1973 Friendship Cup MAG WAG

1973: Comăneci Wins the All-Around at the Friendship Cup

In 1973, at the Friendship Cup, Europe started to acknowledge Comăneci’s greatness. Larisa Latynina, the head coach of the Soviet team, called her the “Romanian Korbut,” and the East German newspaper asked, “Did Gera see the Olympic gymnastics champion of Montreal?”

At this competition, Comăneci competed a Tsukahara on vault, resulting in cheers from the crowd and a gold medal on the apparatus. It was not the first Tsukahara done by a woman on vault. (Beate Gehrke had competed one at the Riga International in 1972.) But it was still extremely rare. (Both Tourischeva and Grigoraş would perform a Tsukahara a few months later at the 1973 European Championships.)

What follows are East German and Romanian accounts of the competition.

1972 1973 MAG Romania USSR WAG

1972/3: Comăneci Wins the All-Around in Dual Meets with the USSR

In 1972 and 1973, the Romania juniors competed against the Soviet juniors in dual meets. In both years, Comăneci won the all-around.

In other words, long before the Montreal Olympics, the Soviets knew they would be up against stiff competition. In fact, Larisa Latynina, the head coach of the Soviet team, would refer to Comăneci as the “Romanian Korbut” after the 1973 Friendship Cup.

Here are the Romanian news reports on the dual meets. Plus, there’s an early profile of Comăneci included at the end.

Reminder: In 1972, the Soviet newspapers didn’t know how to spell Comăneci’s surname.

Sportul, April 22, 1973
1973 MAG Romanian International WAG

1973: Comăneci Wins Everything at the Romanian International

Over the years, many of the world’s top gymnasts competed at the Romanian International. Among them are Sofia Muratova, Eva Bosáková, Erika Zuchold (née Barth), Lyubov Burda, Kathy Johnson, Ecaterina Szabo, and Daniela Silivaș, to name a few.

When Comăneci won every gold medal at the competition in 1973, most countries had not sent their top gymnasts. However, Comăneci’s victories were important within Romania — partly because she was only 11 years old* and partly because she defeated Romania’s top senior gymnasts at the time (Ceampelea and Goreac).

*Note: Romanian newspapers reported that she was 12, but she didn’t turn 12 until November of 1973. This competition happened in April of 1973.

In the words of Sportul, the sports newspaper in Romania, Comăneci “excited not only the spectators in the Floreasca Hall, but also the foreign specialists present at this contest, who also applauded her very warmly.”

Here are the results of the competition, as well as the Romanian news coverage and a short encomium of Comăneci.

Sportul, April 16, 1973
1973 Age Friendship Cup MAG WAG

1972: Comăneci Wins Bars and Beam at the Friendship Cup

Typically, when Americans tell the story of Nadia Comăneci, they start with the 1975 European Championships or the 1976 American Cup. But the truth is that Comăneci made a name for herself in Europe much earlier. One of her first triumphs was at the 1972 Olympic Hopes/Druzhba (Friendship) competition.

If you’ve read Comăneci’s book, Letters to a Young Gymnast, you might recall a brief mention of the competition:

On the heels of failure came my first success, at the 1972 Friendship Cup. Our team’s gymnasts were only ten years old. All gymnasts from the other countries were in their late teens and early twenties. Bela and Marta hadn’t even known how much younger we were before we arrived at the competition because they’d never seen the Soviet gymnasts, let alone the Czechs or Germans, compete. We walked into the arena, tiny little girls with pigtails, facing the likes of Lyudmila Turischeva, a long-legged and unbelievably graceful gymnast from Russia.


I won the all-around gold at the Friendship Cup. The team won the silver. We had done the unthinkable, beating the best international gymnasts in the world.

Letters to a Young Gymnast

To be sure, Tourischeva did not compete at this meet, female competitors had to be 16 or younger (not in their early 20s), and Comăneci did not win the all-around at the 1972 competition (she did in 1973). That said, her first major success indeed came at the age of 10 in Sofia in 1972, and it paved the way for future international successes — long before the Montreal Olympics.

So, let’s take a look at what was written about the competition in 1972. It was a different time — a time when the Romanian newspapers didn’t know how to properly spell Comăneci’s surname. Nevertheless, the Hungarians could see that Romania was a rising power in gymnastics:

[W]e must keep an eye on the sporting careers of Romanian gymnasts over the age of 10 in the coming years if we want to keep pace with the development of women’s gymnastics.

Sportélet, Sept. 1, 1972
The beam podium at the 1972 Friendship Cup. On the top step are Nadia Comăneci and Krisztina Medveczky. The Hungarian article below mentions the big bows in the Romanian gymnasts’ hair. Image source: Sportélet, Sept. 1, 1972

Note: Noting the factual errors in Comăneci’s book is not a dig at her. If you asked me about details from when I was 10, I would probably get some of the facts wrong, as well.

Note #2: The title of this post spotlights Comăneci because it’s part of a series of posts on her early career.

1973 China MAG WAG

1973: Yu Liefeng, Xu Guoning, and Cheng Chunxia Win Chinese Nationals

In May of 1973, many of China’s top gymnasts traveled to the United States for a tour and a competition at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Meanwhile, back in China, the country held its national championships. On the men’s side, Yu Liefeng won the all-around, and Xu Guoning and Cheng Chunxia tied for first place on the women’s side.

Below, you can find an article on the competition.


