How the women’s balance beam at the Olympics went from simple displays of grace to dazzling aerial movements

Vera Caslavska and Sanne Wevers both won gold at the Olympics.
Vera Caslavska and Sanne Wevers. AFP via Getty Images; Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images
  • Gymnastics has come a long way in the past 70 years.
  • Early gold medal winners on the balance beam look entirely different from the modern sport.
  • Even with more complex moves, it still comes down to how much grace can be contained in four inches.
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The balance beam offers no room for error.

With just four inches of width to work with, every misstep is magnified, and even the greatest athletes in the world can fall to a disappointing finish.

Individual gold was first awarded in the women’s balance beam at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, with Nina Bocharova of the Soviet Union taking the top of the podium.

Since then, the event has evolved in several ways, with dazzling dismounts and more complex aerial moves deployed in pursuit of gold.

In the early days of the women’s balance beam, poses and simple movements were emphasized

At the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Hungary’s Agnes Keleti won gold.

Simple movements, half rotations, and dips make of much of the routine.

Eight years later, Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia won gold. Caslavska’s routine shows quite a bit of growth from Keleti’s, including a few inverted elements that are foundational to the event in its modern form.

Caslavska is quite grounded compared to the gold medalists of the modern era. Still, in an event that emphasizes grace above all else, it’s not difficult to see why she impressed the judges at the Tokyo Games in 1964.

In the 80s and 90s, aerial tricks began to work their way onto the beam

As the years went on, Gymnasts found new ways to move across the beam.

At the 1980 games in Moscow, Nadia Comaneci of Romania won her second gold medal. Comaneci nailed a backflip and two impressive front flips with her head impossibly close to the beam. Two back handsprings near the end of her routine are capped off by a stunning dismount.

In 1996, Shannon Miller became the first American woman to win gold at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Miller’s routine is a good example of how the event evolved, taking bits from the past and combining them with innovative tumbling techniques and a dismount that wouldn’t look out much out of place today.

As athletes continued to push and innovate, those four inches of space on the beam began to look wider and wider.

Today’s competitors are capable of movements previous generations could only image

Many skills displayed on the balance beam of today would have wowed judges of a floor routine years ago.

In 2008, Shawn Johnson won gold for Team USA with a routine that featured a flurry of an opening, with two back handsprings and a flip made effortless in one motion.

At the 2016 games, Sanne Wevers won gold for the Netherlands with an electric performance that fused and pushed forward many of the skills of previous years, displaying a double-turn that is named after her and unbelievable agility in the air.

Wevers shows how the limitations of the balance beam are what make it such a special event.

Like a sonnet, the restrictions of the four inches on the balance beam make the skills executed on it that much more beautiful.

In the 70 years since the first gold medal was awarded, the sport has come a long way.