Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Forgotten Ones

Before the rise of USA and China, another country frequently shared the medal stand with the Soviets and Romanians, and earlier greats like Czechoslovakia. Always efficient, often cold and sometimes quite overscored, the East Germans picked up a very respectable tally of medals during its short existence. Though it was founded as a seperate state in 1949, they did not compete as such until the 1966 Worlds and 1968 Olympics, which also coincides with the starting point for their gymnastics success. As a team, East Germany were extremely solid- medalling in all 5 Olympic team finals in which they competed, and in 8 out of the 10 world team finals they appeared at. Individually they also racked up a good bit of hardware, especially from Karin Janz, Maxi Gnauck and Erika Zuchold with the occasional contribution from Dagmar Kersten and Dorte Thummler.

In short, their medal record looks like this.


5/5 Olympic medals, 8/10 World medals, 13/15 possible team medals.


6 overall medals, 5 silver


13 medals in 15 competitions, 8 gold


3 titles overall, 2 gold


1 bronze


11 medals, 3 gold

Their 3 best gymnasts have an extremely impressive medal count:

Erika Zuchold

Erika holds 8 individual titles. She competed at the 1966 Worlds, 1968 Olympics, 1970 Worlds and 1972 Olympics. 2 of her medals are all-around, 1 each for beam and bars and the other 4 are all vault. She competed against such greats as Vera Caslavska, Ludmilla Tourischeva and Olga Korbut.

Karin Janz

Karen achieved 7 individual titles at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics and 1970 Worlds. 3 of her titles are for bars, 2 for vault and 1 each for all-around and beam. She also competed against Tourischeva, Caslavska and Korbut.

Maxi Gnauck

Maxi holds 9 individual titles which she received at the 1979, 1981 and 1983 Worlds and the 1980 Olympics. She was almost certain to have medalled at the 1984 Olympics, which her country boycotted. She performed well at the Friendship Games held by the boycotting countries, winning several medals. Her main competitors throughout her career were Nadia Comaneci, Nellie Kim, Natalia Shaposhnikova, Emilia Eberle, Natalia Yurchenko, Olga Mostepanova and Ecaterina Szabo.

In total, East Germany in 20 years and 15 competitions won 47 medals, 35 of which are individual. Of those 35, 24 were won by Zuchold, Janz and Gnauck combined. Impressive, no? You would imagine that their achievements and gymnasts are often fondly remembered and lamented in a similar vain to the frequent wailings over the loss of Soviet grace.

This is unequivocally NOT the case.

Despite the great results, and despite the fabulous bar work and innovation these girls brought, they as a whole are not lauded, not celebrated, not reminisced over. There are many reasons for this of course, which I will give my own view on.

1) Negative Image

This one is twofold. The gymnasts themselves tended to look miserable and underfed and quite often performed as if they were going through the motions. Although they were far from the only slight pixie types around- young Nadia Comaneci, Emilia Eberle and Olga Mostepanova being just a small selection of the others- East German gymnasts seemed to possess it as more of a collective trait. The misery is an important one, as it works against a gymnast appealing to the crowd and assembling a fandom. This might sound very crass, but Elena Mukhina was guilty of this too (also for good reason) and if she had not had such an awful fate, I believe her sad demeanour would have absolutely worked against her being as remembered as she is. The opposite is proven by the audience's love for smiley gymnasts like Daiane Dos Santos and Jiang Yuyuan. As for going through the motions, this was most visible on floor where contrary to the eclectic (Romanian) and gloriously elegant (Soviet) routines being performed, the East Germans tended to have poor choreography and a total lack of expression, charisma and charm. This is also reflected in the achievement of just one title on the event. And as we know, gymnasts tend to win hearts on floor much moreso than any other apparatus.

Not only were they individually damning themselves, they are also retroactively contending with the extremely poor reputation East Germany built up in sport. Children were picked out at young ages and trained in special schools, which is fine. But the other strong proponent of how East Germany got to be so strong in sport was doping. Cycling was the most notorious by far for this, but gymnastics was not exempt. Dagmar Kersten who competed at the last gymnastics competitions while her country existed has since come out and acknowledged that it did happen to her and her team. It would be ambitious to expect ALL of her teammates and other former gymnasts to back up her claims, as few would want to remember or publicise it. But as it was so rife in the 1970's and 1980's in all sports in the country, and as Kersten competed at the latter end, it is safe to assume that doping occurred throughout the two decades. Nothing worse than doping to taint achievements, and it understandably has a negative impact in how they are remembered.

