The Inimitable Latynina

Vladimir Golubev

Olympic Panorama, 3/89

A long time ago when the unfading star Larissa Latynina graced the sporting firmament, journalists evaded expressions like "the brilliant leader of the national team" and "the gymnast who not only performs ultra-C elements but has enviable stability as well," preferring to write in a simpler and more understandable manner:  "The inimitable Larissa Latynina once again conquered the audience during the USSR gymnastics tournament yesterday."

I was tremendously lucky, I believe, to have once performed with renowned masters in my life.  It was in 1964, during the USSR championships in Kiev.  Since I had a "first" rating, I was then included in the Trud team (back then juniors competed alongside adults in sports society squads).  I was quite scared, as I had never before performed in sports palaces, but was accustomed instead to the old gym at the Krilya Sovetov club.  A vast expanse overhead, floodlights glowing from under the ceiling, a capacity crowd -- all this psychological pressure completely unsettled me, and my coach, Hensinki Olympic champion Evgeny Korolkov, sighed sadly: "What's happened to you, can't you collect yourself?"

The outcome interested me no longer.  I felt indifferent right after my second low mark.  Instead, I kept my eyes wide open and was thrilled to be sitting next to such greats as Boris Shakhlin, Yuri Titov, Viktor Lisitsky and Yuri Tsapenko.  And the younger crop of very promising athletes -- Mikhail Voronin, Sergei Diomidov and Vladimir Soshin.

I did not miss the women's competitions either.  While others strolled around the city I, using my athlete's card, sat by the podium.  Here they were -- Larissa Latynina and Polina Astakhova, the living legends.  I nearly cried when they were bested by two youngsters -- Larissa Petrik and Natalia Kuchinskaya.

Everyone was talking about the new wave.  Evgeny Korolkov embraced his old friend Boris Shakhlin and jokingly persuaded him: "Isn't it time for you to have a rest, pal?  You can't compete all your life, can you?  Look, I quit in time and already have pupils of my own.  Come on, man, take Astakhova and Latynina along and join us coaches."

I spent long hours watching Latynina perform.  She, like Shakhlin, belonged to the galaxy of gymnasts whom I first saw in a sports newsreel at the cinema when I was a kid.  As far as I remember, the documentary dealt with the Rome Olympics.  The picture was black and white and the athletes' movements were faster than normal, just like in Chaplin's movies.  The commentator solemnly drawled the text and it suddenly dawned on me: Shakhlin and Latynina are truly heroes of Soviet sport.  Shakhlin spun on the horse vault with incredible speed and the smiling Latynina fluttered on the mat in a strange way locking and unlocking her arms and occasionally coming to momentary standstills.

After the USSR championship I happened to see Latynina on several occasions during training sessions, mostly in 1966 when Mikhail Voronin and Olga and Valery Karasev were getting ready for their first world championship.  I asked Olga how she, Zinaida Druzhinina, Natalia Kuchinskaya and Larissa Petrik perceived Latynina.  Smiling broadly, Karaseva answered: "Why, she's our 'mom'!  She's kind and attentive, but she can get angry when we sneak in ice-cream.  You know, it seems to me she gets very sad sometimes.  This is probably her last championship."

Yes, that was Larissa's final performance.  She returned home with only one medal, a silver, which she received in the team scoring.  The silver won by our women's team was just like a cold shower -- never before had our girls been second to anyone!  The experts probably realized that the team's rejuvenation was taking too long and there was a need for drastic measures to improve the atmosphere within the squad.  When Latynina was suddenly offered the post of head coach she grabbed at it, apparently very eager to continue her life in gymnastics.

Quitting gymnastics at age 32, she embraced her beloved girls again at 33.

Alexander Mishakov, Latynina and Shakhlin's coach throughout those years, said that the achievements of his charges Larissa and Boris were perceived no less enthusiastically than the triumphs of Olga Korbut and Ludmila Turishcheva in our day.  It seems nowadays that the modern stars are more popular and more accessible to us mortals, but this is the credit of almighty television.  This is the answer to the puzzle of the generation gap in gymnastics.

Latynina did all she could to resist the gymnastics of tricks and gimmicks.  My first interview with her just before the Soviet team left for the Mexico Olympics was, on the one hand, rather reserved (no promises or forecasts) but there was hardness in her gaze and metal in her voice when she talked about the team's outcome: "We've got to be the first!"  On the other hand, she philosophized on the eternal values of sport, on the femininity that should never be lost.  Latynina talked about slender and elegant gymnasts, in the mold of Zinaida Voronina and Larissa Petrik.

