Women’s artistic gymnastics is comprised of four disciplines, the uneven bars, the floor, balance beam and vault. Except for vault, which is over in the blink of an eye, each routine is limited to 90 seconds. During this time, a gymnast will endanger her life as she contorts her body into a hypnotic sequence of shapes. But, behind the 90 short seconds is years of endurance and training. It’s years of blisters and hunger.


Throughout the 1970s, gymnastics gave Eastern Bloc states a platform to excel on the world’s stage. The way a gymnast could control her body, beyond regular human capability, was a mirror for the control implemented by Communist leaders. The stoicism and restraint required by the gymnasts reflected the same political principles emanating from Russia’s Red Square. Red Blisters is the story of Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci and Elena Mukhina. This trio of top Eastern Bloc gymnasts carried on their young shoulders the full weight of national expectation. Yet behind the glory, were tales of extreme endurance and fragility. Their enormous personal sacrifices reflect the hidden brutality which underpinned not just Soviet gymnastics, but the political reality of life under Communism.

Book cover

Introduction and contents.

Chapter 1, setting the scene and geopolitical context of the era.

Introducing Olga Korbut, star of the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Korbut's iconic move, since banned, that made history.

The darker side of Korbut’s life, behind the headlines.

The 1972 Olympics were marred by tragedy, sparked by political tensions.

Korbut’s vulnerability exposed the human side of Soviet stoicism

In 1973, Korbut played a key role on the political world stage.

In Chapter 2, I introduce Korbut's successor, Nadia Comaneci.

Nadia’s performance at the 1976 Montreal Olymipics set new standards.

But again, behind the headlines was a different story.

Nadia's Romania was ruled by a brutal dictatorship.

Life for the gymnasts, and Romania's citizens, was extremely harsh.

As political tensions rose, so did the pressure on the gymnasts to win national glory.

Nadia was trapped as a 'national asset', but she managed to escape.

Romania's dictatorship came to a bloody end in 1989.

Finally, in Chapter 3, I explore Fragility and the story of Elena Mukhina.

Orphaned at five, the Russian gymnast was pushed like an invincible machine.

She was training to do a 'Thomas Salto' - an extremely dangerous move.

Intended to reclaim glory for Russia, it was a move too far for Mukhina.

While Russia faced a leadership crisis, Mukhina was facing life as a quadriplegic.

Recognition of the huge personal sacrifice girls like Mukhina were expected to make for their country.

Red Blisters page by page

This project started as an investigation into 2D shapes. I was interested in how shapes can represent data, and how when data is manipulated, the relationship between shapes changes to create unique patterns. My personal interest in Eastern Bloc gymnasts from the 1970s lead me to consider the shapes made in gymnastic sequences and explore whether it was possible to translate specific routines into a geometric language which could be formatted into prints. I began to experiment by taking key frames from footage of seminal gymnastic routines by the Eastern Bloc gymnasts. 

I started with Nadia Comaneci’s balance beam routine from the 1976 Olympic Games. I made a short animation and planned to study the shapes from each keyframe. I made practice shapes using felt tip pens, lino stamps and digital experiments, in an attempt to make a code of shapes for different parts of the body which could be translated throughout four different gymnastic routines. However, it became increasingly difficult to keep focus on the shapes, when the personal stories of the gymnasts were so rich in visual and factual content. Furthermore, the impact of Covid-19 meant the opportunity to experiment with print was drastically limited.

Nadia Comaneci 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, balance beam routine as a stop motion

This project started as an investigation into 2D shapes. I was interested in how shapes can represent data, and how when data is manipulated, the relationship between shapes changes to create unique patterns. My personal interest in Eastern Bloc gymnasts from the 1970s lead me to consider the shapes made in gymnastic sequences and explore whether it was possible to translate specific routines into a geometric language which could be formatted into prints. I began to experiment by taking key frames from footage of seminal gymnastic routines by the Eastern Bloc gymnasts. I started with Nadia Comaneci’s balance beam routine from the 1976 Olympic Games. I made a short animation and planned to study the shapes from each keyframe.

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