Women's Artistic Gymnastics

The Top Women's Artistic Gymnastics

The gymnast in the foreground is performing on the balance beam, while the gymnast in the background competes on the uneven bars. These are two of the four events in women's artistic gymnastics. © 2007 iStockphoto.com/Galina Barskaya

Women’s artistic gymnastics is the most popular form of gymnastics in the United States. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), there are approximately 4.5 million artistic gymnasts in the United States, and 71% of them are female. Of those girls and women, approximately 67,000 compete in the US Junior Olympic program, while others participate in AAU, YMCA or other programs.

The History

The first women competed in artistic gymnastics in the 1928 Olympics. The sport was very different than it is today, however: there was only a team event. At the 1950 world championships, women’s artistic gymnastics debuted in its present form, with competition in team, all-around and the individual events.

The Participants

As the name conveys, women’s artistic gymnastics has all-female participants. Gymnasts often start very young, and begin to compete at the lowest levels at about age six. Currently, a gymnast becomes age-eligible for the Olympic Games on January 1st of her 16th year. (For example, a gymnast born Dec. 31, 1996 was age eligible for the 2012 Olympics). Elite gymnasts vary in age, however, and many gymnasts are now competing into their 20s and sometimes even their early 30s.

Athletic Requirements

Top artistic gymnasts must have many different attributes: strength, balance, flexibility, air sense and grace are some of the most important. They also must possess psychological qualities such as the courage to attempt difficult tricks and to compete under intense pressure, and the discipline and work ethic to practice a routine many times.

The Events

  Female artistic gymnasts compete in four events:

  • Vault: The gymnast runs down a runway, jumps onto a springboard, and is propelled over a vaulting “table” about 4 ft. off the ground.
  • Uneven Bars: The gymnast performs swings, release moves, pirouettes and a dismount using two horizontal bars set at different heights. The lower bar is usually about 5 ft. off the ground, and the high bar is about 8 ft. from the floor.
  • Balance Beam: The gymnast completes a choreographed routine with a mount, leaps, jumps, flips, turns and a dismount on a padded, wooden beam approximately 4 ft. high. The exercise may not be longer than 90 seconds.
  • Floor Exercise: The gymnast performs a choreographed routine to music of her choice. The routine usually consists of three or four tumbling passes, as well as leaps, jumps and dance moves, and cannot be longer than 90 seconds. The floor mat is 40 ft. by 40 ft. and is usually made of carpeting over padded foam and springs.


Olympic competition consists of:

  • Team: Five athletes are on a team – it was recently reduced from six to five (Here's why.) In preliminaries, four athletes compete on each event and three scores count. In finals, three athletes compete on each event and every score counts towards the team total. Only the scores from the final round are considered when deciding the team medals.
  • Individual All-Around: An athlete competes on all four events and the total score is added up. At the Olympics and worlds, the top 24 athletes qualify into finals. Only the top two gymnasts from each country are allowed to compete in the
  • Individual Events: An event champion is named on each apparatus. At worlds and the Olympics, the top eight scorers on each event from the first day of competition qualify into the event finals, with only two gymnasts per country allowed.


The Perfect 10. Artistic gymnastics used to be well-known for its top score: the 10.0. First achieved in the Olympics by gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci, the 10.0 marked a perfect routine.

A New System. In 2005, however, gymnastics officials did a complete overhaul of the Code of Points. Today, the difficulty of the routine and the execution (how well the skills are performed) are combined to create the final score:

  • The execution (“E”) score begins at a 10.0, and the judges deduct for errors in performance such as a fall off the beam or a step on the landing of a dismount.
  • The difficulty (“D”) score starts at 0.0 and increases with every difficult skill performed.

In this new system there is theoretically no limit to the score a gymnast can achieve. The top performances right now are receiving scores in the 16s.

This new scoring system is considered controversial by many who felt the perfect 10.0 was an integral part of the sport. Others in the gymnastics community have expressed concern that the difficulty score is weighed too heavily in the final score, and therefore gymnasts are attempting skills that they can’t always complete safely.

NCAA women's gymnastics, the US Junior Olympic program and other competitive arenas besides elite gymnastics have maintained the 10.0 as the top score.

