Rhythmic gymnastics first made its Olympic debut at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, where Canadian Lori Fung took home the gold medal. But since then, eastern European countries have dominated the sport, with Russian women winning gold in every all-around individual competition and team competition in the last four Games. Yevgeniya Kanayeva is the reigning Olympic champion, having won gold at the 2008 and ’12 Games, while Alina Kabaeva won in ’04 and Yulia Barsukova in ’00.
Kanayeva, the reigning Olympic champion, retired from the sport, and the country will rely on two teenagers, Margarita Mamun and Yana Kudryavtseva, to continue the legacy. Russian gymnasts took home eight of nine gold medals at the 2015 world championships, and Kudryavtseva won four of five individual apparatus golds. The Russian rhythmic gymnastics team has been approved to compete in Rio after the reports of widespread doping, so they’re heavy favorites to win several medals in Rio.
The other two medal winners from the 2012 Olympics—Russia’s Daria Dmitrieva, and Belarus’s Lyubov Cherkashina—also retired after London, which means there will be new names atop the Olympic podium this summer.
Team USA will be making history this summer, as they send only its second rhythmic gymnastics team to Rio. The last U.S rhythmic gymnastic team competes in the 1996 games in Atlanta, which happened due to the requirement of a spot going to a host nation. Alisa Kano, Natalie McGiffert, Monica Rokhamn, Kiana Eide and Kristen Shaldybin are the members of the group who will compete in the team competition. The oldest member of the squad is 21 years old, while the youngest is 17.
Rhythmic gymnastics is one of two female-only Olympic sports, along with synchronized swimming. And despite not being one of the most popular Summer Olympics sports, rhythmic gymnastics certainly has an entertainment factor. Often, the athletes adorn beautiful and ornate leotards to go along with their difficult and precise choreography of routines. It’s hard not to appreciate.
In competition, the gymnasts perform choreography that involves various hand-held apparatuses, including rope, hoop, ball, clubs and ribbon. Only four apparatuses can be used in each edition of the Games, and at Rio, rope will not be included in this summer’s competition.
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Athletes/teams to watch
Margarita Mamun and Yana Kudryavtseva, Russia
Mamun and Kudryavtseva are the two best rhythmic gymnasts in the world—they’re currently tied atop the world rankings—and they’re training partners and good friends. Kudryavtseva became the youngest rhythmic gymnast to win three consecutive world titles at just 17 years old in 2015, and Mamun recently won the rhythmic gymnastics world cup title. The two will go head to head for Olympic gold in Rio.
Laura Zeng, USA
Sixteen-year-old Laura Zeng earned her spot to represent the U.S. in Rio after winning the rhythmic gymnastics national title in June. The high school student from Libertyville, Ill., also swept at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, taking home five golds. Zeng made history earlier in the season when she became the first U.S woman to win two World Cup medals at a competition. Like any true millennial, the first-time Olympian is very active on Instagram.
The Israeli team won three medals at the European Championships in June, including bronze in the all-around final. They will be an interesting squad to watch in Rio coming off such a dynamic and successful showing.