routine of the voluntary/optional competition, placing second there to eventual silver medalist Tamara Manina (the lone Soviet medalist on beam, a gross indignity that would not be repeated until 1976). It was Keleti’s strength and comfort with the compulsory routine that afforded her a basically insurmountable margin heading into the voluntary portion.
The tie for second between Manina and Eva Bosakova was not broken, and both received silver medals, while no bronze medal was awarded. Nastia is pissed about it.
Scores in 1956 were quite a bit lower than in 1952, with the best voluntary beam routines in 1956 scoring 9.3s, which would have been a pedestrian score by 1952 standards when the best beams were going at least 9.5, with some into the 9.7s.
Keleti’s beam was noteworthy for the integration of more risk in the form of jumps, as well as more precarious press handstands and planche work, which separated it from previous years.
It was Bosakova’s silver medal routine, however, that likely proved the most influential for future beam work as she introduced an au naturel cartwheel into her routine, becoming the first gymnast to do so.
The 1956 competition did run into a number of meet-organization problems. In contrast to 1952, the competition was not on podium due to…expensive. There was also an issue with the FIG not providing adequate translations of the French-language technical regulations so that other people could understand, as well as complaints over the quality of the apparatuses after nine uneven bars were broken during training and a tenth during competition. In their review of the event, the Australian organizers were quick to note that the terrible bars were made in Switzerland, but everyone loved the floor, which was from Australia.
A lack of in-arena scoreboard also provoked complaints as it made it difficult to fans to follow the progress of the event, yet attempts to keep them apprised of meet progress via announcements were also problematic as they distracted from ongoing routines.
So basically…2019 is that you?!?!??
The gymnastics competition at the 1960 Olympics in Rome is best known for its setting, a 5,000-seat arena constructed within the ruins of Baths of Caracalla, a delightful visual spectacle that also reflects DEAR GOD NO-levels of jeopardizing a historical landmark in a way that would never be allowed today. Can you imagine?
Rome 1960 also brought the introduction of actual event finals to the Olympic Games, with the top six athletes after the team competition advancing to a separate beam final just for the cool kids. For the first time, the format of adding the event-final score to each individual’s average score from the team competition was used to determine medalists, a system that would stay in place for quadrennia to come.
As with many of the early-days event finals, the 1960 beam final proved largely an unnecessary and non-influential exercise since the scores were not used to separate or rank athletes in any useful way. In the final, four of the six women received 9.700, while the other two received 9.666 (what is this, the 2015 bars final?), so the ultimate event results ended up nearly identical to the standings after the team competition.
The only change affected Larisa Latynina, who qualified in third place but moved ahead of countrywoman Sofia Muratova after the final solely on the basis of truncated decimal places. SIGH. Latynina ended up with 19.233 to Muratova’s 19.232 because Muratova received 9.666 in the final and her score was cut to three places but not rounded up to 9.667. Using raw scores throughout all phases of the competition, the two would have tied for silver. We have learned nothing since.
Rounding issues did not affect the gold medal, with the title going to Eva Bosakova following her silver medal from four years earlier and marking the second time in as many Olympics she outscored the legend Latynina on beam. That gold for Bosakova was the lone individual medal in the entire women’s event in 1960 that did not go to the Soviet Union, the Soviets claiming the other 14.
A pre-amazing Vera Caslavksa competed in her first Olympics in Rome, and this sixth-place finish on beam was her strongest individual result of the games. She did, however, foreshadow the future in the event final, scoring the ever-popular 9.700, just like Bosakova and Latynina.
Keiko Ikeda’s fifth-place finish still ranks as Japan’s best-ever beam result at an Olympics, as Ikeda also proved that one is allowed to do a wolf turn in one’s beam routine as long as it is preceded by this choreography.
The 1960s LOVED itself a low-to-beam turn.
While Vera Caslavska made a cameo appearance at the 1960 Olympics, it was 1964 that brought our first true Caslavska moment when she defeated two-time defending champion Latynina in the all-around—and did so in convincing fashion. Caslavska also cleaned up on beam with a dominant gold, recording the highest beam score in compulsories, optionals, and the event final.
In a repeat of 1960, the 1964 beam final also ended up being kind of pointless with the top four competitors in the final all receiving the same score (this time 9.766), ensuring that the top three after the team event stayed the top three. Ruzickova was actually tied with Latynina for third after the team event, but Laytnina pulled away in the final to secure bronze for herself alone.
Overall, beam proved to be Latynina’s “least successful” event of the four, finishing 4th in 1956, 2nd in 1960, and 3rd in 1964. What a loser.
Tamara Manina returned to the Olympics in 1964 after missing the 1960 games with injury, and her beam silver medals in 1956 and 1964 afford her the distinction of being the only female gymnast in Olympic history to have won the same medal on the same event in non-consecutive Olympics. Gymnastics Grover Cleveland, that’s what her friends call her. In fact, none of the six beam finalists in 1964 was competing in her first Olympics.
In the 1964 routines, low lunges were all the rage. If you didn’t do three in your routine, you weren’t even trying. And if you didn’t connect at least one or two of them into a semi-awkward turning element that would prove a role model to the 1996 compulsory beam routine, well then just get out.
We also see much more end-of-beam acrobatics come into play in the dismounts in 1964, a contrast to the press-handstand-hop-off and various non-salto dismounts of previous Olympics.
Caslavska punctuated her walkover-clinic of a routine in 1964 by dismounting with a cartwheel directly connected to back layout, and Keiko Ikeda continuing using a front tuck salto as her dismount, which she had introduced to gymnastics a couple years prior.
