That Amusing Kid: Representative of a Fine
School of Gymnasts

By Andrei Batashev

Moskovsky Komsomolets, 1972

Outstripping the all-round European champion, Olga Karaseva, by 0.15 points, Tamara Lazakovich, a 17-year-old gymnast from the Byelorussian town of Vitebsk, protegee of well-known coach Vikenti Dmitriev, was the winner at the fifth National Games of the USSR in 1971.

The Sweet Life of a Patient Coach

I would not say that Tamara looks at all nervous when she is standing on the pedestal of honor.  She seems more like a perky sparrow, ready to pick a fight with another sparrow at any moment.

To her coach Vikenti Dmitriev she said: "You owe me a celebration cake."

Just beating the minute, her happy, smiling coach, appeared with a fancy gateau in each hand.

But he made a wry joke: "Now we begin a new life.  A sweet one."

It was easy to see what he meant.  After the Olympic Games in Mexico he was left without his star, Larissa Petrik, who moved from Vitebsk to Moscow.  And it seems that all Dmitriev's bright, talented pupils had done everything they could to see that he did not have a particularly sweet time of it.  Tamara Lazakovich, of course, made her contribution to this state of affairs.  Now she became his big hope.

Tamara was growing up and accordingly her training load increased.  She didn't like it at all and cheeked her coach, who ordered her out of the gym.  She refused to go -- apparently at that precise moment she was seized with a feverish desire to train.

Later, when I once asked him what quality was most essential in a coach, he replied: "Patience."

And what patience!  You cannot produce a gymnast in a year, or even two.

It was in 1961 that Larissa Petrik brought her "find" to Dmitriev -- seven-year-old Tamara Lazakovich.

"What was she like then?"

"Just about the same as she is today, only in miniature," Dmitriev recalled.  "Slim, with precise, confident movements.  One could always see an amazing purity of line, whether of leg, foot and toes, or her carriage in general."

She is certainly a very perky girl.  She likes the keen competition, the atmosphere of a duel and the element of danger and risk that prevail in gymnastics.

People first began talking about Tamara Lazakovich in 1967, after the USSR championships.

On the eve of the competition journalists, charmed by her childishly serious air, asked: "Well, young lady, what kind of performance are you going to give us?"

She replied, sternly and with a touch of condescension: "I shall come first."

But her prophecy proved helplessly wide of the mark.

"Sixth..." Tamara sobbed, inconsolable.

The five gymnasts who were ahead of her, the five stars -- Natalia Kuchinskaya, Larissa Petrik, Zinaida Voronina, Polina Astakhova and Ludmila Turishcheva -- seemed to Tamara to be no better than she was.  But they said soothingly: "Come on now, don't howl!"

Ten Years out of Seventeen Make a Gymnast

But in 1968 everything went as Tamara wanted it to, at first.  She swept the board at the USSR junior championship and the coaches of the USSR team had the idea of trying her out as a reserve for the Mexico Olympics.  But in the selection competitions she was beaten by Alla Demyanenko and Tatyana Kitlyarova. 

Again she was inconsolable, she sobbed and felt herself tragically out of step with the world.  Again everybody went to great lengths to soothe her feelings until she forgot her tears and regained her old sense of importance.

She was always slightly amusing and people used to repeat her naive remarks with a smile.  When she became absolute champion, many people were staggered at the news, although it was obvious that this was bound to happen sooner or later.

"What, she's already champion?  And she's 17 now?  Incredible!"

But there was nothing incredible about it.  At the 1970 USSR championships, Tamara had come third in the all-round scoring and first in the exercises on the beam.  From there she went on to a place in the team picked for the world championships at Ljubljana.  And although the girls came  back with the gold medals of world champions in team scoring, Tamara was not exactly overjoyed for as an individual she had not put up a good performance.

"You put me in the worst place of all.  I was the sixth to perform...  But if you'd put me third... "

The patient Dmitriev ignored her moans and groans.  He took her further and further ahead, helping her to become the kind of gymnast she was really destined to be -- despite the fact that she allowed herself to be diverted at times.  On Dmitriev's insistence Tamara entered the Vitebsk Physical Training College. 

