Nothing displays the drama of Olympic achievement like gymnastics. Young men and women and their families devote their lives to a grueling, exacting sport. And if a gymnast reaches the Olympic Games, he or she must stand alone in the spotlight and try to be perfect.
This formula has brought viewers many of sports' most unforgettable moments. These are our top 10 in the history of Olympic gymnastics.
In 1889, Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat, educator and historian, came up with the idea of reviving the ancient Olympics. Eventually, Athens, Greece, was selected as the site for the inaugural Games of the modern era.
The Games of the I Olympiad, as they were known, were quite different from what we see today. Athletics (track), gymnastics, weightlifting and wrestling were all contested in a single stadium—the Panathinaiko Stadium. One of the events was the team parallel bars, an event that was only held in 1896. A four-man Greek team known as Ethnikos Gymastikos Syllogos finished third in the competition. One member of that team was Dimitrios Loundras, who was just 10 years old. Loundras remains the youngest medalist in Olympic history.
Loundras went on to serve in World Wars I and II and rose to the rank of admiral in the Greek navy.
No athlete, male or female, has dominated gymnastics in a single Olympics more than Vitaly Scherbo did in 1992. All he did was win six of the possible eight gold medals in Barcelona, a golden total topped only by swimmers Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz.
Scherbo was born in Belarus, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former republics of the Soviet Union had split up. However, for the 1992 Olympics, they competed together a final time as the Unified Team.
Scherbo had been plagued by inconsistency entering the Olympics, but he quickly emerged as the star of Barcelona, demonstrating a knack for coming up huge in big moments. He led the Unified Team to the team gold, then won the all-around. He tied for first in the pommel horse and won the rings, vault and parallel bars outright.
Scherbo's performance was no bolt of lightning. In the early '90s, he won world championships in all eight events, the only gymnast to do so. Off the mat, Scherbo appeared in the B-52s' video for “Revolution Earth.”
Shannon Miller is the most decorated American gymnast in history, with seven Olympic medals. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Miller entered the competition as one of the favorites. She lost to the Unified Team's Tatiana Gutsu by just 0.12 points. However, in the process she became, at the time, the highest-finishing American in the all-around during a non-boycotted Olympics. Miller helped lead the U.S. team to the bronze medal and also earned a silver medal on the balance beam and bronze medals in the uneven parallel bars and the floor exercise.
In 1996, Miller returned to the Olympics and helped lead the American team, known as “The Magnificent Seven,” to the gold medal. Suffering from a wrist injury during the individual all-around, Miller faded to eighth place. However, she managed to recover and earn the gold medal on the balance beam to become the first American to win an individual gold medal at a non-boycotted Olympics.
The history of Olympic gymnastics is filled with amazing performances by athletes overcoming injury. But none compares to that of George Eyser in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis.
On October 29, Eyser won six individual medals, including three gold medals in a single day. He tied for first place in the vault and won the parallel bars and rope climb outright. He finished second in the pommel horse and the four-event all-around and took third on the horizontal bar.
Not impressed? Eyser was competing with a prosthetic left leg, the result of having his leg run over by a train when he was a child. Remember, this was 1904, so the artificial limb was far from the technologically advanced prosthetics of today. He also participated in track and field events, although he failed to medal in any of them.
In 2004, twins Paul and Morgan Hamm led the U.S. men's team to the silver medal in Athens. However, Paul Hamm had another goal in sight—he wanted to become the first American man to win the individual all-around title.
Hamm performed well in the first three rotations, then fell on the vault, nearly crashing into the judges' table. His score of 9.137 in the event dropped him to 12th place in the competition with just the parallel bars and horizontal bar remaining.
Hamm recovered from his fall to score 9.837 in the parallel bars, while several other of the leaders struggled, allowing Hamm to move into fourth place. On the high bar, Hamm scored another 9.837 to win the gold medal by just 0.012, the closest in Olympic history.
Controversy marred the win, however. Judges had incorrectly given Yang Tae Young a start-value of 9.9 on his parallel bars routine, instead of the 10.0 it should have been. That difference would have moved Yang from third place to first in the final standings. Despite admitting to the mistake, officials did not change the final results, following what is known as the “Rules of Play” doctrine.
In the summer of 1984, Mary Lou Retton was America's Sweetheart. The 16-year-old from Fairmont, W.V., became the first woman from outside Eastern Europe to win the all-around gold medal.
She was inspired to take up the sport from watching Nadia Comaneci on television during the 1976 Olympics. Eventually, she moved to Houston to be coached by Bela and Marta Karolyi, who had coached Comaneci before defecting to the United States.
The 1984 Olympics were subject to a Soviet-led boycott by most Eastern Bloc nations in apparent retaliation for the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. However, Romania chose to ignore the boycott and participate in the Olympics.
