Updated: Aug 9, 2021
The 32nd Olympic Games are underway in Tokyo and the excitement a week before the Rhythmic Gymnastics (RG) event is high! RG will take place over the last 3 days of the Games – on 6th, 7th and 8th August 2021. As we are making final checks of our clocks, and calculating how early we have to get up to watch the event in real time, let’s look back at all of the past Olympic Games that featured RG in their program. Rhythmic gymnastics is a young sport, born around mid-20th century, and it made its Olympic debut in 1984. Tokyo 2020 is an anniversary for the sport, as it is the 10th Olympic Games in which RG takes part as a discipline! This post will aim to provide a summary and some of the highlights from RG in the past 9 Olympic Games. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, and start our journey back in 1984, when rhythmic gymnastics was introduced at the Olympic Games.
1984 23rd Summer Olympics in Los Angeles
The debut of rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympic Games coincided with a boycott of the Games led by the Eastern Block. 14 countries did not participate in the Games, including Bulgaria and the Soviet Union who were the favourites for the Olympic podium. At the 1983 World Championships in Strasbourg, those two countries alone won all of the medals in the individual event. In the absence of the top contenders, the Champion became Lori Fung from Canada - a gymnast who ranked 23rd in the 1983 World Championship all-around, and was coached by Mall Vesik. The silver medal went to Romanian gymnast Doina Staiculescu who had ranked 6th in the World Championships the previous year and was considered to be the favourite for the gold due to the boycott. Romania was the only country from the Warsaw Pact that did not join the Olympic boycott. Doina had a series of mistakes with the ribbon which cost her the Olympic title. The bronze medal went to Regina Weber from West Germany.
Video materials from the Olympic RG event in 1984 are extremely difficult to come by but on the following links you can see Lori Fung's routines with hoop, ball, clubs and ribbon. I also recommend having a look at the video below featuring an introduction of RG by commentators Gordon Maddux and Cathy Rigby McCoy from the United States in the first 2 min 20s of the video – it’s a gem!
1988 24th Summer Olympics in Seoul
Four years after its Olympic debut, RG came back with a bang at the summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988. This time the big players were there. Marina Lobatch (born in Soviet Belarus) and Alexandra Timoshenko (born in Soviet Ukraine) represented the USSR, while Adriana Dunavska and Bianka Panova represented the other giant in this sport – Bulgaria. These four gymnasts finished at the top of the all-around final.
Back then rhythmic gymnastics was performed with live musical accompaniment. This is apparent in video materials from the 1988 Olympic Games (see videos below). The music for a routine was performed by a single musical instrument in those early days – either piano, guitar, or percussions. I wonder if that made it easier, or harder, for gymnasts, as the musician could perform with variability unlike an audio recording. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.
According to one source – NBC Olympics – Marina Lobatch achieved top scores across the board and won the gold medal in Seoul, in part with the help of the pianist who was able to speed up her clubs routine towards the end so she could finish on time and without a time penalty. I wouldn’t take this statement at face value but it is certainly an interesting proposition.
The silver medal went to Bulgaria’s Adriana Dunavska, who showed a very different style and temperament to Marina Lobatch's. Finally, Alexandra Timoshenko claimed the bronze medal. Interestingly, the favourite to win the Olympic title - Bianka Panova from Bulgaria, who had won 5/5 gold medals at the World Championships in Varna in 1987, ranked fourth.
One of my personal favourite routines in these Olympic Games is the ribbon routine of Marina Lobatch who performed to Tchaikovsky’s music from the ballet Swan Lake and wears a half-black, half-white leotard to recreate the image of the white and the black swan in one routine. Another favourite of mine is Bianka Panova’s clubs routine set to music by Frédéric Chopin - Etude Op. 10 No. 3. You can watch the entire Individual All-Around Final in the videos below (the final is split in videos arranged in a playlist and one video will start immediately after the other).
1992 25th Summer Olympics in Barcelona
The competition in rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympic Games in 1992 had a rather odd format. The finalists were selected based on the overall qualification scores, but also on the individual scores for each apparatus. Never mind the details of this messy system, it resulted in 17 finalists being listed, but only 8 of them performed with all four apparatuses. This meant less than half of the finalists were in the fight for a medal. The ribbon – the most iconic RG apparatus - was not included as an apparatus in the Olympic program. The Champion that year was bronze medallist from Seoul – Alexandra Timoshenko, representing Ukraine, but competing for the Unified Team. This was the first Olympic event after the fall of the Berlin wall, and 12 out of the former 14 Soviet countries decided to compete together as the ‘Unified Team’. The silver medal went to Spain’s own Carolina Pascual, and the bronze – to Oksana Skaldina, also from Ukraine, representing the Unified Team.
Oksana Skaldina was evidently disappointed with her third place and felt that Pascual was placed second as a courtesy to the host country, Spain. At the award ceremony, Oksana congratulated her compatriot Timoshenko at the podium prior to assuming her position at the third step, but she did not approach Carolina Pascual to congratulate her. This display of poor sportsmanship was much talked about and has never been repeated since then.
You can watch the all-around individual final in the video below.
1996 26th Summer Olympics in Atlanta
At the Olympic Games of 1996 in Atlanta, the individual competition saw once again two Ukrainian gymnasts on the podium. Ekaterina Serebrianskaya and Elena Vitrichenko won the gold and the bronze medal, respectively. Russia’s Yana Batyrchina won the silver medal, while her compatriot Amina Zaripova ranked fourth. The only Bulgarian in the final – Maria Petrova, who was 3 times world all-around champion, ranked fifth.
The Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 was the first event where groups were introduced as an RG discipline. In the group event, team Spain won the Olympic title which is perhaps Spain’s biggest RG achievement in history. The silver medals went to the Bulgarian group, and the bronze medals - to the Russian group. You can watch the group all-around finals in the video below.
2000 27th Summer Olympics in Sydney
With the turn of the millennium, there was a shift in the world of rhythmic gymnastics in several aspects. The Olympic Games in Sydney were the first time Russia won a gold medal (in fact two gold medals – in the individual and group all-around finals). Russia has won every single gold medal at Olympic games ever since. There was also a shift in the sport itself, which began in the late 1990s - the era of hyper-flexibility. During those times rhythmic gymnastics lost a lot of spectators.
Back to Sydney - the group all-around final finished with a tie between Russia and Belarus, which was resolved through the tie-break system in favour of Russia who won the gold medals, leaving Belarus second. Finally, the podium was completed by a historic bronze medal for the group of Greece who were coached by Marina Fateeva from Russia.
The favourite to win the title in the individual event was Alina Kabaeva – the most decorated rhythmic gymnast of all time. After a costly mistake with the hoop, however, Kabaeva finished third in the all-around final, winning the bronze, while the gold medal went to her compatriot – Yulia Barsukova. Belarussian gymnast Yulia Raskina claimed the silver. You can watch the Individual all-around final from Sydney 2000 in the video below.
2004 28th Summer Olympics in Athens
The Olympic Games in Athens was Alina Kabaeva’s second chance to win the Olympic title - the only gold medal missing from her extensive collection. She delivered consistently to become Champion of the 28th Olympics, while Russian teammate Irina Tchachina was ranked second. Ukrainian star Anna Bessonova claimed the bronze medal. I felt that Anna's hoop routine really stood out at this competition as she performed impressive apparatus work as well as body work. It is another marvelous routine set to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake - one of the most commonly used musical scores in rhythmic gymnastics.
The group event concluded with another gold for Russia, a first Olympic medal for team Italy (silver), and a return of Bulgaria on the podium, who won the bronze medals. See below videos of the individual all-around final and group all-around final from Athens 2004.
2008 29th Summer Olympics in Beijing
After Kabaeva retired from the competitive sport, the individual event in rhythmic gymnastics had a new queen – Yevgenya Kanaeva from Russia. Kanaeva won the Olympic title in Beijing with the impressive 3.575 points ahead of the silver medalist, Inna Zhukova from Belarus. Anna Bessonova won a second bronze medal at Olympic Games for Ukraine. Russia won the gold medals in the group event, followed by the hosts from China (silver medals), and an old and well-known competitor – Belarus (bronze medals). See below videos of the individual all-around final and group all-around final from Beijing 2008.
2012 30th Summer Olympics in London
The sport of rhythmic gymnastics became beautiful once again in time for the Olympic Games in London 2012. This was thanks to a new code of points (2009-2012) and a new way of judging artistry. Kanaeva claimed her second gold Olympic medal in the individual event, with four spectacular routines (see videos: hoop, ball, clubs, ribbon). The charming Daria Dmitrieva from Russia won the silver medal. The bronze medal went to Liubov Charkashina from Belarus who was also a wonderful gymnast to watch. Russia won another gold in the group event, followed by Belarus (silver), and Italy with bronze. See below videos of the individual all-around final and group all-around final from London 2012.
2016 31st Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro
Now let's look back to the most recent Olympic games – those in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The individual all-around final was not without a drama. Three-times world champion Yana Kudryavtseva from Russia had a last-minute drop of the apparatus in her clubs routine, which left her in second place after Margarita Mamun (also from Russia) who became the Olympic champion. Ukraine’s Ganna Rizatdinova won the bronze medal. If you crave more 'Swan Lake' routines, have a look at Margarita Mamun's final performance with the ribbon in which she recreates the character of the black swan.
There was a tie in the group all-around final – this time between Spain and Bulgaria, which was resolved in favour of Spain due to a higher execution score, leaving Bulgaria in the bronze medal position. This final ended with Russia winning the gold, Spain – silver, Bulgaria – bronze.
See below videos of the individual all-around final and group all-around final from Rio 2016.
2020 32nd Summer Olympics in Tokyo
Here we are at Tokyo 2020, even though it is 2021. The Opening Ceremony took place without spectators, but with massive protests outside the venue. Without live audience at any competition, and with lots of social distancing and daily testing, the Olympic Games are going ahead! You can watch all of the Olympic Games, including the Rhythmic Gymnastics event – all online – on Eurosport (if you are in Europe). Many websites provide streaming services of the Olympic Games, so it is worth having a browse if EuroSport is not available in your country. I can also recommend discoveryplus. Schedule of the RG qualifications and finals can be found on the Olympics website here.
Where to next?
The 33rd Summer Olympics in 2024 will take place in Paris, followed by the 34th in Los Angeles (2028), and the 34th in Brisbane (2032). Is RG going to be a part of the program? I most certainly hope so. They might have to open the sport to male participants, as the Olympic Committee’s ambitions to bring gender equality to every sport is taking effect. We might be standing at a pivotal moment in history. Will there be men in RG in Paris 2024? Read my article here where I share my opinion on men competing in rhythmic gymnastics.
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See you next time,