Nadia Nadia Nadia. Much Nadia. With an extra dash of Nadia. The Olympics of Nadia—in which Comaneci came away with three of the five individual gold medals—also produced perhaps the least controversial Olympic beam champion of all time. I mean…uh doooyyy.
Comaneci’s beam routine in 1976 raised the difficulty stakes well beyond the “OMG an acrobatic element” world of the 1972 Olympic by incorporating a front aerial, a side aerial connected to back handspring, a series of back handsprings, and a cartwheel into a layout double full dismount in an event-final routine that easily outpaced the rest of the competition in both difficulty and execution.
Awarding a 10.000 to her event-final routine really prickles the old anxiety muscles given her not-close-to-stuck dismount, but the superiority of Comaneci’s routine compared to the rest of the field is indisputable.
The race for gold may have been ultimately uneventful (Comaneci ended up needing only 9.800 in the final to win, and home girl wasn’t getting some 9.8 on beam like a common farmhand), but the race for silver proved dramatic, coming down to the beam queen of the previous Olympics—Olga Korbut—against The One Who Wasn’t Nadia—Teodora Ungureanu.
In 1976, Korbut was still a strong gymnast and not the “why is she so old and gross now?” bucket of bolts of popular conception whom the New York Times evaluated as follows: “At times her hair was messy and her smile a hollow grin. She was an also‐ran.” Great.
So she also ran…to silver.
It is true, however, that Korbut was no longer at the forefront of acrobatic difficulty by 1976. In this Olympic final, the back tuck was gone—with others picking up the mantle—and while Korbut still performed her eponymous swingdown, her routine was now primarily centered on her terrifying/amazing displays of back flexibility and generally gorgeous extension and presentation.
In the all-around, Korbut had received a shockingly low 9.500 on beam that included .250 off for going over time, and she was eager to recover from that in the event final. She did just that, showing near perfection until she botched the landing on her quite challenging full-twist-to-front-tuck dismount, taking two large lunges back. Even with the dismount issue, she received 9.900, which does seem an exercise in charity even allowing for some difficulty forgiveness for the dismount. That 9.900 was exactly enough to keep Korbut ahead of Ungureanu, who also received 9.900 in the final for a pristine back-handspring-a-thon routine. Ungureanu is free to feel aggrieved.
While it may have been the Olympics of Nadia, the 1976 event final saw another plucky young newcomer emerge onto the scene and change the game forever—the two-per-country rule.
For the first time at the Olympics, nations were limited to a maximum of two competitors in event finals, which meant that regal giantess Anca Grigoras of Romania missed out on the final, as did the Soviet Union’s Elvira Saadi and Nellie Kim. Which must have gone over great. That trio was passed over for final spots that ultimately went to East Germany’s Angelika Hellmann and Gitta Escher.
Because half of the final event score came from the team competition, those lower-qualifying East Germans entered the beam final with a basically insurmountable deficit, a margin so large that even Hellman’s excellent 1970s workout video of a routine in the final for 9.900—matching the scores of Korbut and Ungureanu—was not enough to get her out of fifth place.
Nowhere was the era-clashing contrast of beam at the 1976 Olympics better encapsulated than in that East German duo. Hellman’s routine featured no acrobatics more difficult than a back handspring (with leg form that could open a beer bottle), but the rest was exquisite and wobble free in a set that would have fit right in at the 1968 or 1972 games.
By comparison, Escher was pushing the difficulty envelope by 1976, performing two back tucks (one semi-connected into a back handspring), a front aerial, and an eponymous front aerial 1.5 twist dismount in the event final. Escher’s routine went 9.700—understandable because of balance checks—though it was a 9.700 awarded for a routine that looked like it came from a completely different sport than Hellman’s.
The most famously controversial beam moment from the 1980 Olympics came not in the event final but in the all-around, when Comaneci—finishing on beam—received a 9.850 that would see her tie for AA silver with Maxi Gnauck. The head judge from Romania, Maria Simionescu, poured one out for stubborn dictators everywhere when she lobbied the other judges to change their scores so that Nadia might finish first, then refused to enter Comaneci’s score into the system when the other judges stood firm. Ha ha ha, this sport is fine.
The event final on beam did not get as messy as all that. Comaneci received another 9.850 for a mostly secure routine that did feature one notable balance check to keep her score down. On this occasion, however, a Comaneci 9.850 proved enough for gold since she had already procured a 10.000 for her compulsory beam and came into the last day with a major advantage. Even Davydova’s superior score of 9.900 in the final was not enough.
