Here come the boys: GB’s female-dominated gymnastics era has changed

“Urgh, it’s a boy,” commented a plaited gymnast craning her neck toward the gym club door.

A ripple effect commenced as a plethora of tiny scraped-back heads swivelled towards the little fella in question.

It was the 1980s and we were training at Camberley Gymnastics Club.

Loose ‘Choose Life’ T-shirts swamped our tiny leotard-clad bodies, Lions Cream was smeared on blistered hands, and we were agog at a newly installed ‘foam pit’ in which we could land softly when trying new moves.

We were a decent side, consistently vying for title of British team champions, most often coming second to Heathrow GC and had a future Olympian in our midsts in Karen Kennedy.

Solely catering for girls, our Surrey-based club’s facilities reflected those of gyms around the country and included two vaults, four beams, two sets of A-bars, one floor area and a tumble run.

Of the six men’s events only the floor area catered for both genders so this new kid just had to make do, and only after us girls had finished our routines at that.

What on earth was a boy doing in our domain anyway?

Choose gymnastics
Gymnastics exploded in the 1970s when the world was introduced to the pixie-like Russian Olga Korbut.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics the crowd was abuzz with the bold, innovative moves the 17-year-old would perform.

Yet, the irony is, it was her reaction to a simple error on bars that would endear her to the crowd.

The Soviets were renowned for being stony faced but a mortified Olga dissolved into tears following the routine.

The individual all-around title was gone but the apparatus finals were still to come and it was here that Olga shone, with the crowd and viewers willing her on.

The commentator’s quote of ‘Isn’t she marvellous,’ entered gymnastics folklore.

But it wasn’t until the 1976 Olympics when the diminutive Romanian Nadia Comaneci stunned herself and the gymnastics world by becoming the first gymnast to score a perfect ten.

The feat was so unexpected confusion reigned when the scoreboard initially showed 1.00 as the scoreboard didn’t accommodate four digits.

Nadia transcended the sport and became a worldwide phenomena, inspiring legions of young girls to follow in her wake.

Added sideshow
Women’s gymnastics flourished under the glow of such idols, dominating TV coverage, packing out stadiums and illuminated by media attention.

But what of the men?

They were an added side show with depleted crowds and of little interest, me included.

I’d watch women’s international gymnastics competitions repeatedly, the VHS video tape thinning with use, mouthing the commentators words that would become so familiar with the repetition.

I’d watch men’s floor, vault and high bar but would fast forward through the other three apparatus – parallel bars, rings and, ugh (close your ears Louis and Max), pommels. Bo-ring.

The puffing Russian
Yet names and stories started to filter through.

In 1983, Russia’s Dmitry Bilozerchev became the youngest men’s all-around world champion in history. Two years later he broke his leg in 41 places in a car accident yet fought back to win the 1987 world championship.

The laconic Russian Vitaly Scherbo gleaned headlines after winning six of the eight gold medals available to him at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, while, if reports are to be believed, taking a cheeky puff on a cigarette between apparatus.

Vitaly Scherbo gymnastics

A 1993 newspaper article from the World Gymnastics Championships in Birmingham, UK (newspaper unknown).

I must include current US women’s gymnastics coach Valerie Liukin and father of American five-time Olympic medalist Nastia.

The former Soviet gymnast blew my mind when he competed a triple back somersault on floor, something so difficult that it is rarely even performed today, even with a super-sprung floor.

It was a feat so astounding we named our family cat after him. The other cat? Nadia, of course.

Nadia and Liukin, the family cats

Nadia and Liukin, the family cats

On the move
So back to our gym and it wasn’t long before one of the training beams was removed to make space for a set of parallel bars, squashed in alongside ‘our’ vault run.

A high bar surreptitiously arrived but was put up only after the girls had finished training on the asymmetric bars. These had to be dismantled to accommodate it.

Us girls continued to be miffed.

“There’s just no room for the boys,” we grumbled.

Holy grail
Except there was room for the boys.

Thirty-odd years later and we may just see the culmination of the foresight of those who did make room for the boys (including us initially disgruntled girls, and the original tyke who braved the first step into the unknown.)

Yeah, okay, the National Lottery funding and breakthroughs by Beth Tweddle and Louis Smith had something to do with it too.

Britain’s Max Whitlock is in with a chance of being crowned the best gymnast in the world at next week’s world championships in Montreal. (UPDATE: No he’s not, no he’s not, he’s only going for two apparatus titles, floor and pommels 😂 my bad).

The double Olympic gold medalist on floor and pommel horse is set to go toe-to-toe with Japanese legend and five-time consecutive world champion Kohei Uchimura for the individual all-around title. (UPDATE: No they’re not, Kohei is injured 😂 not my bad).

Over six apparatus they will slug it out, no doubt with Uchimura’s Japanese team-mate Kenzo Shirai and Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev hot on their heels. (UPDATE: Possibly the last two, I just don’t know anymore 🤔).

The all-around title is the holy grail of the sport (yes) and would be an exceptional achievement (yes). Tears poured down my face as I watched Max win his two Olympic gold medals in Rio last year but (UPDATE) it’s down to YouTuber extraordinaire Nile Wilson to go for the all-around title for GB this champs – that would be some feat.

Back to the beginning

Nicholas Daines stuntman

Nicholas Daines, former gymnast, current Masters diver and Hollywood stuntman

So looking back, it must have been intimidating for the bashful tyke who walked into a sporting set-up entirely geared towards girls.

It was.

I spoke to now Harry Potter and James Bond stuntman, Nicholas Daines who was that very tyke.

“It was unusual for a guy to do gymnastics then,” says the former GB double-mini trampolinist and now Hollywood stuntman, “and it was predominantly a girl’s club so I always felt like I was in the way.”

“We had a boys club eventually but at the beginning I was training on my own and I was always trying to vie for the attention of the coaches.”

“Some people thought I might be bullied at school because I was the only male gymnast but I was the school star! People envied that I could do all these tricks.”

“I do remember first going into the gym though. I really looked up to all you girls.”

Turns out there is room for us all. 😊
Updates: This article has been updated from the original, which contained a rather large factual error on my part, an inconvenient (for me) last-minute injury (Kohei’s fault) and some rather neat editing where you’d never be able to tell I frigged it up…). Right, I’m on a WiFi-less holiday here – can you tell – so best get back to it.

Author: Jo Gunston

Roving blogging superfan shares behind the scenes stories of her sports life and the best of those from like-minded souls.

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