Twice All-Round Champion

Viktor Chukarin

Every day the Messuhalli Hall in Helsinki which seats nine thousand spectators was packed to capacity, for it was there that the gymnasts were competing.  Everyone's attention was riveted on the Soviet sportsmen who were making their Olympic debut in Helsinki that year.  Quick to find fault, the judges noted the slightest mistake made by any one of them.  Victory depended not only on technical skill, but on self-discipline, strength of will, total dedication and, of course, on the passionate desire to hear the strains of their national anthem under the arches of the hall.

And they proved that they were entitled to win, although it was far from easy.  After the vaults the Soviet gymnasts were in sixth and seventh place.  They had each scored less than 9 points.  Only the team leader -- the ever serious Viktor Chukarin -- had 9.45 points.

He was composed and outwardly calm.  But the calmness did not come easy.  Chukarin knew very well that not only his own success, but the victory of the whole team depended on his performance.

After the exercises on the horizontal bar the Soviet team climbed to second place.  Only the Finns -- champions of the previous Games -- were ahead.  Chukarin gained 9.8 points on the bar.  This was the best result in the first two days of the competitions.  On the second day Viktor was again in the lead after the vaults: over the two days he had scored a total of 19.25 points.  No one could overtake him.  Chukarin's vaulting was meticulous.  One of the German gymnasts said that the geometrical precision of Chukarin's flight over the horse could only be repeated with the help of a slide rule and a pair of compasses.

The best performance on the pommel horse was given by Viktor's teammate Grant Shaginyan.  The gymnast from Yerevan gained the highest mark of 9.9 points.

The Soviet gymnasts scored the points they needed for victory on one apparatus after the other.  Finally the team events were over.  The newcomers who had won over the spectators from the moment they appeared on the floor, were rightfully called the best Olympic team.  The Soviet Gymnasts had scored 574.4 points, 6.9 points more than the Swiss team which was composed of all their 1950 world champions.  The Swiss newspaper Gazette de Lausanne wrote on that occasion:  "The Russian success in the gymnastics was totally unexpected.  Their brilliant and close-knit team was in excellent form and clearly outshone our compatriots."

Viktor Chukarin, the leader of this "brilliant and close-knit team", became all-round champion at the XV Olympiad.  He was then 31.  At that age many sportsmen retire from big time sport.

Viktor first saw gymnasts perform at the stadium in Mariupol, the small southern town where he lived with his parents.  When he came home he got together with his friends and made a horizontal bar with rusty pipes.  So began his initiation into gymnastics.

It was a long way from the homemade horizontal bar to the Olympic Games.  At first there were lessons at the school club, then at the gymnastics club of the technical college where he studied metallurgy and after that at the Kiev College of Physical Culture, and after that ... there was the war.  It broke out on the very day Viktor graduated from college.

He left for the front immediately and fought in an artillery unit.  He was surrounded and taken prisoner.  He became prisoner No. 10491 in the Sandbostel concentration camp.  Viktor spent four years in that hell.  It is difficult even to imagine how much he had to go through.  When the Soviet Army advanced on the camp, all the inmates were hurriedly evacuated to another town and kept on the harbor under armed guard for three days.  They were given nothing to eat or drink.

On the fourth day the prisoners were herded onto a barge filled with explosives which was to be taken out to sea and blown up.  The Nazis even prepared an advance press statement about the event: "The barge was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine."  But patriots whose names we do not know saved the prisoners.

Viktor returned home in 1945.

"I was so thin and emaciated," Viktor recalled, "that even my own mother didn't recognize me.  It was only when she placed her hands on my head and felt the childhood scar which remained from my fall off a hayrick that she acknowledged me as her son."

Back home Viktor was scarcely able to do a couple of chin ups on the horizontal bar.  But soon the hard work was to start in earnest and in three years Chukarin became USSR champion on the horizontal bar.  A year later, in 1949, he won the title of all-round champion of the Soviet Union which he held for a further two years.  Finally there was the first Olympic victory at Helsinki which was followed by another one at the 1954 World Championships at Rome and successes at many major international and All-Union tournaments.

These victories did not always come easily, often they had to be fought for in seemingly hopeless situations.  In Rome, for example, Chukarin dislocated a finger the day before the event and suffered considerable pain throughout the entire championships.  But he kept going to the end and with Valentin Muratov became all-round world champion.

The contest at the XVI Olympic Games in Melbourne was also a difficult one.  Our gymnasts' main rival was the young Japanese team and it was not clear who would win until the very last moment.  After the first day the Soviet team led by only 0.2 points.  On the second day the Japanese were first to perform.  They left the floor to stormy applause and the marks gained by each member of the team were very high.

The Soviet team at the Melbourne Olympics was composed almost entirely of new members.  Only the team captain, Viktor Chukarin, had been in Helsinki.

The duel with the Japanese began with the ring exercises in which the three best in the Soviet team lost the odd point: Albert Azaryan gained 9.8, Chukarin and Muratov each gained 9.6.  The vaulting was won by Valentin Muratov with Yury Titov in second place.  The third apparatus -- the parallel bars -- was Chukarin's forte.  Among his trophies there are nine gold medals awarded for his performances on the parallel bars: one was won at the World Championships and eight at the national championships.  At Helsinki he was 0.05 of a point behind the winner and gained a silver medal.  At Melbourne Chukarin and the Japanese gymnast Masami Kubota each scored the same number of points -- 9.55 after the compulsory event.

The Japanese gymnast performed much better in the floor exercises.  To overtake him, Chukarin had to collect not less than 9.85 points -- and he did just that!  The storm of applause proclaimed Viktor the winner even before the judges had announced the result.  The Japanese gymnasts were the first to congratulate him.

They had three apparatus behind them.  Half the distance had been covered.  The Soviet team was confidently catching up with the Japanese.  Boris Shakhlin won the exercises on the horse and Chukarin was third.  Our gymnasts did not manage to catch up with Takashi Ono on the horizontal bar.  He executed the combination brilliantly and gained very high marks.  There remained only one event -- the floor exercises.  Each member of the Soviet team had to collect not less than 9.2-9.3 points to become champions and they rose to the challenge magnificently.  For the second time in succession Soviet gymnasts won the team gold at the Olympic Games.

Chukarin had a harder fight to win the title of all-round individual champion.  Initially he was not even in the first three.  The talented Japanese gymnast Takashi Ono was in the lead and his supporters were about to celebrate his victory.  But once again Chukarin did not falter.  Not for nothing has he been called a "man without nerves"!  If only one knew the tremendous nervous tension that went into his performance on the floor exercises which was to decide the fate of the Olympic gold medal!  Viktor gave his all and beat the Japanese.  Afterwards Ono complained to journalists:  "It is impossible to beat this man.  Failure only stimulates him to make even greater efforts."

Viktor Chukarin did not have to taste the bitterness of defeat.  He retired from the floor unvanquished.

In one of his interviews, he said: "A real sportsman is first and foremost a strong character.  A man who has no self-confidence has no place in gymnastics.  This does not mean, however, that success can be guaranteed by making some sort of desperate effort.  It is much more complicated.  There are different interpretations of courage in sport.  A long-distance runner for example must have the capacity for endurance, a sprint-cyclist or slalom skier will not achieve success unless he takes risks.  A gymnast must be both skillful and careful and never gamble, never rely on providence or luck -- in short on anything that is undependable or fortuitous.  Whatever the situation, he must keep a grip on himself, remain a wise strategist and, of course, do everything to the best of his ability.  A combination can only be performed faultlessly if it has been well performed in training and tested hundreds of times."

This page was created on June 21, 2003.
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