After Mexico City we met a changed Latynina -- proud and self-confident, dictating the rules of the conversation.  She knew about the retirement of Vera Caslavska, her rival at the Tokyo Olympics and the competitor who managed to deprive our team of the gold medals in Mexico.  Save for Erika Zuchold and the still growing Karin Janz from the GDR, there were no contenders for top honors at the time.

During the 1970 world championships in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, Latynina was beaming; she willingly posed for the photographers and, when interviewed, stressed: "We have a second team victory and we have the triumph of Ludmila Turishcheva.  This is the result of thorough preparations for the year's main tournaments."

In fact, Larissa Latynina was the trend-setter in world gymnastics for a decade, participating in three Olympics and securing three Olympic triumphs for the team she coached.  It was then, between Mexico City and Montreal, that Larissa Petrik, Olga Karaseva, Elvira Saadi, Nina Dronova, Rusudan Sikharulidze, Ludmila Turishcheva and Olga Korbut created their state-of-the-art routines on the mat.  The optional program is the heart and soul of gymnastics.  Larissa herself owns three Olympic golds for routines on the mat, so she felt that optional exercises were the key to team and individual success.

I had several conversations with her and saw that deep down inside Latynina was against the ever-growing complexity of the elements and the dramatic rejuvenation of gymnastics.  When she talked about "her" gymnastics her tone took on pastel shades because she really missed those bygone times.  Still, I never ceased admiring her sharp vision of the present and future.  Latynina could never have managed to lead her girls to victory for ten years if she had drawn gymnastics back to the elegiac past.  She was able to see new beauty through the demands of life.  It is my firm conviction that thanks to her "gymnastics policy" the sport of art and artistry that she has always cherished and that we saw in the routines of her best students got a new lease on life.  Even today, after a decade without Latynina as head coach, fans can see the revival of Latynina's concept of "building" the image of gymnastics.

The elegance of Svetlana Boginskaya, the artistic nature of Yelena Shevchenko, the lyricism of Svetlana Baitova and the linear smoothness of young Svetlana Ivanova, Yulia Kut and Natalia Kalinina represent a return from the gymnastics of super-tricks, abrasive and ecletic, back to the gymnastics of inspiration.

Ever since she was a child, Latynina dreamed of ballet and, as a schoolgirl, signed up with a ballet school.  It so happened, however, that the snub-nosed curly-haired and risible Larissa fell in love with gymnastics in the seaside city of Kherson.  Still, ballet was always on her mind and she gravitated towards its best soloists, who enriched her aesthetically.  Larissa asked the Bolshoi Theater's Vladimir Vassiliev to give her girls several lessons of choreography, which he willingly did.  Small wonder that after finishing a dance school, Larissa's daughter performed in the Beriozka folk ensemble thus living out her mother's unfulfilled dream.

Is Latynina still remembered abroad?  This February Soviet gymnasts made their traditional tour of British and Belgian cities.  The delegation included the stars of the 1950s and 1970s Larissa Latynina and Nelli Kim.  Eyewitnesses said the public enthusiastically welcomed their former favorites Latynina and Kim as well as Yelena Shushunova, Svetlana Boginskaya, Vladimir Artemov and Sergei Kharkov.

Latynina has been coaching the Moscow team for nine years now.  There is so much to do that she often has to work overtime.  Once I asked her to do one more job -- to write a "How to Stay Young" book.  Latynina promised to think about that.  Why did I ask her?  Well, because Latynina's lissome figure, her light and youthful step, good looks and flashy smile are awe-inspiring!  The years don't seem to have any effect on the inimitable Latynina and people still recognize her in the streets.  Daily exercise and a strict diet are the common secrets  of staying young.

The ironic and humorous Larissa likes to call herself the "granny of Russian gymnastics," hinting at her granddaughter's future, but her fresh ideas on the social role of sport and the future development of her beloved gymnastics enable us to call Latynina a poet and a romantic of the wonderful world of movement.  Her ideas are akin to those of the poet Tiutchev with his philosophic thoughts about the meaning of life and the transitoriness of existence.  When Latynina talks about the uneasy fate of gymnasts who quit big-time sport early in their career, about the creation of a sports theatre for gymnastics stars of the past, about gymnastics for those past thirty and about the quest for harmony and ease in today's gymnastic etudes everything bespeaks the sharp mind and fresh thinking of a woman who does not want to live a "quiet" life.

Latynina can often be seen attending meetings of the presidium of the USSR Gymnastics Federation and each time the great gymnast lives up to her reputation as a great debater -- just the way she was in the Mishakov's gym, and when she was the head coach of the USSR national team.  Such a valuable trait of character this doggedness is!  Only a person with such a character could have won 18 medals (nine gold) at three Olympic Games.

This page was created on May 11, 2003.
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