Any close result between Romania and the Soviet Union in 1980 will have been cause for acrimony and pitchforks, and the silver medalist receiving a higher score in the final than the gold medalist doesn’t help any, but the truth of the 1980 beam final is that no one absolutely nailed it. Even Davydova’s 9.900 was a soft score for a routine with enough hesitations (and a non-stuck dismount) that it did not sufficiently separate itself from the cavalcade of 9.850s given out in the final, including to the gold and bronze medalists, Comaneci and Shaposhnikova.
By the 1980 Olympics, the fluid interplay of less acrobatic and more acrobatic beam routines that we saw in the 1976 final had given way to a full emphasis on acrobatics. Nearly every competitor in the 1980 final showed what would now be valued as a D acro element—only Maxi Gnauck lacked one, but with a layout stepout series, standing back pike, and eponymous gainer back tuck, her routine ranked among the most difficult in the final. Most athletes now showed multiple risky acrobatic sequences in their routines, and a front aerial had become nearly requisite for those hoping to boast an internationally competitive routine.
And with great acrobatics comes great risk. What had been a surprisingly rare contributor to Olympic beam finals to this point—A FALL—found its voice in 1980 when it came to Emilia Eberle. Eberle had qualified in second place but fell on a punch front in her finals routine. For 9.500. Given her superior amplitude on back tucks and the overall difficulty she showed, including a double pike dismount, Eberle would have merited Olympic beam gold had she stayed on.
Eberle’s miss opened up a spot on the medal stand for Natalia Shaposhnikova and her remarkable one-arm handstand-planche directly out of a walkover. It’s the great irony of Shaposhnikova’s successful 1980 Olympics that the only apparatus on which she did not win an individual medal was uneven bars, the event on which her name is now a feature of daily vocabulary.
Any discussion of the 1980 final, however, is not complete without acknowledging the whiff of favoritism that saw the best routine of the final—from Radka Zemanova of Czechoslovakia—slapped with a 9.850 despite matching the most famous athletes in difficulty and surpassing them in security. Zemanova performed a sideward back dive to hip support directly to planche, a beautiful combination of two front aerials, and excellent extension on her back handspring work for the same score as those with more errors.
Zemanova did enter the final with a major deficit, qualifying in just 10th place and having to benefit from a flurry of two-per-country eliminations just to get into the final. Zemanova is probably the best argument you’ll see in favor of two-per-country in this era because the rule allowed for a glut of politically overscored Soviets and Romanians to be passed over in favor of a gymnast who clearly deserved to be in that final.
Los Angeles 1984
|4.||Mary Lou Retton||USA||19.550|
Any discussion of the 1984 Olympics must begin with the elephant that wasn’t in the room—the Soviet Union. While the boycott of the 1980 Olympics by the United States, China, and Japan likely did little to change the ultimate medalists in women’s gymnastics that year, the absence of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany in 1984 changed things…quite a lot.
On beam, Olga Mostepanova would have been the heavy favorite for gold at a fully attended games, not to mention defending world silver medalist Hana Ricna of Czechoslovakia who would have been a medal contender along with 1980 fourth-place finisher Maxi Gnauck and the likes of Natalia Yurchenko and a fetal Yelena Shushunova. If all the countries were present, it’s reasonable to speculate that the medal stand would have been entirely different.
Another jarring departure of the 1984 Olympics was the expansion of event-final fields from from six athletes to eight. In this case, the change allowed 14th-place qualifier Romi Kesseler and 16th-place qualifier Anja Wilhelm into the final over a small army of two-per-country victims from Romania and China.
Following China’s bronze-medal performance in the team competition, #3 qualifier Wu Jiani was pulled from the final and replaced by Chen Yongyan, who had qualified tenth, presumably for China reasons. That meant Chen and Ma Yanhong became the first Chinese athletes to make an Olympic beam final. China would have to wait two more Olympics for its first beam medal.
Because Chen, Kessler, and Wilhelm were so far back heading into the final, they weren’t truly in contention for medals, even if they had put Mostepanova in a wig and sent her out instead. Kessler did perform well and could have been in the mix if only the finals routine had counted, but mistakes sunk the chances for Wilhelm and Chen to move up. Chen had to begin her routine amid a thunderstorm of boos for an obviously unjust American score that wasn’t even a 10, got all kinds of crooked on her round-off swingdown mount, and couldn’t pull it back together from there.
Really, the race for gold was always about the Romanians, both of whom had received 10s in previous portions of the competition and displayed the difficulty and crisp rhythm and acrobatic confidence that can be traced through the genealogy of classic Romanian beam work from Comaneci to Ponor. (…and ending there.)
In this beam final, Pauca and Szabo showcased the birth of the “I can connect 50 elements down the length of the beam” school of beam work that would become the international standard over the next decade, Szabo showing four connected back handsprings and Pauca showing a back handspring + layout stepout + layout stepout series—that series making its first appearance in an Olympic beam final.
