In men’s gymnastics, Kohei Uchimura has emerged into the sport as a magnificent and game-changing gymnast. He is one who has prompted the gymnastics world and Dwight Normile among others to ask if he is the greatest gymnast we have ever seen.
Normille went on to ask the question, who is the greatest female gymnasts of all time? I simply could not decide, although there were names that popped into my mind immediately. ‘All time’ is a long time in this sport. I then, of course, decided put it to my readers to see what they said. As expected, I received a diverse range of answers to this question, and an equally wide array of reasons for their responses. Such was the diversity of gymnasts and reasons for their greatness in the responses, it begged the question, what constitutes ‘greatest’? What does it mean?
Let’s look at the top responses I received to this question and the reasons they gave. Maybe this can shed some light on the what people believe is tantamount to greatness.
Nadia Comaneci. Well I have to say I expected Comaneci would be one of the prime candidates for ‘Greatness’ and many chose her. Why? The tens. The innovations. The titles. The perfection. The fact she combined difficulty seamlessly with fabulous execution.
Lilia Podkapayeva. Lilia Pokopeyeva remains a favourite in the heart of so many gymnastics fans. She was elegant and capable of great difficulty. One particular reason given was that she was a gymnast who won the European, World and Olympic Championships. Few have attained all those three titles.
Daniela Silivas. Silivas came up a lot, but with no real reason given. I tend to think Silivas is a candidate for the way that she simply embodied gymnastics. She was physically immaculate, had great spirit and beauty as well as great success. This is perhaps the same reason for the next candidate;
Mo Huilan. This was another gymnasts who was mentioned frequently with no reasons given. Despite her lack of titles, however, Mo was a gymnast who, like Silivas, seemed to physically embody what made gymnastics both stunning and daring. She was beautiful, innovative and extraordinarily talented.
Aliya Mustafina. It is easy to think that those who select Mustafina are among those who fans deride for thinking gymnastics did not exist before 2008. But there is a lot to be said for Mustafina; a gymnast who shines brightly in this complex, muddled era of contemporary gymnastics. And there is no one yet who has come along that shows the grit, talent and titles to prove that she could challenge Mustafina for being ‘the’ gymnast of this post-Beijing era.
Svetlana Khorkina. There is little surprise that the Russian diva earned a mention for titles, innovation, longevity and personality. She was one of the few who lasted a long time and who also attained a level of celebrity outisde of the sport for her style and personality.
Various Soviets. A few of the great Soviet gymnasts such as Olesya Dudnik, Natalia Laschenova, Larissa Latynina and Oksana Omelianchik all earned a mention. Although they all had mixed degrees of success and longevity, these are the women from an era where gymnastics seemed somehow ‘pure’, both difficult and beautiful. And they came from a nation that represented greatness in its time. Natalia Laschenova was popular, for all the reasons above, but also the fact that she was ‘before her time’.
Oksana Chusovitina. There was mention of Chusovitina, particularly for her longevity in the sport. This is something that cannot be denied. Chusovitina’s career has spanned so many years and codes and nations, it is hard to deny her presence on a list of greatest despite her form.
So what does this list tell us about what it takes to be considered the greatest? Is it the titles? Is it the potential to revolutionise the sport? Is it longevity? Is it being before your time? Is it simply epitomising the most desired qualities of the sport?
Another person asked the question- and this is important- does this mean we are looking for the greatest AA gymnast of all time? Well, the all around is still THE title in gymnastics despite the increasing presence and competitive environment for specialists, and I tend to believe that, in historic terms at least, the greatest tends to be though of as an all around gymnast. But what does that do for a gymnast like Chusovitina who might be considered among the greatest for her titles and for her incredible longevity, but who was known as a leg gymnast, then a specialist?
‘The Greatest’ is a superlative that carries a lot of weight, perhaps too much weight for a sport that has changed so much and so significantly over the years. This is perhaps why it has been so difficult for Normile and co to arrive unanimously at a decision about Uchimura, at least when compared to his older counterparts. As one reader commented, it is difficult to compare across the decades. I too tend to think in ‘eras’. For example I see gymnasts like Nastia Liukin and Cheng Fei as ‘the’ gymnasts of the last decade. Why? Because they were great, unique and both in their own ways, represented a shift in gymnastics, but only in that time. I see Khorkina, love her or hate her, as the gymnast of her particular era. She was innovative; won titles, had great personality and had a long presence in the sport. But I am not sure I could ever pin down a ‘greatest’.
So many gymnasts have left significant, lasting marks on this sport of ours. But it seems that before we can answer the question of who is the greatest gymnast of all time, we need to know what makes greatness. This I put to you, readers. What qualities do you think it takes to be considered the greatest of all time?
Article: Brigid McCarthy