Yu Liefeng (right) took a photo with coach Song Ziyu after winning third place on pommel horse at the 1962 World Championships

1972 China MAG WAG

1972: Yang Mingming and Jiang Shaoyi Win Chinese Nationals

The 1972 Chinese Nationals were the first major domestic competition after the Cultural Revolution. Launched in 1966 by Mao Zedong, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution — in very broad terms — set out to preserve Chinese communism by purging remnants of capitalism.

From a sports perspective, the revolution majorly impacted China’s national and international involvement. For starters, most of the national teams were disbanded. Gymnastics was an exception:

Apart from table tennis, gymnastics, and athletics teams, most national teams were disbanded.

Fong and Zhouxiang, “Sport in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976)”

What follows is a translation of an article about the national championships in 1972. Unfortunately, the scores were not listed, but we can see which gymnasts would form the core of Chinese gymnastics as they started to compete in more international competitions in the early 1970s.

Reminder: The Chinese gymnastics team traveled to Yugoslavia and Romania before it held its first official national championships in 1972. 

Among the juniors, you might notice a familiar name: Li Yuejiu, who tied for gold on floor exercise at the 1981 World Championships and who currently coaches in the United States.

Jiang Shaoyi, China
Jiang Shaoyi
1972 China MAG Romania WAG

1972: China Travels to Romania for a Dual Meet

In June of 1971, Nicolae Ceauşescu, the general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, paid a visit to China and North Korea. 

One year later, Chinese gymnasts went to Romania for a competition.

Note: We’ll see a similar timeline between the U.S. and China with Nixon going to China in 1972 and Chinese gymnasts traveling to the United States in 1973.

While the Chinese men’s team defeated the Romanian team, the Chinese women were not as successful. After the competition, the teams held joint training sessions, during which the Chinese gymnasts learned the compulsory routines. Apparently, Cai Huanzong’s routines looked even better than the figures used to depict the compulsory routines.

Note: After Ceauşescu’s visit to China, he published the “July Theses,” which ended a period of ideological diversity and cultural liberalization in Romania. A list of banned books, for example, was reinstated. Academics debate the extent to which Chinese political thought influenced Ceauşescu.

Note #2: China withdrew from the FIG in 1964, so this meet was important because it showed that China was dipping its toes back into the waters of international competition after a long absence.

Source: Sportul, July 19, 1972

1972: Bichukina First, Kim Second at the Soviet National Youth Championships

Months after Olga Korbut captivated the world’s attention in Munich, there was a national youth championship in Zaporizhzhia, and a familiar name — Nellie Kim — took second behind Raisa Bichukina, a much less familiar name to today’s gymnastics fans. (Kim was leading after the preliminary competitions.)

The path from junior elite to senior elite is never easy. Of the top juniors in 1972, only Kim and Grozdova would make the 1976 Olympic team. On the men’s side, several of the top juniors in 1972 would go on to have successful senior careers, including Marchenko, Markelov, and Dityatin.

What fascinates me about this event is the coverage. It raises hard questions: Was the nation in too much of a hurry to have young gymnasts competing on a major stage? Are they forcing gymnasts to compete too much? At the same time, the articles marvel at the gymnasts’ talent. The next generation of women’s artistic gymnasts was performing the most difficult skills in the world, including the same vault that Nikolai Andrianov competed in Munich.

Datum: 25.07.1980 Copyright: imago/Sven Simon Nelli Kim (USSR)
1972 Chunichi Cup Japan MAG WAG

1972: Andrianov and Janz Win the Chunichi Cup

At the end of 1972, many of the stars of the Olympics headed to Japan for a series of competitions, including the Chunichi Cup. Not surprisingly, most of the competitors were not as sharp as they were in Munich. This was particularly true of the Soviet women who had to do a tour in West Germany right after the Olympics.

But the Chunichi Cup did give some gymnasts the opportunity to shine. For example, Nina Dronova, an alternate for the Soviet team and the Chunichi Cup champion in 1970 and 1971, took silver.

The competition also gave gymnasts the opportunity to try out new skills. U.S. gymnast Joan Moore added a back tuck to her beam routine, a skill that only Korbut and her teammate Nancy Thies competed at the Olympics.

Here’s a glimpse of what happened in Nagoya, Japan.

1972 Books MAG Olympics USSR

1972: Mikhail Voronin on His Final Olympics

In Voronin’s 1976 autobiography titled Number One (Первый номер), he reflects on his final Olympic Games. By his standards, he struggled during the Soviet competitions prior to the Olympics, and while in Munich, he injured his ankle. Arthur Gander refused to let him pull out of the all-around final, so he competed after receiving an injection that made him black out. (Note: Korbut also got an injection before the all-around final that caused her legs to go numb.) 

In the end, the Soviet men’s team won two golds, three silvers, and one bronze. They had made progress in the two years between the Ljubljana World Championships and the Munich Olympics. But in the end, Voronin recognized that they were unable to put together a team that could match Japan’s team.

Here’s what else he said about Munich… 

Datum: 07.05.1972 Athlete: Mikhail Voronin, Copyright: imago/Sven Simon, Note: This photo is not from the Olympics.

Note: Chapters of Voronin’s book were translated into Estonian for the newspaper Spordileht, and I have translated the text from Estonian into English. The following excerpts come from the February 8, 1978, February 10, 1978, and February 13, 1978 issues of Spordileht.