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Star Interview

The Many Sides of Larisa Latynina and Her Many Olympic Medals
Text Annet Kulyagina, photos courtesy of Larisa Latynina

For Russians, Larisa Semyonovna Latynina is a name to remember. With 18 medals (4 bronze, 5 silver, and 9 gold), the gymnast remains the most decorated Olympian in history. And even if this record is one day surpassed, she will remain an inspiration.

In the garden.
Photo Sergey Koshkin

Born in Kherson, Ukraine, in 1934, Latynina survived many trials from her earliest years, including the Nazi occupation and the loss of her father in 1943. Young Larisa had talents for singing and painting but was most captivated by ballet. A passing interest in gymnastics intensified when her ballet studio closed, and while she began to devote herself to gymnastics, she never did get ballet completely out of her system. Her career was permeated by the spirit and movement of classical ballet, and she is credited with bringing an unprecedented level of grace and rhythm to the sport.

From the time she first entered a training gym at age 12, her drive to compete and win never flagged: “I had this inner feeling that I should be the first at whatever I do, run faster than the boys in the street or study better than everybody at school. But at the same time, it wasn’t only about winning. I remember my first Olympics, my coach Alexander Mishakov, told me to do my best. If there was someone better than I was, then so be it. That is what competition is all about.”

The young champion

And her best is precisely what she did, keeping her rivals on their toes for three consecutive Summer Olympics: 1956 in Melbourne, 1960 in Rome, and 1964 in Tokyo. Nowadays it would be almost impossible for a single career to span so many Games — the physical demands and pressure to succeed have become merciless, and with it the ubiquity of career-shortening injuries. Even then, however, a career the duration of Latynina’s was unusual.

Commenting on the changes in competitive gymnastics over the years, she says, “I started when I was 12 and became a champion at 22. Today if a girl starts at age 5, she may become a champion at 16, so it takes the same ten years of training.” But, as is the case in other sports, artistic gymnastics have been transformed by the introduction of new technology. More sophisticated equipment has raised the bar of what the human body can achieve, and, in turn, made the sport more complex. For example, the floor exercise was originally performed on a wooden surface. Later a thin mat was added, and today there is a springy layer that allows for higher jumping without injury.

In addition, Larisa Semyonovna recalls that to qualify for the Olympic Games in her day, the female gymnast had to compete in four events and then choose the one with the best result to compete in at the Olympics. “So we had to train for all four events and appear at only one, whereas now they compete in only one event. If they win that event in the trials, they advance to the Olympics. So they can train for only one event, which is much easier, I think.”

Rome, where Latynina won 6 medals — while in her fourth month of pregnancy — that the world press was full of accolades for the Soviet gymnastics squad. When an interviewer commented to her that it seemed like medals were raining down on the Soviet team. She replied that they had to catch every medal from the sky by themselves, referring to the hard work behind every victory. She retired from competition in her early 30s, taking the position of chief coach of the Soviet national artistic gymnastics team.

During her 10-year tenure at that post, she guided the Soviet team to 10 gold medals at two Olympiads. She trained many of the USSR’s most famous and successful gymnasts (such as Lyubov Burda, Lyudmila Turishcheva, Elvira Saadi, Olga Korbut, and Nelly Kim). “The job of the head coach is to try to bring a general style to the team, to provide support to the gymnasts, who sometimes must live far away from their families in order to train. And, of course, accept the challenges presented by the athletes, which I always did. And I think it brought results. After their careers as gymnasts some of the girls also became coaches.” Trends in the sport — such as the increasing emphasis on record-breaking at the expense of artistry — led her to switch from Olympic coaching to working with the Moscow Regional team.

Holding the Olympic torch

Of the boycott of the Games by the United States and the USSR in 1980 and 1984, respectively, Latynina says, “I cannot describe what the Olympic Games mean for an athlete. You spend four years preparing for it, and you know how short sports careers are. And when suddenly some authority decides to introduce politics into the sports arena, it’s the athletes who suffer. I think we should follow the example of football: I watched the recent European Cup and heard the words of the team captains, who said that sport and racism and politics have nothing in common. And we bring to competition pure sport and Olympic ideals, ideals that are to the benefit not only of athletes but of all people.”

During perestroika in the 1980s, many talented trainers were going abroad to work, but Latynina stayed in Russia. “Now you can hear the Russian language everywhere. The Russian trainers we lost train our competitors. But the problem is not only with coaches, but with finding talented kids. A lot of the training infrastructure, where talent is identified and nurtured, was lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

“In the 2008 Olympics, the Russian team has less chance than the Chinese, who have made tremendous progress in recent years. We are contenders in some of the events, though I think the fight for medals will be between America and China. The competition will be tough, but I still hope that our chances are respectable, owing to our patriotism and just plain flair for competition. For example, Ksenia Semyonova is someone to watch. Another person to pay attention to is Anastasia Lyukina, who is an American gymnast with Russian roots,” Latynina said.

Artistic gymnastics is the sort of sport where judging is extremely subjective, and the marks depend on a variety of factors such as attitude and an appreciation of the cleanness of execution. In contrast to Latynina’s days competing, when scores were based on a 10-point scale, today gymnasts are competing not only for the best performance but also for the complexity of the elements in their routine and their mastery of skills. “I think it is right,” Larisa Semyonovna said, “that complexity and artistic expression are judged separately and then totaled up because it gives more objectivity, but we still have the human element, the subjectivity.”

Latynina and Dmitri Medvedev at the opening of the school in Obninsk.

Today, though her coaching days are behind her, Larisa Latynina remains active in the sports world and passionate about gymnastics. She continues to participate in her country’s Olympic preparations not only as an inspiration and role model but by scouting for young talent. In 2004, a training facility in Obninsk for future Olympic athletes was named for her. More recently, she was a torchbearer for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. And this month she will be found in Beijing National Indoor Stadium, rooting for her young compatriots.

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