As the all-around title came down to the final two events, Retton trailed Romania's Ecaterina Szabo by 0.15 points. Retton promptly recorded 10.0s on the floor exercise and the vault to win the gold medal by 0.05 points.
Retton helped the U.S. team win the silver medal and added a silver medal in the vault and bronze medals in the floor exercise and the uneven parallel bars. She was named Sports Illustrated's “Sportswoman of the Year” for 1984.
It was looking bleak for the U.S. women's gymnastics team in 1996. Soon before, the team held a 0.897-point lead over Russia entering the final rotation in the team competition at the Atlanta Olympics, meaning the Americans needed to collapse for the Russians to overtake them.
And that's what was happening. The first four Americans all missed on their landings. Dominique Moceanu then fell on each of her attempts. That left Kerri Strug to hold on to the gold medal. On her first attempt, Strug fell, injuring her left ankle. With Russia's Roza Galieva yet to perform in the floor exercise, Strug needed to land her second attempt to clinch the gold medal.
Strug asked coach Bela Karolyi if the team needed her to vault again. Karolyi answered that they did. Strug limped to the end of the runway, then took off, landing on both feet before pulling up her right leg. Her score of 9.712 clinched the team gold medal. It turned out she had suffered a third-degree lateral sprain and some tendon damage. Karolyi famously carried her to the medal stand before she went off to the hospital.
In many ways, it was Olga Korbut who popularized gymnastics in the United States, an amazing feat considering that she competed for the Soviet Union.
The Cold War was still hot in 1972 when the Olympics began in Munich. Many athletes from the Eastern Bloc were viewed as cold, emotionless machines in the West.
Not Korbut. Flashing a million-dollar smile, Korbut dazzled during the competition, winning gold medals in the balance beam and floor exercise to go along with a team gold medal. She also won silver in the uneven parallel bars.
Korbut was favored to win the all-around gold medal, but she fell three times on the uneven bars and finished a disappointing seventh. She was in tears after the performance, disproving the Western stereotype of the emotionless Eastern athlete.
Korbut pushed women's gymnastics to new levels with her high-risk moves. She was one of the first to complete a backward somersault on the balance beam and the first to do a backward somersault into a swingdown on the apparatus, a move known as the “Korbut flip.” She also was the first to do a backflip-to-catch move on the uneven parallel bars.
The 1976 Olympics in Montreal belonged to 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci. ABC's Jim McKay famously said the Romanian gymnast “swam in an ocean of air” as she won the all-around, uneven bars and beam gold medals as well as a bronze in the floor exercise. Her efforts also led the Romanian team to the silver medal.
But the medals don't even begin to tell the story. On July 18, Comaneci recorded a perfect score of 10.0 on the uneven bars during the team competition, the first perfect 10.0 in Olympic history. The mark was so unfathomable that the scoreboards weren't equipped to show a 10.0—the score was listed as 1.00.
Comaneci showed it was no fluke, recording an astounding seven 10.0s during the competitions.
Comaneci later defected from Romania and eventually moved to the United States. She married American gymnast Bart Connor, and they went on to have a son together.
The sport of gymnastics is often thought of as an individual one. Sure, there's a team competition at each Olympics, and winning the gold medal is a source of national pride. However, it seems inconceivable that one would risk permanent disability to help his team win a gold medal.
In 1976, that's just what Shun Fujimoto did. The 26-year-old suffered a devastating injury during his final tumbling run in the floor exercise within the team competition. It turned out he had broken his right kneecap. However, the Japanese were in a tight race with the Soviet Union for the gold medal. So Fujimoto hid his injury and moved to the next event—the pommel horse. Despite the pain, Fujimoto managed to score a 9.5.
His next event was the rings, an impossibility with a broken knee, right? Fujimoto performed the routine of his life, scoring a career-high 9.7. He finished with a twisting triple-somersault dismount, sticking the landing with his right knee somehow buckling only slightly. According to Sports Illustrated's Ron Fimrite, Fujimoto gritted his teeth and, with tears in his eyes, raised his arms in triumph. Fujimoto then staggered away, collapsing into the arms of his coach.
Fujimoto had dislocated his kneecap and torn ligaments on his dismount. Still, he wanted to continue, planning to ask for a pain-killer in the infirmary. Doctors were horrified and ordered him to withdraw from the competition. One told Fimrite, “How he managed to do somersaults and twists and land without collapsing in screams is beyond my comprehension.”
Fujimoto's performance, understandably, inspired his teammates. Despite finishing the event one man short—the top five scores out of six gymnasts were used in the team competition – the Japanese won the gold medal on the final event in the closest competition in Olympics history (576.85-576.45).