Story of an Olympic Champion

By Stanislav Tokarev

Soviet Life, March 1977    Elvira Saadi, of Uzbek nationality, was born in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, on January 2, 1952.  A graduate of a college of physical education, she is an Honored Master of Sports and a sports instructor.  At 13 years of age, she became interested in gymnastics and has been a member of the USSR gymnastics team since 1969.

Saadi is champion of the 20th and 21st Olympic Games, 1974 world champion (with her team), all-round 1973 USSR champion and winner of the USSR 1975 Cup in gymnastics.  She was decorated with the Order of the Friendship of Peoples.

The gymnast lives in Moscow and trains under Vladimir Aksyonov, Merited Coach of the USSR.

On an August evening in Montreal, Soviet women gymnasts celebrated their victory amidst cheering admirers.  But their own ungrudging tribute was reserved for Elvira Saadi.  Team members -- top all-around gymnast Lyudmila Turishcheva; Nellie Kim, sensation of the Montreal Olympics; Olga Korbut, star of the 1972 Olympic Games, and the younger Svetlana Grozdova and Masha Filatova -- congratulated her, for if that team of six shed a dazzling light, a good deal of it came from Saadi.

Of the entire USSR team, Elvira was the most companionable, genial and impressionable member, always bubbling with enthusiasm and high spirits.

She also has great self-confidence.  At a social gathering with celebrated actors and directors, she explained, with unassuming poise, the mechanism of "entering into a character," accompanying her monologue with the hypnotic movement of her supple arms.

Elvira is endowed with remarkable elasticity -- her precipitous bends and turns and twists sometimes at variance with the strict rules of her prescribed exercises.  In every component of her floor exercise, Elvira succeeds in projecting a visible image.  She claims that she starts out "in character," punctuating her round-offs at times with melancholy and at other times with gaiety.

She was brought up in an artistic family, and as far back as she can remember she was always dressing up in bright shawls or old necklaces and performing in front of the mirror.

In 1964, when Elvira was 12, her mother had her enrolled in one of Tashkent's junior gymnastic schools.  Five years later, she was a member of the national team.

But acceptance on the team did not come easy for Elvira.  The team she joined was made up of gymnasts who won gold medals at the Olympics in Mexico. Young and little known, she was accepted into the team only as a gymnast with future promise.  Her execution of floor exercises won admiration, but she was not regarded as a serious candidate for the Olympics.  She might not measure up in the all-round score.  Some of her peers already formed that backbone of the team; others had abandoned all hope of being accepted.  Elvira managed to show that she could meet the challenge of the new higher standards in gymnastics and, together with another girl, Lyubov Burda, was kept on the all-star team which went to the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

That year Elvira became an Olympic champion, and for the following two years she met with spectacular success.  But as the 1976 Olympic Games were approaching and new young gymnasts were coming forward, Saadi's tremulous style seemed an anachronism.  Nobody believed she could make it in Montreal.  Nobody, says Elvira, except three people: her coach Vladimir Aksyonov, her husband Sasha and herself.

It was their confidence that helped her through the strenuous training period when, as Elvira puts is, "one must, at all costs, secure oneself not only against a fall, but the slightest falter in a movement.  Today when I instruct little girls in the gymnasium, any one of them can perform with perfect ease on her own.  But when she is assigned to demonstrate a movement, in which greater responsibility is required, there is always the danger of tripping and falling.  I spent months telling myself that I must not fall."

At first, she found it intolerably tedious to train without seeing the goal ahead of her.  She liked a quick victory.  Once, she pledged to herself to learn the difficult tsukahara vault before the New Year.  On December 31, however, she was still having trouble with it.  On an impulse, she made a bet with the other practicing gymnasts: each was to master her own element before the day was over and, if she failed to do so, would have to treat the others to ice cream.  All failed in their first attempt.  In the second, all were successful, except Elvira, who hurt her leg.  But she completed the vault on her third try -- by sheer will. 

If, in the training period before the Olympics in Montreal, there were some who had confidence in her and others who did not, she might well have not made the team.  So she was determined to prove to everyone that she could make it and win her right to compete in the Olympics.  Saying this, she clenched her delicate fingers and formed a steel fist.

Elvira made no mistake.  The sports arena was her real element; in any other kind of performance she would miss the excitement of daily and hourly battle.

Nevertheless, she is now trying her hand at coaching.  We hope she will pass on to her pupils the stamina and character with which she herself is so richly endowed.

This page was created on June 22, 2001.