Golden, Gifted and Confused About Her Future

By Steven Erlanger

New York Times, July 5, 1992   Svetlana Boginskaya, one of the world's best gymnasts for a very long time now, is having a case of the 19-year-old jitters.

It's not just the approaching Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, which she has said will be her last.  And it's not so much the usual confusion, in the debris of the former Soviet Union, about where her loyalties lie.  Nor the declining standards of food provided for the Commonwealth of Independent States' best gymnasts, who live at the permanent but deteriorating training center at Ozero Krugloye, or Round Lake, in the pretty forests an hour's drive north of Moscow's grime.

Her confusion is really about growing up, and what to do with her life when her already extraordinary career as another of the great pixie gymnasts is over, as it must be, and quite soon.

Like Steffi Graf and other tennis stars before her, whose machinelike nervelessness began to collapse with the onslaught of young adulthood, Boginskaya sometimes wonders whether she's any good at anything at all.  It is quite an unsettling thought for a gymnast whose brilliance has been indisputable since she first became all-around winner at the 1989 world championships.

"I try not to think about Barcelona," she said, playing with two thin silver necklaces and touching a line of earrings pierced into one ear.  "I try not to think it's the Olympics, but that it's just another competition."  She paused, pulling back her hair.  "The more you think about it," she said finally, "you just get more nervous."

Although much has been made of her rivalry with the younger American star, Kim Zmeskal, 16, who defeated her in April at the world championships in Paris, Boginskaya says she feels "absolutely neutral" toward her competitors.  At the 1991 world championships in Indianapolis, Boginskaya barely lost because of what many believed to have been the over-enthusiasm of American judges.  Asked about Indianapolis, Boginskaya began to cry, but only for a moment.  Brushing a tear away and trying to hide it, she said: "Well, it's all in the past."

She stopped again, then said: "Of course, I want to be the best.  I've always been that way."

Fidgeting in her pink trousers, rolled up above her molded calves, she said softly: "It may seem strange, but mostly I want to take the upper hand over myself.  I feel some uncertainty, and I tell myself sometimes I can't do anything the way I want to do it, and feel I'm incapable of anything."

She knows it's an absurd feeling, she said, because she's been a world champion for so long.  "But the last year and a half have not been so successful for me," she said.  "I'm growing older, and it becomes harder for me to train the same way as before.  When I was younger I did many of the elements easier than now, and sometimes I make errors.  And of course, when I was younger, we studied new aspects all the time.  Now it's more routine work for me; it's repetition and repetition, which is of course less interesting."

It's a little strange to hear such thoughts from someone so girlish and lithe, seeming almost to disappear inside her fashionably loose trousers and tank top, but Boginskaya knows she must plan for her future after sports, and she knows a good show in the Olympics may be crucial to her marketability.

"In the future," she said, "maybe I'll leave for professional sport, or maybe work as a choreographer, or in advertisements for sports clothes.  At least that's my plan so far."  She said she's already had some proposals from manufacturers.

The Olympics itself, for the last "unified team" the former Soviet Union is every likely to field, now provides a different sort of motivation than in the past.  If previous Soviet teams were told to win for "progressive socialism" as much as for their motherland, now the athletes know that they are also competing for their careers in a tough, private marketplace.

"Before the Seoul Olympics," Boginskaya said of the 1988 Games, in which she won the gold medal in the vault and the bronze in the all-around, "we were told we have to protect the honor of the motherland, that you perform not only for yourself, but you display the image of the Soviet Union and socialism.  Now they don't say things like this, but we know ourselves what we want."

And that is?  "We want to in the Olympics," she said.  "There can be no minimum performance there."

The chief coach of the women's gymnastic team, Aleksandr S. Aleksandrov, is blunter.  "These girls are only teen-agers, but they understand their future depends on their performance at the Olympics,"  he said.  "Many will leave the sport afterward, and now that it's easier to leave the country, or come and go, they can take part in various professional shows or sponsorships."

Boginskaya says she's friendly enough with her fellow gymnasts, but they're younger, "and I can't be frank with them."  That's why, she said, "I mostly talk with the boys' team.  They're mostly the same age, and more interesting for me."  Does she have a boyfriend?  Blushing, she pushed aside her hair.  "Well, I have many friends who are boys, but I can't say one is my boyfriend."

She says she feels closer to the young women who were her teammates, but who now have left gymnastics to make their lives in this complicated, dead empire undergoing economic difficulty and reform.

"The girls are practically all married now and many have children," she said.  "They write me in their letters, 'Sveta, enough of this gymnastics!  Live a normal life!'  But I think it's difficult now to live a normal life because our country is not in a normal situation."

Aleksandrov thinks Boginskaya has "good prospects" in Barcelona in the vault, the beam (her favorite) and maybe in the all-around.  As a team, he said, "our plan is three gold medals, a silver and a bronze," but he says there is more competition this year than in 1988.

As for Zmeskal, Aleksandrov says he doesn't want to offend her, "but usually each world champion brings something new, some new beauty or complexity, and I didn't see anything new in her."  Frankly, he said, "I like Shannon Miller more.  She has a good program that meets today's demands, at least as we see them."

Aleksandrov said he thought that some of the American gymnasts emphasize their leaping and dancing ability at the expense of mastering the sport's technical points.

Boginskaya is wistful for life, having hardly lived an ordinary one.  Her father, a builder, and her mother, a housewife, are from Minsk, in Belarus.  Boginskaya started in gymnast at the age of 7, pushed by her parents.  "It was boring for me at home," she said.  "So in the first years of school, when a lady coach came and asked who wanted to go into gymnastics, I agreed.  I wasn't much of a gymnastics fan then, but my parents said they'd better send me to some sports group, because I wasn't obedient at home and didn't listen to them."

Now, of course, her parents are proud, but she sees little of them.  For more than half her life, since the age of 10, Boginskaya has been coming here to Ozero Krugloye, at first for 10 days a year, then for longer and longer periods.  "You could say I've spent most of my life here," she said.

Not that the life is bad amid the forests.  There is a dormitory for the athletes, excellent facilities, no lines for food and few worries.  But now, of course, with the end of large state subsidies, maintenance is lacking, the grass is growing long and the paint is peeling.  And both Boginskaya and her coach agree the food is worse, with less dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables.

Will she go back to Minsk when her career is finished?  "Maybe," she said.  "I just don't know what will happen.  So far I only know gymnastics."

Here she gave a big, grown-up sigh and shrugged.  "Of course I want to do well," she said.  "But life is very complicated, and in the end, you must give in to it."


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