The "Final Five" — the members of the already-iconic 2016 American women's gymnastics team — surprised no one with their dominant, gold-winning performance in the team competition at the Olympics earlier this week.
But watching Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and Madison Kocian tumble circles around their competition in Rio, it’s difficult to remember how recently it was that American gymnastics was very definitively not the best in the world.
Gymnastics is not a sport of chance, or circumstance. It's one of investment — by individuals, their families, and their nations. One of the nations that made the best investment 40 years ago was undoubtedly Romania. Yet stunningly, 2016 marks the first Olympics since 1976—the year Nadia Comaneci earned the first perfect 10—that the Romanian team has not graced the medal podium. In fact, the team failed to even qualify to compete.
Simone Biles' victory in the all-around championship on Thursday gave the U.S. the longest streak of individual gold medal winners in the sport since competition began in 1952. Twenty years after the "Magnificent Seven" took America’s first team gold in Atlanta, the U.S. has become the preeminent women's artistic gymnastics superpower, overshadowing the Eastern European countries that ruled the sport for generations. But they didn’t come to that power in a stereotypically individualistic, American way.
The gymnastics I and my peers grew up practicing and admiring was one shaped and championed by the Romanians and other Eastern Europeans — graceful, slim-hipped, and white as could be. The suburban Los Angeles gym where I trained nearly 30 hours a week embraced each team member as an individual, playing to our strengths and our tastes, even when that meant editing Smashing Pumpkins into floor routine music though something sweeter would likely earn a higher score. We trained and competed as a team in theory, but were truly individualistic in our athletics.
This was the ‘90s, when American gymnastics was still a freak sideshow to mainstream youth sports like soccer and baseball. Our peers outside the gym joked about eating disorders and abusive coaches, the kind of stories we heard from the communist countries that drove gymnastics for generations.
Of the top 28 medal winners between the Olympics in 2012 and 1952—the first year all the events of women's gymnastics were included in the modern program—only three are American. The other 25 competed for the Soviet Union, Russia, East Germany, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
Romania’s success in the sport—and the way it turned it into a national priority—has been particularly legendary. Its centralized training systems and boarding schools produced many of the sport’s greatest stars, most notably Comaneci. Shortly after her ‘76 Olympics win, Romanian head coach Bela Karolyi set about building a national gymnastics training center in Deva, which he dreamed would become an international beacon for the sport. That dream didn't last long: in 1981, Karolyi and his wife Martha defected and sought political asylum in the U.S. Bela built a new gym and coached Mary Lou Retton to gold in the 1984 Games, where she narrowly edged out his former Romanian student.
The Olympics have always served as a political weapon, a chance at proving national dominance without bloodshed — or at least very little of it. While Karolyi was initially shunned by other U.S. coaches at the '84 Games, by 1988 he was made head coach of the team, and was granted special early citizenship by way of a special congressional bill. Karolyi was later made U.S. gymnastics national team coordinator in 1999.
American gymnastics had long relied on unique talents to bubble up in gyms across the country and be discovered in competition. Compared to more consistently crafted team styles in the Romanians, Russians and others, the Americans tumbled and danced differently from one another. Bela’s approach was not universally embraced by athletes who’d trained their whole lives with their own individual coaches, in their own individual ways. Some gymnasts complained that he overshadowed their own trainers at the Olympics, and was harsh and even abusive. Under pressure for a change, Martha Karolyi took over the position in 2001.
Since then, U.S. gymnastics has become an international powerhouse using many of the same means the Karolyis coached behind the Iron Curtain — though somewhat adapted for American individualist sensibilities. “We permanently have the next generation ready and that’s the key, I think, of the U.S. success,” Martha Karolyi told USA Today. “We have a system. We’re not just randomly maybe catching a talented girl.” Martha “semi-centralized” national strategy—focused on developing a deep bench of world-class competitive players—has been so successful that this Olympics marks the first under her direction to feature repeat talents from past games. The Karolyis' ranch may not be a national gymnastics boarding school, but team members still visit at least once a month. “It works for this country,” Martha told the press in July.
Gymnastics is both a team and an individual sport, but the Americans have essentially embraced the kind of training program they once criticized in their competitors. Martha Karolyi has faced criticism for sacrificing the potential of some athletes, such as Laurie Hernandez, in order to put together what she felt was the strongest total U.S. lineup. No matter.
"We always say that the most important thing is the team first," Aly Raisman, who won the 2016 all-around silver medal, has said. "The priority is the team gold medal, and then we focus on the individual ones."
Downplaying and even sacrificing individual success in favor of the team? That sounds practically communist.
As in the Olympics, as in war. The Games are as much a contest of national pride and resource as they are of individual skill. This is, in fact, the Olympics tradition and mission: athletes are less representatives of themselves as they are of their nations.
New American dominance in gymnastics feels like a Cold War era social victory, but we only did it by adopting their methods. Under Romanian guidance, American nationalism has proved stronger than American narcissism — so strong that U.S. gymnastics is allegedly covering up allegations of abuse, just as the Romanians have been criticized for doing in the past.
Meanwhile, the sport that’s brought Romania its largest share of Olympic medals is bereft of both money and talent, and after decades of centralized investment, national pride has taken a back seat to “a very ugly game of power and egos,” according to International Gymnastics Magazine publisher Paul Ziert.
Romanian communism was overthrown in 1989, and its gymnastics took a similar tumble. The country lost sight of its system, and dwindling resources meant relying on a few star athletes to round out the team, with little in the way of nurturing people at the lower ranks. While U.S. gymnastics has risen precipitously, the national training center Bela Karolyi built at Deva is quite literally falling — one report says that bricks are hitting resident gymnasts as the facilities crumble.
“I think the result was predictable, it had been anticipated for several years that we would end up here,” said Romanian Olympic Committee President Alin Petrache when the team failed to qualify for the Olympics in Rio. “Now, we must rebuild a system that can continue to produce.”
Not everyone believes that Romania will grace the medal podium again, however. “I’m not sure we will ever again see Romania one of the top four nations,” former judge Rick McCharles told the Guardian. “The country is poor, its population is shrinking, and they don’t have nearly as many elite training facilities as their competitors do.”
For Romania, a return to an old system could put the nation’s gymnasts back into contention. But in the U.S., despite all their new success, gymnastics is still treated as something of a freak sideshow, a rare and odd sport that is not infrequently likened to child abuse even in the best of conditions. It’s been surreal to watch the rapid rise of the American gymnasts from the supposed end of the Cold War to this current and diverse team, which truly looks like the face of the nation’s youth. But rooting out individual abuse in the sport will be key to continued investment in its overall success.
For the U.S., the true test in international competition will come in the years after this Final Five — so-called because of Martha Karolyi’s stated intention to retire, ending the Romanian-led era that made American gymnastics the new world power. But the system first developed behind the Iron Curtain and adapted to American sensibilities is likely here to stay, especially after it’s produced such glorious results. Poised to take over next is the current head of junior programming under Martha Karolyi, former Soviet champion Valeri Liukin.
After all, it works for this country.
Correction: this post originally spelled Martha Karolyi's first name as Marta.
Susie Cagle has reported and drawn for the Guardian, Forbes, Pacific Standard, and others. She lives in Oakland, California.