2) Fellow Competitors

The 70's and 80's are the golden era of gymnastics, spawning legends and all-time greats who are at the tip of every gymnastics fan's tongue. Karin Janz and Erika Zuchold, as previously mentioned, contended with such names as Ludmilla Tourischeva, Olga Korbut and Vera Caslavska. Korbut of course was and is the darling of gymnastics whose name is known worldwide, one of only two to ever achieve this. Caslavska and Tourischeva both had longevity on their side, with Caslavska's reputation being helped along by her heroic snub against the Soviets on the medal stand and subsequent lauding by her native Czechoslovakians and triumphant return to competition. Tourischeva is often remembered for her consistency and efficiency, and that one time where the bars collapsed as she dismounted and zero.fucks.were.given as she walked off and never looked back.

It was even worse for the girls who competed in the 80's. Maxi Gnauck was up against Nadia Comaneci,  Nellie Kim, Ecaterina Szabo, Natalia Yurchenko and more specifically fabulous bars workers like Teodora Ungureanu, Emilia Eberle and Natalia Shaposhnikova. Dagmar Kersten competed against Daniela Silivas, Aurelia Dobre, Elena Shushunova, Svetlana Boginskaya and Olessia Dudnik. Quite a tough act to be remembered along with the greatest gymnasts of all time, and by and large they seem to have failed in this. This is helped along by victories by East Germans over some of the above gymnasts tasting foul to the legions of their adoring fans.

3) Overscoring and controversies

Not that East German gymnasts were the only beneficiaries of generous scores- but it did consistently happen, and several of them contributed to medals which many felt were undeserved. The 1968 and 1980 Olympics are both notable for their controversial and hand-picked all-around podium, and East German gymnasts benefited at both of these. One of the most controversial was the perfect 10 awarded to Dagmar Kersten's bar routine in the 1988 Olympic event finals, which still inspires rage. The fact that she would have medalled anyway does not seem to matter, it's the score that is the instigator. Another routine which bested a favourite is below, not least because it deprived USA of their first potential gold undeservedly. Still an awesome routine though.

Clearly East German gynasts have quite a lot against them being remembered fondly, but I think it is important to remember just how little control over what was happening. Their faces say it all. Doping does of course render the high medal count in question, but to me the most important thing is that great routines were performed, and these girls are well worth watching. Just not on floor.

The Best Of  (read: BARSSS)

Here are some of my favourite routines, bars heavy as it was far and away their best event. Some nice vaults from the East German crew, but I don't appreciate the super-easy vaults enough to include them.

Baerbel Wielgoss is only here for her mount and dismount, beautiful work. Erika Zuchold is the one who snatched Cathy Rigby's gold medal hopes, but it IS still a great routine.

In short, East Germany produced innovating and exciting routines, and should be remembered for it. Discover an East German gymnast today! There are of course a lot more than the ones listed above, Martina Jentsch, Carola Dombeck, Silvia Hindorff and Katherina Rensch are more of my favourites.


  1. I always liked Maxi Gnauck! Glad to see you give her some credit.

    On another note, have you seen this yet?

    Your blog is mentioned!

    1. Yes, I really like her but I preferred Eberle! When those toe-on dismounts have leg seperation it really detracts from them for me- Gnauck and Silivas were big offenders.

      Haha yes, I was scrolling down it and my jaw dropped :D

  2. You fail to realize or mention how the East German federation controlled the judging in the 1988 Olympics. Many of the judges were bought or threatened ( particularly in the bars and vault team finals) where the GDR girls were given inflated scores, and the US gymnasts were underscored. This also happened to the Bulgarians as well, but they were also a victim of going up in the earlier rounds. I was a judge in the 1980s and the US federation had absolutely no clout internationally and Bela Karolyi, was well, disliked by all of the Eastern Bloc federations and the East Germans and Russians exploited this as well. The culmination of this was using a coaching assistance deduction against the US to penalize them and keep them out of the medals. Lastly, the fact that Dagmar Kersten was given steroids should be grounds enough for her 1988 silver medal to be stripped and the team bronze awarded to its rightful owner, the US.