She is extremely strong in the compulsory program, performing with fantastic neatness of execution.  She does well in all types of exercises.

One might say, however, that her forte is the parallel bars.  Her jumping is extraordinarily steady.  She is slightly weaker (not when it comes to marks, but perhaps in content) in the free exercises: in these the artistry, femininity and individuality of each performer can be displayed to best advantage.  This confronts the gymnast with the question: "What am I really like? What is the essential core of myself that must be expressed in movement?"

To my mind Tamara Lazakovich has still to find the answer to these questions.

Features of the Byelorussian School

Byelorussian coaches have always displayed great talent for innovation.  The boldest experimenter of all is Renald Knysh.  His principle is to train a gymnast who will immediately stand head and shoulders above all the others.

"I see it this way," he told me.  "If a gymnast who today comes 20th at the USSR championships were to have performed at just the same level in the 1958 championships, she would have caused a furor.  The same thing would happen, probably, if a middling kind of gymnast at the 1980 national championships were able to compete with present-day gymnasts.  Consequently, the coach's job is very simple.  He has to look ahead and see how gymnasts will be doing things in ten years' time, and to anticipate the performance today."

Vikenti Dmitriev does not experiment as much as Knysh.  But he is able to get amazing perfection of every movement from his pupils.  The process of perfecting a gymnast is also an advance into the future.

"To polish up a performance to brilliance is incredibly difficult," Dmitriev said.   "A gymnast quickly gets tired of doing one and the same thing.  I am convinced that it is more difficult to work up each detail to the ultimate degree of perfection than to work out something new and demonstrate it to an astounded public."

I do not believe, however, that one should draw a sharp line of demarcation between the approaches of Dmitriev and Knysh.  While they place the emphasis on varying qualities, they are both striving to synthesize a gymnastic performance that is unprecedentally complex and of filigree precision.

Today spectators are eager to see something that is super-difficult and extremely expressive.   But tricks belong to the circus.  And extreme expressiveness belongs to ballet.  Naturally, gymnastics is neither ballet nor circus.  But today a natural process is underway -- gymnastics is acquiring a new look under the influence of art.  It seems to me that in Knysh's pupils there is something of the circus while those of Dmitriev show a greater inclination towards a ballet style.

How About an Indian Dance?

In recent years all the Byelorussian coaches have been making a deep study of choreography for they are convinced that without the specific techniques of dancing it is impossible to express emotion in gymnastics.

Gymnastics is really flourishing today in Byelorussia.  The Byelorussian school of women's gymnastics means not only Vitebsk, Grodno, and Minsk, where the leading coaches work, but also Brest, Pinsk and Smolevichi, and dozens of other towns, big and small, where there are plenty of enthusiasts in love with their work.

Byelorussian coaches are seeking a new kind of beauty of movement, looking for something unusual, something not seen before.

"Perhaps it is worth trying something that is absolutely unusual as far as free exercises are concerned," Knysh said.  "An Indian dance, perhaps a Japanese one, or a modern dance, at last!  Such a novelty would be a sensation with both spectators and judges."

Another reason why I am convinced that there are further successes in store for Byelorussian gymnasts is that they do not let slip the slightest chance of picking up tips from their rivals.

"Yes, it's essential to learn from the other competitors," Vikenti Dmitriev said in support of Knysh, "especially from gymnasts of the German Democratic Republic and their leading representative Karin Janz.  Incidentally, the GDR school of gymnastics is the closest to  our own, the Byelorussian school."

"In the last few years gymnasts everywhere have been making progress," Viktor Khomutov said.  "Those of the German Democratic Republic and the USA are going ahead fastest of all.  I think the Americans have completely assimilated the Soviet school and we can expect them to produce something of their own in the very near future."

I do not possess Knysh's ability to foresee the future, but today I can name without hesitation the Byelorussian gymnast who in two or three years will be making things tough for the established stars.  This is 12-year-old Lidia Gorbik, a pupil of Viktor Khomutov's, the girl to whom, at the championships in Minsk, the trainers accorded the honor of holding the main championship prize -- the European Cup.

This page was created on May 10, 2003.
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