Pauca had qualified ahead of Szabo, but Pauca’s 9.900 in the final to Szabo’s 9.950 gave us the first and only ever tie for Olympic gold on beam. The difference in the final likely came from Pauca’s awkward moment moving out of her low-to-beam work, but Pauca has a solid argument for an equal score to Szabo.
Meanwhile, Kathy Johnson made history by winning the first ever Olympic medal for the United States on beam, recovering from a disappointing all-around performance on beam and floor to execute one of her smoothest routines in the final, showcasing a series of back extension rolls that would make even Kathy Johnson gasp in delight.
Johnson and Mary Lou Retton entered the final in a tie after receiving identical scores in both the compulsories and optionals, and while Retton’s remarkable acrobatic amplitude and secure back and front tuck elements were on full display in the final, two lunges on her double tuck dismount—in addition to some flexed feet and average leaps—kept her in an appropriate fourth place.
The drama of the 1988 beam final began in qualification when current world beam champion and pre-Olympic “favorite as long as she’s not still broken” Aurelia Dobre missed out on the final. Dobre had tied her teammate and new-child-on-the-block Gabriela Potorac for fourth place (and second among the Romanians) in the team competition, but it was Potorac and top qualifier Daniela Silivas who would go through to the final, with Dobre sitting out.
Another star of the era and potential winner of the beam title, Svetlana Boginskaya, qualified in a tie with Daniela Silivas for first place, but two balance checks in Boginskaya’s event-final routine as well as a short landing on her double tuck dismount saddled her with a 9.850, enough to drop her from first all the way to fifth in this high-quality beam final.
(High quality, that is, except for the routine from Ulrike Klotz, whose epic platinum mullet and electrocution-themed leotard could not save her from the three-fall disaster culminating in a double tuck that sent her legs windmilling to the back of the mat.)
With her potential co-favorites for gold out of the way, the door was wide open for Daniela Silivas, who confirmed her frontrunner status in the final with a routine that did not betray even a vague hint of anything resembling a balance check for a near-10 (despite a hop back on her double tuck). That solidity proved just enough to keep Silivas ahead of Yelena Shushunova, who did stick her own double tuck to punctuate an exceptionally dynamic routine—but also wobbled on a full turn and we can’t just ignore that. With her clinic on rebounding two-foot back handsprings, Shushunova was the first beamer for whom that insufferable cliche “she tumbles on beam as if it were the floor” was actually kind of true.
Also pushing the difficulty in this final was Kelly Garrison, displaying two eponymous skills—her full-twisting back tuck mount that is still too difficult for most to consider, as well as her sideward Valdez.
While balance checks sidelined Garrison’s medal hopes, Phoebe Mills showed a remarkably confident routine in the final to earn 9.962 and elevate herself from fifth into a tie for bronze with Gabriela Potorac. Mills rightfully received a higher score than Potorac in the final, but given Potorac’s superior qualification performance and use of bowl cut, the two shared bronze. Mills’ bronze would stand as the only gymnastics medal for the US at these Olympics and the first-ever women’s gymnastics medal for the US at a fully attended games.
Diana Dudeva of Bulgaria, the sixth-place finisher, was the only qualifier to the beam final who did not enjoy the benefit of competing in the final subdivision of the qualification/team competition. Her bronze on floor at these games would make her the last Bulgarian woman to win an Olympic gymnastics medal.
|1.||Tatiana Lysenko||EUN (UKR)||9.975|
|5.||Svetlana Boginskaya||EUN (BLR)||9.862|
The Barcelona games brought the first Olympics of new life, the first time that no scores from the team competition carried over to finals and the first time that all eight finalists were truly in contention for medals heading into the day’s action.
On beam, new life did not have a particularly dramatic effort on proceedings. Thanks to her rarefied 9.975 in the final, the Unified Team’s Tatiana Lysenko would have won gold under the previous format as well, even though she did qualify in third position. With her win, Lysenko became the first non-Romanian to win Olympic beam gold since Korbut 20 years before, and to this day, Lysenko stands as the last athlete from the Soviet Union or a former Soviet republic to win beam at the Olympics.
On the other end of the spectrum, the co-silvers for Lu Li and Shannon Miller foreshadowed the next era of beam dominance. This silver was the first Olympic beam medal for China and the best result for the United States to date, but these accomplishments wouldn’t be lonely for long. Miller would go on to win the first beam title for the US in 1996, and Liu Xuan would win the first gold for China in 2000. China and the US would go on to combine for four of the six Olympic beam titles post-1992.
