The Best Team Ever Going to the Olympics (Part I) – A blog about old school gymnastics

Note: This is a two-part series. A link to Part II can be found here.

At the World Championships in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) in 1983, the Soviet Union won a gold medal in the team competition. What makes this particular result unique in the context of the greater history of the WAG is that not a single member of the 1983 Soviet team is an Olympian.

When I first came to this knowledge, my immediate assumption was that the Soviets of 1983 must be the only team in the history of the WAG to which this applies. At least among the teams that won the medal. In the history of WAG, there were 156 + 2 teams that won a medal in the team competition. “156” represents 52 competitions at the World Championships and the Olympic Games, in which gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded in the team competition. “+2” representing the two released bronze medals belonging to China in 1999 and 2000, which I (and most WAG fans as well) prefer to count alongside the official bronze medal winners as legitimate winnings.

This gives us a total of 158 medal winning teams, and I’ve checked each one to see if they have a former, current, or future Olympian in their lineup. And they did it in 157 of them. This makes the 1983 Soviets the only team in WAG history to win a medal where none of its members went to the Olympics, which applies to 99.4% of all teams in WAG history, but not to the Soviets of 1983. Ironically, it was not the team that won the silver or bronze medal, but the team that won the gold.

(From L to R) Olga Bicherova, Olga Mostepanova, Tatiana Frolova, Albina Shishova, Natalia Ilienko and Natalia Yurchenko

But there is nothing special or unusual about this story. For most readers, it makes sense that the 1983 Soviets are the only team to which this trend applies. It is a by-product of the 1984 boycott, when the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies did not participate in the Los Angeles Olympics. This unique statistic line represents two things.

It represents a missed opportunity that a whole generation of Soviet WAG icons have never been given a fair chance to become an Olympian. The Soviets were not the only WAG program to catch up with the boycott of the 1980s. Of the 20 strongest WAG programs at the 1979 World Championships, only programs ranked # 1, # 16, # 18 and # 20 sent WAGs to the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games.

But only with the Soviets did most of their stellar gymnasts never participate in the Olympics. Only the Soviets see this statistical deviation, where something that applies to 99.4% of teams does not apply to their 1983 lineup.

Natalia Yurchenko

This brings us to the second part of the symbolism that the Soviets of 1983 represent. The omission of the 1983 USSR line-up from Olympic history represents the insane competition and depth of the Soviet program. The Soviet ability to replace a team winning a gold medal with a younger batch of gymnasts at any given time was unique to the USSR program and had no parallel in the history of gymnastics. Only the Soviets could find themselves in the difficulties that were their team in 1983, because only the USSR had such a huge pool of talents, where it was likely that every gymnast would be replaced by the time the next Olympic Games approached.

By the way, it was often said that for most gymnasts you have only one chance to become an Olympian. And if you miss your only chance, it’s for your Olympic aspirations. For the Soviets of 1983, this unofficial proverb became a reality.

Strange as it may sound, this unique statistical line concerning the Soviets of 1983 is an almost honorary badge. It proves how high the standards of the Soviet WAG were and how better its depth chart was compared to all the others. As unfortunate as this 1983 award is to the Soviets, it is also one of the great achievements of the Soviet WAG that they won a gold medal without any Olympians in their lineup.

Albina Šišová

Whereas before I profiled the 158 teams that won the medal in the team competition, and I pointed out that all the Soviets except the Soviets of 1983 had at least one former, current or future Olympian in their line-up, I will take things one step further.

I looked at all the American, Russian, Chinese, Romanian, Ukrainian, and East German groups from 1928 to the present, including those that did not win medals. At almost every occasion, they had at least one former, current, or future Olympian in each of their groups. There were only six examples comparable to the Soviets of 1983.

Year Earth Team size
1958 China 6
1962 China 6
1993 Russia 2
2001 China 1
2021 Romania 4
2021 United States 4

But four of these examples appeared in groups that were small and did not fight for a team medal. You have to go back to the early 1960s, when mainland China did not have membership in the IOC, to find a comparable example to the Soviets of 1983, when a full-fledged WAG team lost the Olympics.

The reason I focused on these six countries is that they are the only countries for which I have a complete set of data. I also looked for countries for which I had partial data, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and France. After reviewing more than 100 sets between these countries, I found only one more example, France at the 1993 World Cup, where only two gymnasts were sent.

Olga Bicherová

Even for mid-level superpowers who qualify for the team finals but do not win medals, it is also a rarity for them to not have an Olympian in their team. Ukraine is an example of a program that has not qualified the Olympic team since 2008, and even they have an Olympian in every lineup from 2009 to the present. But the Soviets of 1983 were the team winning the gold medal, perhaps one of the best groups in WAG history, no.

In 1983, the Soviets produced four different gymnasts who won a gold medal in an individual competition. The team was also exceptionally dominant in all-around (AA) with 33% with AA title, 50% with AA medal, 83% with top 6 or better in AA qualification and 100% of recorded members in top 10 in AA qualification at some point your career.

Their legacy continues to this day, as four of the six members named the skills in Code 2022-2024.

But who are the Soviets of 1983? In Part II of this series, I will give an overview of all six members of the Soviets from 1983 (Natalia Jurčenko, Olga Mostepanová, Tatiana Frolová, Natalia Ilienko, Olga Bicherova and Albina Shishova).

Reference to Part II

(From L to R) Olga Bicherova, Olga Mostepanova, Tatiana Frolova, Albina Shishova, Natalia Ilienko and Natalia Yurchenko
David Berry

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