Who Are The Best Female Gymnasts of All Time? [Femme FITale #1]

In light of the 2020 (2021) Tokyo Olympic Games officially kicking off, I’ve got a bonus post today–the first in my new series: Femme FITale –– focused on recognizing women who have made a big impact in the fitness world (be it through competition, research, or business and entrepreneurship). 

For this installment, I’ll be focusing on the women of Olympic gymnastics––one of my favorite sports to watch (and one of the best parts of the Olympics!).

First, a quick history lesson. Women’s Artistic Gymnastics first became an olympic sport in 1928. There was only one event that year: the all-around team competition. It was not until 1936 that the games began to look more like they do today, with the individual all-around, balance beam, uneven bars, and vault events added to the schedule. The modern competition set was then finalized in 1952 with the addition of the floor routine. 

Since its inception in 1928, Women’s Olympic Gymnastics has been dominated by a small group of countries, with 10 teams taking home more than 90% of the medals.

Great Britain dominated the medal count in the early days but declined over time, the Soviet Union took over with a period of gold medal domination from 1952 to 1986 (performing worse, but still well, when it became Russia), and the United States and Romania medaled frequently, taking turns with each other and with Russia at the top of the medal count for several decades.

The Soviet Union’s run was one for the ages, with the team showing utter dominance throughout its reign. Even though the Soviet Union was only competing for just over three decades, they won 9 gold medals in the all-around––three times what the next two closest teams (The United States and Romania) have ever won after competing for around twice as many years.

Romania and the United States were bested by the Soviet Union in the race for all-around gold, but both countries have been dominant in their own right, taking quite a few silver and bronze medals––and together, nearly as many medals as all the other countries (except the Soviet Union) combined.  Romania has medaled in the team all around competition in 12 different Olympic games, followed closely by the United States at 9 games.

There has been clear dominance by the top three countries (The Soviet Union / Russia, The United States, and Romania) at the team level, but what about at the individual level?

Several gymnasts stand out for excellence against their competition–and they all come from the most competitive countries. In the table below, we see a list of the top 10 performing gymnasts who competed in a minimum of four Olympic gymnastics events throughout their careers, ordered by their medaling rate (total number of medals won / total number of events competed in). Each gymnast’s win rate (total golds / total events) is also included, alongside the percentiles of these rates compared with all other gymnasts who earned at least one medal in their respective category (at least one gold/silver/bronze for the medal rate percentile and at least one gold for the win rate percentile). Note that only 22% of competitors ever medaled in their Olympic careers, and only 9% won a gold. Non-medalists are excluded from percentile calculations to introduce a clearer spread between the best and the runners up.

So who are the best female Olympic gymnasts of all time, you might ask? It depends on the metric you look at.

Based on the data available through 2016 (the standings will likely change with the final results from Tokyo), a case could be made for Nastia Liukin, Marlya Kindrativna Horokhovska, Viorica Daniela Siliva in terms of medal rate. All three gymnasts medaled in all events they competed in, and each won at least one gold.
If win rate is more important than medal rate, however, different gymnasts stand out. Ecaterina Szabo and Simone Biles have the two highest win rates, each winning an impressive 67% (4 out of 6) of their events. 

There is no one answer, but if I had to put in my own two cents, I (and probably most others today) would  go for Simone Biles, who recently completed a vault so difficult (and theoretically all-time-high-scoring) and dangerous that judges limited its point value, likely to discourage others from trying it and injuring themselves.

Biles has already had an incredibly impressive career, and I can’t wait to see how the rest of it plays out (Go team USA!!).

Who do you think is the best of all time? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

For more posts on women crushing it in sports, see the Femme FITale collection.

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