Ellie Downie broke down in tears after her floor exercise score was announced at today’s European championships in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. It placed her ahead of Zsofia Kovacs of Hungary by a razor-thin margin, giving her the gold in the all-around. The 17-year-old Downie’s title is the first ever all-around win for the British women at the European Championships. Kovacs also achieved a first of her own—first ever all-around medal at Europeans for a female Hungarian gymnast. Rounding out the top three was Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos of France.
Great Britain, Hungary, France. Does it seem like something is missing? Like, say, Russia and Romania?
The results at the championships are another sign of the declining fortunes of the former traditional powers in Europe, while countries like Great Britain and Italy rise to take their places at the winners’ table. Russia’s top all-arounder, Elena Eremina, finished just off the podium in fourth. (Their second gymnast placed ninth.) And host Romania’s all-around competitors, placed near the bottom of the 24-gymnast field in 18th and 23rd.
The demise of the Romanian gymnastics dynasty was much discussed in the run-up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio when, for the first time in four decades, they failed to qualify a full team to the Games. (Today’s results come almost exactly a year after Romania shockingly failed to qualify to Rio at the test event.)
Romania could still walk away from this with medals in the individual events—Catalina Ponor and Larisa Iordache both qualified for the event final on balance beam. But the fact that a single event is now the only place in which Romania can medal is quite shocking when you consider their country’s historical results at this competition: They won a lot. (A friend of mine in Cluj told me that it seems like every single living Romanian champion is in the arena watching, so, no pressure, Catalina and Larisa. No pressure at all.)
These two contenders are veterans of the team, Iordache at age 20 and Ponor 29. While it’s great to see female gymnasts compete after their teen years, the fact that Romania doesn’t have any younger gymnasts who can challenge the veterans for medals is troubling.
Russia hasn’t experienced the same degree of downturn as Romania. They placed second as a team behind the United States at last summer’s Olympics and their superstar, Aliya Mustafina, won gold on bars. (Mustafina is out of competition for the time being because she’s expecting her first child, but is expected to return to training this fall.) Still, Russia is nowhere nearly as strong as it was in 2000. Unlike Romania, however, they do at least have talented young gymnasts rising up the ranks to compete with their veterans.
From their inception in 1957, the European Championship titles were almost exclusively won by Eastern bloc countries, especially the Soviet Union and East Germany. These two countries were so thoroughly dominant that the competition, at times, looked like a dual meet instead of a continental championships. In the mid ‘70s, Romania joined them at the top. They quickly replaced the GDR as the No. 2 to the USSR’s No. 1. (East Germany remained a power but fell behind these two throughout the ‘80s.)
Even after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia and Romania continued to dominate in the European theater. But starting in the late ‘90s, other countries started to break through and win more medals, several of them gold. In 1998, Hungary’s Andrienn Varga won vault. A couple of years later France’s Ludivine Furnon won floor in Paris with her Evita routine.
In 2005, Marine Debauve of France won the all-around. In 2007, Italy’s Vanessa Ferrari took first individually a year after the Italians won the team title. Throughout the aughts, Great Britain’s uneven bars’ maestra, Beth Tweddle, won a bevy of medals on that apparatus, several of them gold.
And in 2015—the last time an individual all-around was contested at the Europeans—Switzerland’s Giulia Steingruber won with Downie taking the bronze. Two years later, Downie has upgraded her bronze to gold. Her climb to the top of the medal podium in Cluj-Napoca isn’t just an incredible individual achievement; it’s the culmination of many years of work and investment the British have put into developing their men’s and women’s gymnastics programs to become an incipient power in European gymnastics.