The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

It Used to be Gymnastics: Women’s Rings

Chicago, 1941

Vault, bars, beam, and floor.

Not until Helsinki 1952 did the four women’s events we know today became codified as THE EVENTS in Olympic competition. Before that, it was basically a free-for-all, the apparatuses in Olympic competition varying wildly from quadrennium to quadrennium with formats and rules that could at best be described as ambiguous. And at worst as a lawless mayonnaise fire.

In 1928, the women’s gymnastics rules were simply, “each country is entirely free in its choice of exercises, apparatus, and jumps.” (Thank you?)

In 1932, the rules were simply…um nothing because women couldn’t compete in gymnastics in 1932. Great work again, Los Angeles.

At the London Olympics of 1948, the women’s gymnastics program changed drastically again and featured an apparatus that had not been used before and would never be used again: rings.

While men had competed on rings at every Olympics dating back to 1896, women had only just been permitted to compete individual routines for the first time in 1936 (the previous Olympics). The three apparatuses at that point were vault, beam, and bars.

When the Olympics resumed again in 1948, rings replaced bars as the third women’s event. (And what a different future that would have been.) Even then, rings was clearly treated as the afterthought of the three pieces. While women competed compulsory routines and optional routines on both vault and beam, they competed only a compulsory routine on rings.

When all the event scores were then combined with the results from the two group-exercise events—one a calisthenics performance with jump rope and prancing and cartwheels and whatnot, the other a precursor to modern rhythmic gymnastics with hand apparatuses—to determine the team standings (no individual medals were given to women in 1948), the scores on rings had only the smallest influence on the overall result.

Wild inconsistencies and controversies in the scoring of women’s rings also betrayed its afterthought status. The bronze-winning US delegation lodged a particular complaint about the scoring of national champion Clara Schroth’s routine, which had a judging range from 7.3 to 9.0, while the observing members of the men’s technical committee deemed the routine to warrant 9.5 (at least as reported by US team manager George Gulack).

So…same shit as usual? NCAA is like, “And…?”

Sadly, this led Mr. Gulack and those members of the men’s technical committee to observe, “Women were not qualified to act as judges…this should not be done in the future.” Which is great. Great great great.

Maybe there were no effective rules, training, or familiarity with any kind of judging standard for them to use or…no? Just…woman bad? OK. The president of the women’s technical committee, Marie Provaznikova, was particularly criticized for not being present to adjudicate when inquiries were lodged. Turns out, she was a little busy defecting from Czechoslovakia to the UK.

The drama of rings competition at the 1948 Olympics would never be repeated. At the 1950 world championships—and every world championship and Olympic competition thereafter—the four women’s events were vault, bars, beam, and floor. Women’s rings died that night at the Empress Hall.

But if women had been allowed to receive awards for individual performance in 1948, the rings medalists would have been Zdenka Honsova of Czechoslovakia, who dominated the competition for gold with 9.6, with Edit Weckinger of Hungary and Laura Micheli of Italy tying for silver with 9.35. Special recognition would also go to 4th-place rings finisher Miroslava Milaskova of Czechoslovakia, whose younger sister (also on the team) died of polio the morning of the competition.

Meanwhile, women’s liaison officer Ada Sackett remarked that the most popular foods among the American female athletes at the games were ice cream, chocolate bars, butter, whole eggs, and fruit. So take that, Martha.

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