The 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland was a watershed event for women’s gymnastics. It was the first time women would be granted individual medals, and it also marked the beginning of the Soviet Union’s dominance in the sport in an atmosphere of Cold War politics.
Held from July 19 to August 3, the Helsinki games would become well known for the participation of several new countries, including the USSR, China, Israel, and the reintroduction of Germany and Japan after their ban in 1948. For all the changes that were occurring in the world and in these Olympics, however, for contemporary fans of women’s artistic gymnastics, the 1952 Olympics marks the beginning of something familiar, both in the structure of women’s events and the Soviet dominance.
The Helsinki Olympics were notable for the inclusion of an individual all-around and event finals for women; however, this competition structure was not new: the two previous world championships had used this format, and it was only in 1949, during an International Olympic Committee session in Rome, when it would be decided that countries should be able to admit individual athletes for women’s gymnastics at the Olympics, officially putting an individual medal option into place.
In 1952, the competition had almost the same number of events as the 1950 World Championships, which were held in Basel, Switzerland. At those championships, countries were permitted to send teams of eight, or up to three individuals, and a total of 53 women competed, forming seven teams. Teams from Sweden, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland, Austria, and Belgium competed, finishing in that order. Similar to the current system, women also competed for all-around, vault, bars, beam, and floor titles. Poland would be the biggest winner at worlds in terms of medal count, leaving with six medals, followed by Sweden, Austria, and Italy with three medals each, France with two, and Yugoslavia with one.
The medal winners at the 1950 world championships were not able to match their success at the following Olympics, however, with the exception of Sweden winning one medal. When the teams from countries that competed at worlds (with the exception of Belgium) arrived in Helsinki, they had to contend with those teams that had not competed at worlds. These teams included the 1948 gold, silver, and bronze-winning teams of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the United States, respectively. The Soviet Union, Germany, Bulgaria, Rumania, Finland, Holland, and Great Britain brought the team count to sixteen, and Norway and Portugal each sent three individuals to compete in an event that would include an unprecedented 134 women. Thus, this was a much larger, though far less geographically diverse, group than the 98 women that will compete at this year’s Olympics in Rio.
Team Sweden at the 1952 Olympic Games
Unlike today’s Olympic events, in 1952 there was no qualifying round, separate individual event finals, or all-around finals. Like the previous Olympics, each woman competed on each apparatus only twice–one compulsory and one optional exercise–with the option to repeat a compulsory event for a better score. In fact, the score report for 1952 is in the same format as in previous Olympics, the only differences being that women were, for the first time, recognized for their rankings as individuals, and that, unlike in previous Olympics, there was no group event without portable apparatuses, this instead being made an individual event.
The team score was made up of the results from a total of nine events: the group event with portable apparatuses (hoops, balls, etc.), and compulsory and voluntary scores for bars, beam, vault, and the free standing exercise (floor). Every individual was awarded up to ten points for each exercise. Each team had eight participants, and the bottom two all-around scores were dropped, with the remaining six added to the group exercise score to get the team score.
The results overwhelmingly favored the Soviets: out of 21 possible medals (the 18 that are currently contested plus 3 more team medals given for the portable apparatus event), they took home 11, including the team gold and the individual all-around gold and silver. Hungary took second in the team competition, leaving Czechoslovakia with the team bronze and Sweden with the portable apparatus gold. With the exception of Sweden, none of the world medalists came near an individual medal–the USSR took the top six spots on vault, and they shared the top six with Hungary on bars and in the individual all-around, and the top five with Hungary on beam and floor.
The gymnasts from the USSR came to win, and they did more than that: each team member went home with at least two medals, including a team gold and a silver for the group portable apparatus. Galina Minaicheva and Ekaterina Kalinchuk each won three medals, Nina Bocharova won five, and Maria Gorokhovskaya, the two-time all-around USSR National Champion, earned an incredible seven medals. Gorokhovskaya, a 31-year-old former army nurse, still holds the record for the most medals earned by a woman at a single Olympic Games. Interestingly, of the three top teams, the USSR brought by far the oldest girls, with an average age of 28.75. Hungary’s gymnasts averaged 25.25 years, and Czechoslovakia’s gymnasts, on average, were 21.25.
Hungary held their own against the Soviet Union, winning eight medals to the USSR’s eleven. Moreover, Margit Korondi almost matched Gorokhovskaya’s record with six overall medals, including a gold on bars. She was followed by teammate Agnes Kaleti, who won four medals in the competition, including a gold on floor. Kaleti was a Jewish athlete who was considered a favorite going into the 1940 Olympics. However, like many other talented athletes, the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Games forced her to wait. She survived the war by pretending to be a Christian; her sister and mother survived by going into hiding, but unfortunately her father was sent to Auschwitz and died there. Kaleti would be forced to put her Olympic dream on hold again when she became injured shortly before the 1948 Olympics, and finally was able to compete in Helsinki in 1952.
In contrast to the very successful Soviet and Hungarian teams, the 1948 Olympic bronze medal-winning team from the USA ended up at the bottom of the team final standings in fifteenth place. Their top individual placement was 26th on floor by Clara Lomady-Schroth, the repeat Olympian who won every national all-around title from 1949 to 1952. She was joined by fellow returning Olympians Marian Barone-Twining, Dorothy Dalton, and Meta Elste-Neumann, along with first-time Olympians Ruth Gulkowski, Ruth Topalian, Marie Hoesly, and Doris Kirkman.
What was the reason for the sudden shift in success for the United States and for many other countries that had previously been successful at the international level? The team from the Soviet Union was attending their very first international competition at these Olympics. This was due to the fact that, in the past, the general consensus in the communist state was that sports were a capitalist activity. The tides changed in the 30s and 40s, when sports became regarded as a way to display Soviet dominance on an international stage. The Olympics became a means for the East and the West to battle over the ideological differences that were the basis of Cold War politics. With this end in mind, the importance of sport was emphasized for all Russians, with training camps being established and workers encouraged to bring honor to the country by participating in sport.
A Soviet gymnast on beam
The USSR was allowed to participate in the 1952 Olympics despite the fact that they would send professional athletes–at the time, only amateurs were invited, but the Soviet Union claimed that their athletes were amateurs, though many were full-time athletes who were only technically employed elsewhere. The Us versus Them mentality was propelled in these games in part by the Soviets creating their own Olympic Village for only Communist Bloc countries, separating their athletes from their opponents. For their part, the general consensus in the United States was that it was imperative that they dominate at the 1952 Olympics against the Soviets, and they ended up winning the overall medal count, with the USSR coming in a close second.
The fight over the top of the medal standings by country is one that continues to this day, with the United States and Russia typically holding their spots at the top. The 1952 Olympics set the precedent for the medal count to be a representation of, and a propeller of, Cold War tensions for years to come. For the women’s United States gymnastics program, it was the beginning of a long stretch of Olympics without medals, one that would reach its crescendo during the team all-around final in 1996, when what the New York Times called “jingoistic” American crowds drowned out the floor music of the other competitors, and the NBC commentators made their patriotic biases blatantly clear.
The Olympics, then, are not just a celebration of talent, national pride, and good sportsmanship; rather, they have been used, and are still used, as means of displaying international dominance, and this is a good piece of information to bear in mind in terms of the media’s representation of the Olympics, as well as the way medal counts tell a political story while also reducing the journeys, the heartaches, and the talents of the athletes to mere numbers in the grand scheme of international politics.
Article by Jessica Taylor Price