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Vaulting through time: Oksana Chusovitina’s enduring legacy

By Radhya Comar, March 11 2024—

 In a career spanning more than three decades, elite gymnast Oksana Chusovitina has competed under five different banners, participated in eight different Olympic games, won two medals and has had five skills named after her. Her last Olympic appearance was at the 2020 Tokyo Games when she was 44 years old. Despite announcing plans to retire after the games, Chusovitina announced her return to competitive gymnastics a little over two months after the conclusion of the festivities in Japan. As she trains to qualify for the Summer Olympics in Paris later this year, the Uzbek gymnast forms the exception and not the rule. 

Women’s gymnastics has always been populated by young females, even gaining notoriety as “the little girl’s sport.” These perceptions are not just sexist criticism aimed at the artistic nature of the sport. In actuality, it is quite the opposite. The sport is known for being one of the most physically demanding activities in the entire Olympic roster. Rather, they stem from the longstanding dominance of teenage athletes on the world stage. Take for example Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who was 14 years old when she scored the first-ever perfect ten in gymnastics in 1976. More recently, one cannot forget the scandal surrounding the Chinese squad in 2008 when online records found multiple team members to be too young to compete. That was not the first offence of its kind by an elite gymnastics team in the Olympics. 

Of course, there are no doubts as to Chusovitina’s age. In fact, she wears both her age and experience with pride. 

“On the competition floor, I never pay attention who stands where and how they behave. We go out and compete as equals, no matter whether at 16 years old or at 14. The judges score everyone equally,” said Chusovitina when asked about her feelings towards the age gap between herself and her competitors.

While the ageless champion has outlasted several of her competitors, there have also been several changes to the sport itself throughout her career. These developments ranged from technical innovations to equipment to full-fledged changes to the nature of competitive gymnastics itself. By adjusting to these changes, she proves that being a long-term athlete requires as much mental fortitude as it does physical stamina. Undoubtedly, gymnastics is not the same sport it was three decades ago. Yet, Chusovitina chooses to accept these changes rather than clinging to nostalgia. 

One of the most noteworthy changes was the change from a vaulting horse to a vaulting table. This new table is significantly smaller in length and was officially implemented in 2003. The original apparatus was replaced due to several gymnasts misplacing their hands during the 2003 Olympics and injuring themselves. Even more monumental was the International Gymnastics Federation’s decision to alter the scoring system in 2005. Instead of just being scored out of ten, a gymnast’s set would now be assessed on its difficulty and execution for a combined score. The execution score would start at ten and deductions would be made for any imperfections. Professionals heavily criticized this new system. They found that it encouraged gymnasts to undertake unnecessarily challenging maneuvers in an attempt to inflate their difficulty scores. 

Overall, Chusovitina’s prolific career represents her extraordinary athleticism in more ways than one. It showcases her strength, endurance and resilience. Moreover, her immense passion for the sport is symbolized by her commitment to embracing innovation and navigating an ever-changing competitive landscape. While many may still hold the belief that gymnastics is the sport of a young girl, Chusovitina is a woman who singlehandedly dismantles that narrative. In doing so, she helps create a more inclusive and diverse environment for all elite athletes. 

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