Really, Barcelona delivered the first Olympic beam final in which we were treated to the full spectrum of what Chinese beam would offer for years to come. Lu Li performed a scintillating routine with perfection of body position throughout in both her acrobatic elements and leaps, helping to set a new standard for what we expect from leaps on beam. It was only a slight hesitation on a straddle jump and a sliding dismount that kept her from gold. The 1992 final also featured Yang Bo, who showed dream-perfect gymnastics until her back foot slipped after landing a layout stepout and she was ejected from the beam. A more perfect summary of the Chinese beam experience there could never be.
The three medalists truly separated themselves from the rest of the field in this final—a task made more comfortable by the absence of Tatiana Gutsu. Unlike in the all-around, there was no sacrificial lamb to remove in order to sneak Gutsu into the final, so she was left to watch. If Gutsu had appeared, she would have been the favorite to win gold given her execution and immense difficulty for the period, a routine that would still be competitive for medals now, nearly 30 years later.
Without Gutsu, it was the battle of the four series from Lysenko and Miller—both performing back handspring + layout stepout + layout stepout + layout stepout sublimely. Security of landings was the difference-maker among the medalists, with Lysenko showing a check-free routine with a stuck double tuck, while Miller had to rush through her back dive 1/4 and took a step back on her full-in dismount. A remarkable feat of difficulty for the time, but crucially, not stuck.
For a second-straight Olympics, Svetlana Boginskaya entered the beam final as a medal contender with one of the best qualifying scores yet was doomed by balance checks (and the unmistakable reality that new faces like Miller and Lu and Lysenko had moved beyond her in difficulty and execution). Defending world bronze medalist Lavinia Milosevici might also have challenged for a medal in this final after squeaking in thanks to two-per-country, but she gave us a prototypical unintentional dismount by taking her second layout stepout in combination right to the mat, nations away from the beam.
Most significantly, the 1996 Olympics brought the end of the 10.000. The code of points may tell you that 2008 was the first post-10 Olympics, but in reality it was 1996—the first Olympics at which it was no longer realistically possible for any athlete to get a 10, even though a max-10 system was still in effect.
The change was more than just cosmetic. As scores trended farther from 10 as a realistic marker, gymnastic emphasis also moved away from the absolute necessity of sticking a dismount or avoiding a balance check. If everyone was accumulating deductions in her routine anyway, even an obvious error was not necessarily the end of the world.
No one encapsulated that evolution better than Shannon Miller, whose small step on her full-in dismount in 1992 undermined any argument she might have of catching the 9.975 from Tatiana Lysenko. In the 1996 beam final, Miller performed that very same dismount with that very same small step, but on this occasion, her gold medal hopes did not hinge on sticking a dismount, and her composed, confident routine earned her an individual Olympic gold with a now-excellent 9.862.
Lilia Podkopayeva was the only other athlete in the final with a reasonable argument for gold, also performing a mostly sublime routine. A balance check on Podkopayeva’s punch front likely made the difference between gold and silver, but really there was very little to separate the two.
The inevitable shenanigans of the 1996 beam final involved the Romanians, with Alexandra Marinescu suddenly being swapped in for Lavinia Milosevici despite originally qualifying in 9th. This was going to be the first Olympic beam final since the introduction of two-per-country in which the top eight (or six) athletes in qualification all competed in the final, but the Romanian Shuffle saw Marinescu enter the final instead in what is largely regarded as a strategic switch. Marinescu was the current world silver medalist on beam, and strategic shuffling had been the theme for Romania to that point, with Marinescu herself being removed from the all-around in favor of Simona Amanar, who went on to take bronze there.
The strategic gamble didn’t pay off on this occasion, Marinescu opening the final with a two fall disaster (nearly falling a third time on her dismount), including a miss on a double stag jump. The double stag jump proved to be the sleeper assassin in this final as the same skill also compromised Olga Teslenko.
Really, the 1996 final started in disastrous fashion. Following Marinescu’s waking nightmare, Dominique Moceanu went up and headbutted the beam when slipping on her series, after which Martha Karolyi gave her a couple slaps on the back of the head because of medical. Everything’s fine here.
The final competitor, the ever-cursed Roza Galieva, provided a bookend of disasters when she fell on a punch front, provoking a controversial commentary moment when the US commentators downright celebrated her miss as the cameras immediately cut to Shannon Miller to try to find her victorious reaction that didn’t exist while Galieva’s routine was still going on.
The true, lingering controversy of this final, however, surrounded the awarding of the bronze medal to Gina Gogean rather than Dina Kochetkova. Poor, underappreciated, wildly successful Gina Gogean performed an exceptionally solid beam routine, but also one in which she struggled on some split positions and didn’t show any originality in element selection—back when people pretended that was something they cared about. Kochetkova’s routine, containing her eponymous back handspring with full twist, was probably the more impressive routine, but it was also less secure than Gogean’s, taking Kochetkova down to fourth.