The Olympic team final. Each nation puts up a series of gymnasts on each apparatus, and their combined scores determine which country is the best country of all the countries. The end.
But ’twas not always this way.
In the early years of Olympic gymnastics, the team competition did not feature individual athletes performing individual routines but rather a lengthy choreographed group presentation designed to showcase the particular physical education regime of each participating country.
Determining the rules and format to govern this group presentation, however, would become the Gutsu/Miller of its time. Two prevailing styles emerged: the German system, which included fixed apparatuses like high bar and parallel bars and rings with a more regimented style originating from a military background (so, not breaking any stereotypes here…), and the Swedish system, which favored a more calisthenic approach to physical fitness with an emphasis on stretching, flexibility, and balance.
The (now considered unofficial) 1906 Olympics in Athens and the 1908 Olympics in London hosted team competitions exclusively in the Swedish system—along with all-around competitions in the German system. In 1908’s Swedish team competition, each country was given a 30-minute performance window during which anywhere from 16 to 40 men could demonstrate “free exercises,” those with “hand apparatuses,” or any combination of the two. For the men, options for hand apparatuses included swinging clubs and wands. You know, because of the spells. Women did also perform their own Swedish gymnastics demonstrations in 1908, but only for exhibition purposes, not for medals.
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.
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.
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.