Was Mary Lou Retton Really That Good?

In 1984, the U.S. women's gymnastics team swept the Olympics and forever changed the way Americans regard the sport. If only the Soviets' boycott hadn't cast eternal doubt over their victory.

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Midway through the senior women’s competition at the 2014 National Gymnastics Championships, the gymnasts were cleared from the floor, the lights at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh were dimmed, and 14 former gymnasts were paraded out and lined up in front of the audience. Unlike the teenage gymnasts who had just tumbled on the sprung blue floor mat, these gymnasts were decades older. Back in 1984, these men and women had comprised the Olympic gymnastics teams that had won the first team and all-around championships for the United States at the Olympic Games.

August marked the 30th anniversary of these feats, which many credit with spurring interest and participation in the sport in the U.S. Kathy Johnson-Clark, a 1984 Olympian and bronze medalist on beam, noted that after the Games, little girls flocked to gyms all over the country. “Gyms, as businesses, began to thrive,” she told me. And unlike their rivals in the East, gyms in this country are not supported by the government. They needed to succeed in the marketplace as well as on the competition floor.

So as the 1984 teams waved to the audience in the arena, they were standing in the temple they had helped build. The meet had major corporate sponsors in P&G and CoverGirl. There were over 12,000 fans in the stands, a big crowd for gymnastics during a non-Olympic year. Most of the audience members were not alive in 1984, much less remember their performance—but all were in Pittsburgh, in part, because of these middle-aged retired gymnasts.  

The gymnasts’ credit for the post-Olympic boom has not been shared equally, at least not in the eyes of the public. If you want to know whose influence (or at least fan base) has waned and whose remains strong, you need only listen to the cheers as each of the 1984 Olympians was introduced. The loudest screams, by far, were for Mary Lou Retton.

In 1984, Retton had been the darling of the Games. She was 16, sprightly and powerful with an exuberant smile. She jumped up and down with each hit routine and stuck landing, inviting the crowd to participate and celebrate with her. She sported a trademark pixie cut and was the first female athlete to grace a Wheaties box. She was as wholesome and American as the apple pie she couldn’t eat as a competitive gymnast.

And unlike her Romanian rivals and even her own teammates, she didn’t hew to the elegant, artistic paradigm established by the Soviets. Ballet is an important part of Russia’s cultural tradition and the Soviets’ dominance, especially in the early years of the modern era, meant that the sport took on an elegant bearing. They produced tricksters, to be sure—Olga Korbut, the star of the 1972 Games, was the original trickster—but couched the daredevilry in ballet fundamentals. The Soviets expected their gymnasts to be athletic without seeming to be so.

The rest of the world largely followed suit since the USSR exerted such influence over the rules and the judging blocs at the time. Even the Americans produced gymnasts that could dance their way across a floor exercise mat with the best of them. Johnson-Clark, in particular, was noteworthy for her elegance and expression during her career.

But Retton didn’t even seem to try to conform to the Soviet standards. “She is 57 inches tall and most of her 94 pounds appear to be leg and thigh muscle,” John Powers wrote of her in his 1986 biography, Mary Lou Retton: Creating an Olympic Champion. “Her silhouette hardly conforms to the traditional model of a female gymnast, which is ponytailed and spindly thin. Mary Lou is constructed like a cast-iron toy truck.”

“This is what the media has been talking about—this aggressive lady, so tough,” Cathy Rigby, the 1970 world championships silver medalist on the balance beam, noted in her commentary during the ’84 team competition.

This power and athleticism felt particularly brash and American. It spoke of a rupture with tradition. A New World, a brand-new gymnast. And with the Cold War in full swing, it seemed only fitting that the top U.S. athlete would perform a style of gymnastics that seemed to fly in the face of everything the Soviets held dear.

Retton not only exemplified an American approach to the sport—she also embodied the Horatio Alger–type story of bootstrapping, hard work, and triumph. A talented young girl with too much energy from a small coal-mining town in West Virginia leaves home to train with a world-famous Romanian coach. Add some hard work, grit, and just a dash of obstacles—an inopportune knee injury that was quickly overcome—and then voilà! A gold medal. It was almost perfectly linear.

This was not the case with the rest of the team. Three of the team members were holdouts from 1980 and the Olympic Games that had been boycotted by the United States to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They were older and more mature looking. And they had experienced the sort of disappointment that most athletes aren’t prepared for. Most gymnasts accept injury as part of the game. They can handle not making a team or a lineup if their performances didn’t merit such placement. But a boycott? That was not in the gymnast handbook.

“I think going into ’80, we thought there was no way they could boycott and sure enough they did,” Tracee Talavera, a 1980 and 1984 Olympian said. For Talavera the decision to keep going wasn’t too hard to make. She was quite young in 1980 and felt that she could go another round. And just a year later, she won a medal on the balance beam at the world championships: 

It was the same story for Julianne McNamara, the 1984 Olympic co-champion on the uneven bars. “I was only 14 at the time. I didn’t realize the impact of it all until later. For me, it was like—I didn’t get to compete and I want to stick around,” she said.

Johnson-Clark, however, was not young. 1980 wasn’t even her first attempt at the Olympics. “I had just missed making the ’76 team and I was the oldest in ’80,” she said. She was just shy of 25 when she performed in Los Angeles in what would be her final competition.

When asked if she would have continued competing until 1984 if the U.S. had sent a delegation to Moscow, she was unsure. “If things had gone particularly well in the ’80 Olympics, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I would’ve liked to think that I would’ve continued another four years. I wanted a career, I wanted a body of work, of many meets, of many experiences.”

