2023 World Championships Reflection: The Big Four Are No More

2023 World Championships Reflection: The Big Four Are No More

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By Aoife Cassidy

The Big Four are no more.

With the exception of Great Britain’s Beth Tweddle, the medal table for women’s artistic gymnastics at the 2012 Olympic Games in London was dominated by four nations; the USA, Russia, China and Romania. These four nations took every medal except one in the women’s artistic gymnastics competition in London and the story was pretty much the same in Beijing four years before, and in Athens four years before that. And come to think of it, the 2007 World Championships in Stuttgart had a similar story arc, as did the 2006 Championships in Aarhus, and 2005 in Melbourne.

Can you see what I am getting at? These four nations were the absolute dominant forces on the international stage for much of the 2000’s and the decades before. However, for some time now, the winds have been changing in women’s artistic gymnastics. And watching the 2023 World Championships that wrapped up this weekend in Antwerp, Belgium made it apparent that the winds truly have changed.

Whilst the U.S. has managed to remain on top and China are still in the mix, Romania have famously struggled significantly in recent years following their historic failure to qualify a team to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. They did manage to qualify a team to the 2024 Games in Paris at these Championships, so things are looking up for the Romanians. However, they are far from the powerhouse they once were. Meanwhile, the Russians have not been competing internationally, having been banned by the FIG due of the ongoing war in Ukraine. And one would wonder whether they will come back to international competition as strong as they once were. Only time will tell, I suppose.

We can only speculate how different the medal table would look if Russia were present at these Championships. However, from watching the performances at these World Championships and last year’s Championships in Liverpool, it is apparent that even if Russia were present and with the U.S. and China still being at full strength, the big four that once was, is no longer the dominant force in the sport. In Antwerp, the medal podium had gymnasts from five different continents; North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. And the 2022 World Championships in Liverpool saw gymnasts from 8 different countries take home medals. And there are currently six-seven women’s teams that have a legitimate chance at medalling in World and Olympic team finals.

This is something that would have been unthinkable 20, 15 or even 10 years ago. Whilst many nations might have been able to produce a special talent who could go on to win an individual title or individual medal, it was difficult for many to field full teams that could contend for medals against the four big nations. Now, teams such as Great Britain, Italy, Brazil and France are genuine contenders for team and individual medals and have strength and depth in their teams with new talent continuously coming through from the grassroots level.

And the changes in women’s artistic gymnastics have extended far beyond the countries represented on the medal stand. There seems to be a changing wind surrounding the career expectations of gymnasts. In 2012, it was widely accepted that most of the US team would be finished with elite gymnastics after the Games in London. And in fact, exceeding expectations, four of the five members of the US women’s team went on to compete internationally following the Games. And flash forward to 2023, Simone Biles is competing in her sixth World Championships and is vying to go to her third Olympic Games. Meanwhile, Jade Barbosa of Brazil took home the third World Championships medal of her career, sixteen years after her first at the 2007 Championships in Stuttgart. Gymnasts are now expecting to compete past their teenage years and long into their 20’s and 30’s. Something that was once thought to be an anomaly is now becoming the norm.

All in all, change is certainly afoot in women’s artistic gymnastics, and it will be interesting to watch the sport grow and evolve over the coming years as we bid adieu to the domination of the Big Four and say bonjour to medallists from every corner of the globe in every age bracket!

U.S. women win historic 7th consecutive World title, France and Brazil make history

By Christy Sandmaier and Ashlee Buhler

The Dynasty. 

2011 Tokyo.

2014 Nanning.

2015 Glasgow.

2018 Doha.

2019 Stuttgart.

2022 Liverpool.

2023 Antwerp.

In the end passion, pressure and emotion told the story of the Women’s Team Final in Antwerp. 

Nothing sweeter than seven! With depth and determination on their side, Team USA was golden once again, winning a record seventh World team title in Antwerp at the 2023 World Championships (167.729) – breaking its tie with the Chinese men who won six in a row from 2003 to 2014. Brazil won the silver (165.530), its first-ever team medal at a World Championships and France took the bronze (164.064), which was the country’s first World team medal in 73 years. 

The evening got off to a dramatic start when first-year World team member Joscelyn Roberson went down on her Cheng in the warm up just moments before the competition was set to begin. Getting the call as her replacement on both vault and floor was 3-time World medalist Leanne Wong who was quick to jump in and get the team a respectable score (14.066) with her clean Yurchenko double twist. Post-meet Wong described the moment as “chaotic” but she knew she was prepared. 

“I definitely couldn’t do it without my teammates and these coaches who kept reminding me that I was trained for this and that I could do this,” Wong said.

Shilese Jones added a 14.100 while Simone Biles opted for a Cheng instead of the Yurchenko double pike for a rotation high score of 14.800. 

Uneven bars was solid in the second rotation, with Skye Blakely opening the rotation with a 14.166. Biles followed with a 14.466 and Jones rounded things out with a 14.633! 

If the team showed any signs of nerves it came in the third rotation on beam. The team put up Wong in the leadoff spot, who came off on her aerial when she missed her foot, and then downgraded her dismount to just a double twist. However, Jones (13.600) and Biles (14.300) came through to save the rotation with solid, difficult sets they made look easy.

The final rotation was arguably one of the most thrilling we’ve ever seen in Worlds history with the silver and bronze medals up for grabs and a shot at history on the line. Biles locked in the United States’ historic seventh consecutive gold medal with perhaps one of the best routines she has ever done in an international competition (15.166) – staying in bounds and sticking nearly every landing. It’s Biles’ sixth World team title and 20th World gold, with five more medal opportunities still ahead of her in Antwerp. 

“Each and every time you are crowned World Champion it feels a little bit different,” Biles said. “I’m still surprised I’m still going. I’m 26, I’m a little bit older. It feels just as good as the first one just because we broke records, we came together, and we had fight.”

Brazil was electric from beginning to end, starting strong on bars (which has historically been a weaker event for the team) and setting the tone for how their night would go. The only real hiccup came from Julia Soares who fell in the leadoff position on beam (12.200) but the team rallied the rest of the way through, building anticipation heading into the final rotation. Would this finally be the year they’d reach the world championships podium? Better believe it.  In the last rotation, they went lights out on vault with Flavia Saraiva bringing back her Yurchenko double twist (13.833), Jade Barbosa going a tenth higher with a 13.933, and Rebeca Andrade nearly sticking her Cheng (14.900) to make Brazil’s historic moment official. Their passion never wavered and now they’ll head to the 2024 Olympic Games as world silver medalists.

Also, earning their place in the history books, France had a spectacular day – the only team to hit all 12 routines. 

Just days after locking in a team berth to their home Olympics next year, Mélanie De Jesus Dos Santos stepped up to the beam in the final rotation knowing a team medal was within their reach and the opportunity to clinch France’s first World team medal since 1950 when the team won a silver medal was ultimately up to her. She needed a 13.098 to seal the deal and under the highest amount of pressure and  she delivered brilliantly, capping off her routine with a stuck dismount (14.000) to solidify France’s podium finish and create a World Championship memory to last a lifetime.

Photos by Ricardo Bufolin for Inside Gymnastics

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