Flashback Friday: Ruler of the Uneven Bars? by Katy Jones
Whether by NBC narratives or through gymternet media chatter, countries and gymnasts become synonymous with certain things in the wonderful world of gymnastics. Take “Romania” and “beam,” for example. Or, one with a potentially negative undertone, “Romania” and “cookie cutter.” There’s “Nadia” and “10.0.” Maybe there will be “Simone Biles” and “TTY?” But the one I want to focus on is “China” and “bars.” Through the years, China has been lauded for their work on the event- and rightly so. Their innovative skills mixed with intricate combinations always prove to be crowd pleasers. But that aside, have they been the ones truly ruling the event in terms of titles? We always hear commentary about how China “owns” the event, but if we’re basing it on hardware, who really comes out on top?
I looked back at the uneven bar final results from the Olympics and World Championships over the past 30+ years, dating back to 1980- a total of nine Olympic Games and 22 World Championships. Out of those 31 possible titles, China came away with the gold five times (three Olympic and two World Championship wins). This actually ties them with East Germany and the US for the second most titles, though East Germany won only once at the Olympics and four times at Worlds, and each of the US titles were from Worlds. But the country responsible for winning the most uneven bar titles – doubling that of China, East Germany, or the US – is Russia. Since 1995, the Russians have won 10 bar titles, with seven of those wins being at the World Championships and three at the Olympics.
Of course, the gymnast responsible for the majority of these titles for Russia is someone who has her own unique set of synonymous words in the gym world: Svetlana Khorkina. But Khorkina’s reign didn’t come into play until the mid 90s. In the early 80s, it was East Germany’s Maxi Gnauck and her teammates that were at the forefront of the event. Gnauck won the bar title at the 1980 Olympic Games, then went on to win the event at the 1981 and 1983 World Championships. China’s Ma Yanhong won bars at the 1984 Olympics before East Germany began dominating the event once again. Gabriele Faehnrich won at the 1985 World Championships, and her teammate Dorte Thummler shared the title with Romania’s Daniela Silivas in 1987. Silivas is responsible for three of Romania’s four bar titles from the past three decades, as she won the event at the 1988 Olympics and followed it with a win at the 1989 World Championships.
At the World Championships in 1991, North Korea’s Kim Gwang Suk won the bar title (and though she had one of the most innovative bar routines of that time, it was her falsified records, that ultimately kept North Korea out of the 1993 Worlds). At the 1992 World Championships Lavinia Milosovici won the last major bar title for Romania; that same year at the Olympics, Lu Li won China’s second Olympic gold on the event. Shannon Miller won the first of several uneven bar golds for the United States at 1993 Worlds, while Luo Li won another title for China at Worlds in 1994. And that brings us to 1995, in which Khorkina begins her long string of titles on her signature event. She won the 1995, 1996 (she shared this one with Belarus’ Elena Piskun), 1997, 1999, and 2001 World Championship titles, while also winning the Olympic bar titles in both 1996 and 2000.
In the early 2000s, a new crop of talent – much of it coming from the US – began dominating the event. Courtney Kupets won bars at the 2002 World Championships, while Hollie Vise and Chellsie Memmel tied for first the following year at 2003 Worlds. After a shocking fall for Khorkina during event finals at the 2004 Olympics, Emilie Le Pennec won France’s first and only bar title, before Nastia Liukin continued the streak for the Americans at the 2005 World Championships. In 2006, Great Britain’s Beth Tweddle won her first uneven bar Worlds gold, and Ksenia Semenova added another gold for Russia the next year in 2007. After a close (read: tied) battle for gold in 2008, He Kexin of China edged out Liukin for the gold at the Olympics, and then followed it with a win on the event at the 2009 World Championships. In 2010, Tweddle won her second World Championship title on bars before the Russians took control once again. At 2011 Worlds, Viktoria Komova won during event finals, and her teammate Aliya Mustafina became the uneven bars Olympic champion the next year in London.
So I suppose when determining who “owns” a certain event, it all depends on how you define it. But with strong contenders coming from both Russia and China already this year, it will be interesting to see who takes the title at Worlds.