Because of the near miss in 1976 and the boycott in 1980, Johnson-Clark ended up with a career—of many competitions and international medals, of ups and downs. By contrast, Retton didn’t go after that kind of longevity. She officially retired in 1986 (she stopped competing in ’85), having never competed at world championships. (She missed the 1983 world championships due to a wrist injury.) Her biggest wins took place on home turf—from the Olympics to three American Cup titles and they all occurred within a short span of time, from 1983–85.

But Retton’s short time at the top of the heap is not the only problem that ardent gymnastics fans have with her win—it’s the fact that she won the gold medal at an Olympics that weren’t fully attended. In retaliation for the 1980 boycott, the USSR and its satellites boycotted the 1984 Olympics. Their absence meant that the most powerful force in women’s gymnastics would not be there to compete for the team title, which they had won at every Olympics since 1952. For some, that means that the standings from 1984 will be eternally in flux, constantly shuffling the Americans and Romanians around to make room for the Soviets at the top.

No such pall has been cast over the results from 1980. Though some feel that Nadia Comaneci fell victim to Soviet scoring shenanigans, few believe that the results would’ve been drastically altered had the U.S. and other Western countries competed in the gymnastics competition. The powers in women’s gymnastics at the time resided strictly in the Eastern Bloc. And though some American women, such as Marcia Frederick (who won the world title on the uneven bars in 1978) and Johnson, had experienced some success at the international elite level, no one thought that they had the potential to disrupt the rankings in the team and all-around competitions. 

But what evidence do the revisionists have that things could’ve been different? There was a competition: the Alternate Games or “Friendship Games,” held in 1984 in the city of Olomouc in what was then Czechoslovakia. All of the boycotting nations sent their gymnasts. A young Soviet named Olga Mostepanova dominated the competition, winning the all-around with four perfect 10s and picking up golds on all of the apparatuses except for bars.

I first heard about Olomouc during the early aughts when I frequented gymnastics message boards. Other posters who claimed to have seen footage from the competition described it in near-rapturous terms. They seemed confident that Mostepanova would’ve easily trounced Retton.

It was hard to know what to make of this hyperbolic assessment without seeing these performances—and for years, I couldn’t find any videos from this competition. I started to regard the whole thing as something of a gymnastics urban legend.

But along came YouTube. Uber-fans digitized their entire VHS collections and uploaded them to the internet and I was finally able to watch Mostepanova and the rest of the Soviets at that competition. For the most part, the routines did not disappoint. Though the videos are black and white, grainy, and sometimes devoid of sound, you can still make out Mostepanova’s superior technique on the apparatus. Her toe point would thrill any ballet aficionado. As she stood on her hands on the beam, the split of her legs reached all the way to 180 degrees making her limbs appear longer. Retton, by contrast, never achieved full splits in that position or in her leaps. Nor did she demonstrate the same sort of extension in her legs or expression in her upper body that would’ve made her seem taller. Though I’m not well-versed in the rules from 1984, Mostepanova seemed to compete with superior technical difficulty on almost every event, save floor exercise where the raw power and complexity of Retton’s tumbling could not be matched by anyone at that time.

Olga Mostepanova, 1984 balance beam

Still, does that mean Mostepanova would’ve defeated Retton in head-to-head competition? Or that the U.S. team’s silver would’ve been downgraded to a bronze? That’s a bit harder to determine. The scores from Olomouc and Los Angeles can’t be compared to one another because scores don’t have intrinsic value on their own. Rather, they’re a tool to properly rank the competitors, so it’s nearly impossible to look at scores and results from two different competitions and posit what the outcome might’ve been had they competed against one another. There are too many “what ifs” to consider. What if the strongly partisan crowd in Los Angeles had rattled the Soviets? What if the Americans raised their collective gymnastics game to compete against the USSR? What if the Romanians had done the same? (After all, just three years later a surging Romanian squad would defeat the Soviets in a shocker at the 1987 World Championships.)

But the Soviets weren’t in Los Angeles. In the world of sports, a forfeit (or a boycott) is the same thing as a loss. The Americans showed up and claimed their share of the medals. And for the first time, it was a haul as opposed to one or two. That success spurred an interest in gymnastics, which led to more gyms and more gymnasts. “Then you have this gigantic pool of talent that’s come your way and you build from that,” Johnson-Clark noted.

And it’s from that gigantic pool of talent that the U.S. is fishing out its top gymnasts. We have more elites than any other country and have won nearly every all-around title—from 2004 onward—in world and Olympic competition.

But it’s not simply a numbers game. Mary Lou’s ’84 victory might’ve represented a small, symbolic victory for the U.S. in the Cold War, but the real world political triumph of the U.S. over the USSR has meant total victory for American women gymnastics. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, we’ve absorbed a lot of their top coaching talent. These transplanted coaches have been guiding many of our best gymnasts to the Olympics and success. In fact, Carly Patterson, the first gymnast to win an all-around gold at the Olympics since Retton, was coached by Evgeny Marchenko, a former Soviet champion in sports acrobatics.

So will we ever have another Mary Lou Retton, a gymnast so famous that she can appear in a Super Bowl commercial 30 years after her win? Probably not. You can’t have another first. The world in which she won—a world in which the U.S. was a scrappy underdog in gymnastics—doesn’t exist anymore. The American women are the top dogs. And it’s been their former rivals who helped them climb to the top. The U.S. women have beaten everyone by getting them to join them.



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