Judge for Yourself

Though the scoring in women’s gymnastics is very complicated, spectators can still distinguish great routines from good ones without knowing every nuance and skill value. When watching a routine, be sure to look for:

  • Good Form and Execution: Even when performing difficult skills, a gymnast should always look in control, and when performed at its best, each skill should look effortless. Good form in gymnastics includes pointed toes, straight arms and legs, and a tightness throughout the body. Every movement should look planned.
  • Height and Distance: In flips, jumps, leaps, and other skills, the gymnast should look as if she is exploding off the apparatus. In release moves on the uneven bars, the gymnast should be flying high above the bar, not simply skimming over it. On vault, the distance a gymnast travels from the horse is a factor in her final score.
  • A Stuck Landing: On vaulting, tumbling passes, and when dismounting the balance beam and uneven bars, the gymnast should end her routine with a “stuck landing” -- she should not move her feet once they hit the ground.
  • Uniqueness of the Routine: A great gymnast will perform a routine that looks different from her competitors. It will have something special about it – risky tricks, an artistic flair, or skills that are simply unique from others performed in the competition.

The Best Female Artistic Gymnasts

Many of the top gymnasts in artistic gymnastics have gone on to become household names in the mainstream media. Some of the most well-known American gymnasts are:

  • Cathy Rigby: First American to become a world medalist (silver on beam, 1970)
  • Marcia Frederick: First American woman to become a world champion (bars, 1978)
  • Mary Lou Retton: First American Olympic all-around champion (1984)
  • Kim Zmeskal: First American to win a world all-around title (1991)
  • Shannon Miller: Two-time Olympic gold medalist (1996), back-to-back world all-around champion (1993, 1994)
  • Dominique Dawes: Three-time Olympian (1992, 1996, 2000)
  • Dominique Moceanu: The youngest senior national champion ever (age 13)
  • Kerri Strug: 1992 and 1996 Olympian (and famous for her final vault at the 1996 Olympics)
  • Carly Patterson: 2004 Olympic all-around champion
  • Nastia Liukin: 2008 Olympic all-around champion
  • Shawn Johnson: 2007 world all-around champion, 2008 Olympic all-around silver medalist
  • Gabby Douglas: 2012 Olympic all-around champion

The most accomplished foreign competitors include:

  • Larissa Latynina (the former USSR): 18-time Olympic medalist, winning nine gold medals (1956, 1960, 1964)
  • Vera Cáslavská (the former Czechoslovakia): Olympic all-around champion in 1964 and 1968
  • Ludmilla Tourischeva (the former USSR): 1972 Olympic all-around champion and seven-time world champion
  • Olga Korbut (the former USSR): four-time Olympic gold medalist (1972, 1976)
  • Nadia Comaneci (Romania): 1976 Olympic all-around champion and eight-time Olympic medalist
  • Ecaterina Szabo (Romania): four-time Olympic gold medalist (1984)
  • Daniela Silivas (Romania): Olympic medalist on every event in 1988 (gold: bars, beam, floor; silver: all-around, team; bronze: vault), seven-time world champion (1985, 1987, 1989)
  • Olga Mostepanova (the former USSR): earned a perfect 10.0 on every event at the 1984 “alternate” games (attended by countries boycotting the 1984 Olympics)
  • Svetlana Boguinskaya (the former USSR, Belarus): five-time Olympic medalist (1988, 1992) and five-time World gold medalist (1989, 1991)
  • Lilia Podkopayeva (Ukraine): 1995 world all-around champion and 1996 Olympic all-around champion
  • Svetlana Khorkina (Russia): Three-time world champion in the all-around (1997, 2001, 2003)

Current Gymnasts to Watch

The American stars of the sport right now are:

Foreign gymnasts to watch:

  • Aliya Mustafina (Russia): 2010 world all-around champion; 2012 Olympic all-around bronze medalist
  • Viktoria Komova (Russia): 2011 world all-around silver medalist; 2012 Olympic all-around silver medalist
  • He Kexin (China): 2008 Olympic champion and 2009 world champion on bars
  • Beth Tweddle (Great Britain): 2010 and 2006 world champion on bars

Current Top Teams

  • The United States: The US was the 2003, 2007, and 2011 world champion, and the 1996 and 2012 Olympic champion. The team was runner-up in the 2004 and 2008 Games.
  • Russia: Before the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Soviet team dominated women’s gymnastics, winning every Olympic team title from 1952-1992 (except in 1984, when the Soviet Union boycotted the Olympics). Now competing as independent republics, Russia has become the strongest nation from the former USSR. The Russians placed second at the 2012 Olympics, third at the 2004 Olympics and 2006 worlds, and won the 2010 world championships.
  • China: China won team gold at the 2008 Olympics and at 2006 worlds, and was fourth at the 2012 Games. It also won bronze in the 2000 Olympic Games, but was stripped of its medal after it was discovered that a gymnast on the team was underage.
  • Romania: Romania has won five world team titles (1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001), as well as the Olympic titles in both 2000 and 2004. In the past few years, however, a weakened Romanian team has only managed fourth (2006 and 2010 worlds) and third (2007 worlds, 2008 Olympics, 2012 Olympics) place finishes.