This was a tough 4th-place result for Polina Astakhova—the gymnast who would have reigned as the snooty gymnerd’s form queen had that been a thing in 1964, given her superior flexibility, rhythm, and real split leap. Astakhova tied the eventual champion Caslavska in both the optionals and the event final, but a low-ish compulsory score dropped her all the way out of the medals.
1968 Mexico City
At the 1964 Olympics, Caslavska won three individual golds as well as team silver, so obviously she needed to improve on that garbage the next time around. She did exactly that in 1968 with four individual golds and two additional silvers—team and beam.
Beam, then, was the only event on which Caslavska did not improve on her 1964 result, providing the surprise finish of the games.
The category of Most Corrupt Olympic Judging is a tough and competitive one, but 1968 is at least in the top two and is probably my winner. The most infamous shenanigans came in the floor final when the careful orchestration of scores allowed Larissa Petrik to tie Caslavska for gold after Caslavska originally appeared to be the sole champion—leading us right into Caslavska’s head-bow-heard-round-the-world—but beam provided its own heaping helping of drama as well.
In the team optionals, Caslavska was originally given 9.600 for her beam routine, still a strong score for the time and one that would have tied her for second on the day, but not…the best score. After the requisite booing and a five- or ten-minute delay (depending on the account), the French head of the women’s technical committee, Berthe Villancher, hustled over and intervened, with Caslavska’s score subsequently being raised to a 9.800, which would tie Natalia Kuchinskaya for the top beam score of the day.
Who exactly this theater of the absurd was designed to benefit became a point of contention almost immediately. A contemporary writer for The Times of London viewed this favoritism toward Caslavska and described the raising of her score to 9.800 as “an astonishing sign of weakness”—at least, when he found time in between huffing and puffing about the nature of the Mexican character in a way that might get him elected president of the United States.
Now, given what later transpired in the floor final and viewed within the context of Caslavska’s rejection of Soviet incursion in Czechoslovakia, it’s easy to see the 9.600 as the sign of weakness and the intervention score of 9.800 as the more representative number. On the merits of the gymnastics, it’s hard to say because…like any of these scores had anything to do with the gymnastics anyway. We do know that Caslavska would go on to receive 9.850 in the event final, as would Kuchinskaya, with Kuchinskaya ultimately taking gold on the strength of her compulsory score.
Caslavska always viewed her loss to Kuchinskaya on beam as orchestrated, that the Soviet Union needed to keep an outspoken anti-Soviet Czech hero from sweeping the gold medals at the Olympics, and therefore ensured that the judges gave her some trashy beam scores. Given *gestures at everything,* there’s ample reason to think she’s on the money.
Gymnastically, 1968 was the Olympics of handsprings, with Caslavska (among several other athletes) bringing front handsprings to the party for the first time rather than the front walkovers that had been the theme of previous games. Caslavska also upped the dismount stakes, ditching her cartwheel back layout in favor of a cartwheel back layout full, a level of difficulty beyond what others were doing.
The 1968 beam final also featured a historic benchmark for the US, with Linda Metheny advancing to the final and finishing in a tie for fourth, the first time an American reached an event final. This would stand as the best Olympic result for an American woman until 1984, and the best non-boycott result until 1988. Cathy Rigby also tied both Petrik and Zuchold in qualification but was the lone member of the trio to miss out on a spot in the final after a tiebreak.
Munich was the Olympics of Olga Korbut’s beam routine. Also the Olympics of “you can eff up bars in the all-around and it doesn’t really matter as long as SPRITELY YOUNG STARLET.”
Even though Korbut could-ish have won the all-around title if she hadn’t hit her feet on that damn glide kip, beam was her true showcase rather than the all-around. Even beyond the game-changing acrobatics that she would become most famous for, Korbut’s beam expanded upon what Kuchinskaya had been doing four years previously and set a new standard for smoothness and positions—as well as back flexibility. While modern gymnastics has obviously progressed well beyond Korbut’s acrobatic innovation of the time, her handstand in stag position remains the gold standard.
But of course, that back tuck. Korbut’s routine has become perhaps the most significant beam routine of all time because of the back tuck salto she performed, pretty much directly connected into her front tuck dismount. Beam was never again going to be about artfully displaying the ability to balance your bouffant hair while gracefully sweeping across the apparatus. The flipster’s paradise was born.
While Korbut became the face of the 1972 acrobatic revolution, she was not the only envelope-pusher on beam in those games. American Nancy Thies also performed a back tuck in the team optional competition, rotating in a group before the Soviet Union, and (jussttt) kept it on the beam. Team Korbut will counter that Korbut had been performing the back tuck domestically for years before those 1972 Olympics anyway, so catch up.
Korbut’s other acrobatic revolution on beam in 1972—the back handspring with a high flight phase to swingdown—is the one that would actually become known as the Korbut (at least until it mysteriously disappeared from the named-skills section 45 years later, thanks Nellie!). Other gymnasts in this competition, including bronze medalist Karin Janz, were also performing swingdown-type elements by this time, but it was the high flight phase that differentiated the Korbut.
Despite Korbut’s beam being a watershed moment, she almost didn’t win. She did not qualify into the final in first place and nearly lost out on gold to teammate Tamara Lazakovich, one of the faces of The Tragic Lives of Soviet Gymnasts (a long book) who died of alcoholism in 1992. Lazakovich performed a graceful-like-buttah routine that would have merited gold in any previous Olympics, essentially demonstrating peak mastery of the old style. But then Korbut happened.
Contentions at the time were that Korbut’s controversial loss to Karin Janz on bars a few minutes earlier (Olga didn’t stick though…) swayed the judges to give Korbut 9.900 in the beam final even though no one had scored above 9.800 on beam in the whole competition to that point. But also…when have contentions like that not happened? Korbut’s win hasn’t lingered as a controversy in the way Kuchinskaya’s has.