The best female gymnast of all time question is debated on message boards here and there, but Amy Van Deusen, an International Gymnast Magazine correspondent who recently launched About.com’s gymnastics website, is the first I’ve seen to examine men’s gymnastics in the same way.
In the women’s category, the answer flits between Nadia Comaneci (first perfect 10 in Olympic competition) and Lilia Podkopayeva (one of the most “total package” gymnasts of all time, who was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame last week) Lavinia Milosovici, a highly consistent and successful Romanian from 1992 to 1996 and Russian Svetlana Khorkina, who is known for her longevity, daring, unique skills and high temper, might also deserve honorable mentions.
On about.com, Van Deusen throws out some likely candidates: Valeri Liukin (first ever triple back on floor), Nikolai Andrianov (lifted the Soviet men’s team from obscurity to world dominance during the 1970s) and Mitsuo Tsukahara, the Japanese innovator who introduced the Tsukahara vault and won five Olympic gold medals.
Van Deusen’s vote goes to Belarus’ Vitaly Sherbo, who won a whopping six gold medals at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Hard to argue with that. As a gymnast, Sherbo had it all — great form, great power and an innovativeness that was expressed on all events, particularly vault and still rings. He also had an “it” factor that was almost uncomparable.
And unlike some of the sport’s greats, he didn’t retire immediately after achieving the pinnacle of Olympic success. He returned to training months before the 1996 Olympics after quitting to be with his wife Irina, who lapsed into a coma after a devastating car accident.
His comeback story includes four bronze medals in Atlanta, which seemed reflective of his limited preparation time but not lack of skill.
Vitaly Sherbo, 1994 World Championships, Vault: