The 1948 Olympics, known as the “Austerity Games” due to the persistence of post-war rationing, were held in London. The Olympics were suspended in 1940 and 1944, and London, the city scheduled to host in 1944, was granted the first Games to be held since 1936. While the Games were largely meant as a means to restore the British nation and to reinvigorate the Olympic Movement’s ideals of peace and unity, grim reminders of the recent war and political tensions pervaded the Games, not excluding the women’s gymnastics event.
Germany, the reigning Olympic gold medalist in women’s gymnastics, and Japan were not invited to compete as they were under Allied military occupation, and while the USSR was invited to the Games, they chose not to participate. The Olympic Salute, which was strictly forbidden due to its similarity to the Nazi salute, was also absent from these Games. Athletes were instead instructed to only turn their heads toward the Royal Box, where King George VI sat, during the opening ceremonies. The greatest indication of war, however, was the state of the host city. Laddie Bakanic, a member of the gymnastics team from the United States, remembered arriving at a city that was simply “destroyed,” in her 2012 interview with the New York Times.
The war, and the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, meant, for many gymnasts, that their Olympic dreams would never come to fruition. One such gymnast was Pearl Perkins, a Jewish athlete who won the national all-around title in 1937, 1941, and 1943. Perkins was named to the 1936 United States Olympic team, but her parents did not allow her to attend due to Berlin’s anti-semitic environment. Perkins would continue to train through 1940 and 1944, but her opportunity to participate in the Olympics never arrived.
Pearl Perkins on the parallel bars
Helm McKee, the 1938 and 1944 U.S. national champion, had a similar story. She was forbidden from attending the Olympics due to political tensions between her coach and the Amateur Athletics Union. She set her sights on the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, but was never able to compete. Margaret Weissman, the 1939 national champion, would also miss the opportunity to go to the Olympics, along with Roberta Ranck, the first-ever national champion, whose knee injury prevented her from attending in 1936.
Despite the absence of some of its early champions, the United States’ Olympic team would be boosted by the efforts of more recent national champions and gymnasts who had waited patiently for their shot at the Games. The 1945 and 1946 national champion and Olympic team captain Clara Schroth and 1947 and 1948 national champion Helen Shifano, whom the New York Times described as “diminutive stenographers,” were joined by the 1936 Olympian Consetta Lenz, who had two children between her Olympics and had only trained for six months before tryouts. Bakanic, Meta Elste (a former circus performer), Marian Barone, Dorothy Dalton, and Anita Simonis rounded out the team. The United States Olympic Team tryouts took place at Temple University on April 9, four months before the Olympic competition, and the top eight all-around gymnasts were chosen for the team.
This would be the first time the United States had competed internationally in women’s gymnastics since the 1936 Olympic Games, as no team was sent to the 1938 World Championships. At the 1938 Worlds, the women were allowed to compete for individual apparatus titles for the first time, but only Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Poland competed. The Czech team swept the medals, and Vlasta Děkanová defended her 1934 all-around title and won the vault, balance beam, and parallel bars gold medals. The world championships was also placed on hold, however, and Děkanová would have to wait until 1948 to compete again at the international level.
When Děkanová was able to compete at the London Olympics in 1948, she was met with the largest international competition that had ever been held for women’s gymnastics. Eleven teams participated, up from eight in 1936 and five in 1928, and eight women competed on each team. Similar to previous Olympics, women would only be allowed to compete in a team final, and they would be given a team score based on group exercises (one with and one without portable apparatuses) and individual apparatuses. However, in this Olympics, women did not compete on bars, but instead competed on the rings. Each team member did a compulsory exercise on rings, along with compulsory and voluntary exercises on beam and vault. Like the 1936 Olympics, the bottom two individuals’ total scores for each team would be dropped, meaning all teams were essentially made up of all-arounders.
The countries competing in the event included Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the United States, Sweden, Holland, Austria, Yugoslavia, Italy, Great Britain, France, and Belgium, and they finished in that order. Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the second and third place winners in 1936, respectively, were neck-and-neck for most of the competition, with the Hungarian team beating the Czech team on beam and the team group exercise, and the Czech team getting higher scores on vault, rings, and the portable apparatus event, beating Hungary by about five points. The United States trailed both teams and earned a solid third place eighteen points behind Hungary.
The Czech team that won gold at the 1948 Olympic Games
Considering their reputation as winners of the 1934 and 1938 Worlds and the silver medalists in 1936, it should not be surprising that the Czech team was able to clinch gold; however, the circumstances of these Games were far from ideal for this team. Eliska Misáková, Czech team member and sister of teammate Miloslava Misáková, contracted polio and fell ill upon arriving in England. She was treated and placed in an iron lung, but died on the day the women’s events began. The Czech flag was raised with a black border in her honor during the medal ceremony.
The Czech team also lost their coach, though this did not occur until after the team final. Coach Marie Provaznikova was the FIG’s president of the Women’s Gymnastic Committee as well as the coach of the Czechoslovakian team. Czechoslovakia’s newly communist government was initially reluctant to allow her to go to London due to her status as an enemy of the state. However, they relented, allowing Provaznikova to attend the Olympic Games. While there, she defected, and later moved to the United States, making her the first person to use the Olympics as a means of defecting from a country.
Outside of the tragedy on the Czech side, the event itself was not without mishap. Gymnastics events at this time were usually held outdoors. The women’s team final, which took place at the same time as men’s events, had to be moved indoors due to a rainstorm. There were also concerns over whether the music in women’s routines would distract the men. Ironically, during the competition it was the loud cheering during the the men’s events that would affect the women. One British woman became startled by audience members cheering for a male athlete while she was performing on the rings, and this caused her dismount to become an accidental somersault. She fortunately landed safely, to the audience’s relief.
The question of safety, along with why women competed on rings just this once and never again, was addressed in a Jezebel article in 2012. In it, Bakanic explains that there was “nothing there but a cotton mat on the ground” under the rings, explaining the audience’s reaction when the British gymnast had her mishap on that event. Bakanic also says that the difficulty of their exercises were limited by the available materials and the somewhat dangerous construction of the equipment. The beam, for example, was made of wood without a protective coating. Bakanic does not know why women competed on rings that year but not on bars, and it is unclear why this was not made a permanent practice, or why the apparatuses at worlds were different from the ones at the Olympics.
Marian Barone of the United States on beam
The women’s gymnastics event at the 1948 Olympics in London, then, was largely representative of the lack of establishment for the women’s side of the sport at that time, with no individual contests, a transition in apparatuses, and a less-than-clear vision of what role women would take in this sport in general. There were, however, harbingers of the future: the first defection hinted at later Soviet control and dominance in the sport, and the United States’ women took advantage of the Soviet absence to take a medal, similar to the circumstances that would allow them to win their next medal, Mary Lou Retton’s gold in 1984.
It is important to note as well that, while women have come a long way in the sport since 1948, learning more about the history of the sport can give us fodder to question women’s current status in the sport: Why can’t Simone Biles take a stab at rings? Why can’t women have eight events instead of six? Why can’t Viktoria Komova try parallel bars?
Article by Jessica Taylor Price