The Tantalizing Ideal of Perfection

By Larissa Latynina

Komsomolskaya Pravda, 1974

The author was born December 27, 1934.  She graduated from the Institute of Physical Culture in Kiev, capital of the Ukraine.  She is a star from that galaxy that in the late 1950s brought world-wide fame to the Soviet school of gymnastics.

At the age of 22 Larissa became absolute Olympic gymnastics champion at Melbourne.  Four years later, at the Olympic Games in Rome, she repeated her triumph.  In 1957 and 1961 she won the overall European title and in 1958 and 1962 the world championship.

In 1967 Larissa became and remains senior coach of the USSR national gymnastics team.

In talking about Olga Korbut's style, some fans reduce the whole thing to two or three perfectly executed, complex elements.  Olga herself is invariably offended  by such an evaluation, and no wonder.  Each of her spectacular effects is an integral part of the whole. Watch how carefully every movement is woven into her performance and you will realize that Olga's talent is much richer and deeper than admirers of sensations think.  I believe that the more one or another element stands out from the overall performance, the lower the mark deserved by the gymnast.  Complexity and vivid effects are necessary, but only when they serve to perfect the entire number.

After the Tokyo Olympics people began to say that as performances grow more complex from year to year, women's gymnastics will in the future come closer to men's for difficulty.  I do not agree.

To perform some complicated feat should not be an end in itself.  It is not enough to astonish, one must delight audiences, win their hearts, and this is impossible without beauty.  Beauty has many faces and that is why teams which include gymnasts of different styles and temperaments usually create the greatest impression.

Olga Korbut is at present enjoying enormous popularity in the world of gymnastics and she fully deserves it.  During the exhibition shows in England a real "cult" developed around her.  However, popularity is one thing and being the best is another, and for the time being Ludmila Turishcheva, not Olga Korbut, is the number one gymnast.  Back in 1968, after an unnerving failure in Mexico, she went on to win the USSR championship in a tense and determined struggle.  At that time we were amazed at the fortitude and willpower displayed by the 15-year-old schoolgirl.  At the Munich Olympics Ludmila again showed her mettle and won the all-round title and in London she became the first Soviet gymnast to become European champion for the second time in a row.

Admirers of Olga Korbut are fond of saying: "If not for that unfortunate fall on the asymmetric bars..." or "If not for the injury in London..."

But this, precisely, is what divides the true "number one" from just any, even excellent athlete.  For him, or her, there are no "if nots."  He must know how to win in any circumstances.  For this he needs courage above all, and a sober, clearheaded approach to sport, to his own fame and that of others.

Olga Korbut so far lacks some of these qualities.  So we have many gymnastic "stars" but only one leader -- Turishcheva.

The foundation of the present successes of the Soviet gymnastics team was laid when my generation competed.  By the end of the 1950s the Soviet school of female gymnastics had fully evolved.  Its main characteristics are technical brilliancy, confidence of execution of difficult elements, a logical structure of composition, expressiveness and genuine artistry.

At that time, too, the sports nature of the team was shaped.  We never separated competitions into "personal" and "team" and the most joyous victories for us were team ones.  We never gave up after the worst mishaps, but always fought on to the last ditch, for hundredths, even thousandths of a point.  And when in the bitter struggle for team supremacy in Munich our girls fully revealed these qualities, when for the sake of team victory Ludmila Turishcheva and Olga Korbut forgot their personal rivalry -- that, for me, was the nicest present.  It meant our traditions lived on.

Today gymnastics has become very complicated and girls perform elements that I or my fellow team members never dreamed of.  I can remember the time when floor exercises were done without musical accompaniment.  When music was added the possibilities of expression inherent in sports gymnastics stood clearly revealed.  The performances of Turishcheva, Korbut, Burda and Saadi are not simply sport, they are art.  The sparkling talents of these girls have given new life to gymnastics, made it a spectacle to which no one remains indifferent.

The Soviet school of gymnastics is creative, it represents a search for the new.

Take Olga Korbut and her coach, Renald Knysh.  They have chosen the best out of the accumulated experience of Soviet gymnastics and creatively developed it, not just polished it.  They have not stood still for an instant.  In her arsenal Korbut has quite a few new and complex elements which she would have shown at the European championships in London if not for the unfortunate injury.

Take Turishcheva.  One would think she had no need to change her program -- it is marvelous, almost a sure winner.  But in London she transfixed the audience when at the official competition she did an extremely difficult "tsukahara" jump, which until then had been performed only by male gymnasts.

After every performance of our team we receive scores of letters from aspiring gymnasts and they all want to know how to become a champion, how to become like Turishcheva, Korbut?

I reply in the words of the poet, Mikhail Svetlov:  "Talent is needed, certainly.  Then great conviction, love...  Then mastery is required.  Then the sense of always being at work is needed."

This page was created on May 10, 2003.
Gymn Forum