Will New Stars Appear?

By Andrei Batashev

Sport in the USSR, 1987    The virtuosos of gymnastics.  How effortlessly they perform the most complicated movements -- it is as if they were saying to us there's nothing more simple.  And only just a few years ago we believed this.  Only in our thoughts, of course, but still!  Then suddenly everything changed.  As we watch today's gravity-defying gymnasts we are unable to imagine ourselves ever executing -- even in our wildest dreams -- anything remotely similar.  Our imagination lags hopelessly far behind reality.  We need a TV rerun and slow-motion shots to understand, grasp and appreciate the complicated combinations that today's star gymnasts pull off.

It sometimes seems that the distance between the stands and the platform has also increased over these years.  The figures of athletes are therefore somehow diminished, as if we were seeing them through reverse binoculars.  What has happened?

Says Olympic [sic] champion Natalia Yurchenko:  "Most likely, due to the audience appeal of highly complicated performances a new sport has come into being in recent years which we continue out of habit to call gymnastics."

The force of this appeal was demonstrated at the European championships in Moscow when Valery Lyukin, 20, from Alma Ata executed a triple salto in the floor exercises with flawless precision.

Three years ago Lyukin's coach, 35-year-old Edege Yarov suggested to several of his pupils that they have a go at learning a new stunt.  Lyukin agreed without hesitation, while the others shied away from the risk.

"Before executing the triple salto," says Yarov, "Valery goes into deep concentration for several minutes, as if severing the bond with the outside world.  From that moment on and until he lands on his feet after the third turn the gymnast -- I am convinced of this -- does not see anyone.  He is obeying a kind of a program inside himself, and nothing will divert him from it.  What goes through his mind when, standing, on the edge of the mat, he lifts his hand and takes his run?  You can only guess.  And it is my opinion that the coach must not probe into the gymnast's inner world."

According to the 1966 all-around world champion Mikhail Voronin, the appearance of Valery Lyukin on the European scene is not unlike the debut of Nikolai Andrianov, the winner of the Montreal Olympics, in big-time gymnastics, a debut that enticed many young gymnasts into challenging complexity.

"Lyukin's feat," says Vorinin, "will begin a new phase in the development of this sport.  I have no doubt that at the next national championships no less than some ten masters will attempt a triple salto."

Gymnastics is not all stunts.  Even the triple salto is just one solid element in a combination where the most important considerations are harmony, logic of construction and unity of all elements.

"In former years," recalls Yarov, "it all seemed boring to Lyukin.  He interpreted the coach's concern for the spectacular display and expressiveness of exercises and for the clarity of movements and observance of classical canons as an attempt to keep his creativity within the limits of convention.  He has not realized that each combination is a single thought that must be expressed with utmost precision in movements and feelings."

In Moscow, Valery Lyukin was a confident leader in the combined events.  He edged out the silver titlist and twice world champion Yuri Korolev by half a point.  Lyukin's brilliant performance placed him among the favorites of the world championships to be held in October in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.  Specialists believe that Yuri Korolev (at the Moscow championships he captured the gold in vaulting) and Valentin Mogilny, who won the gold medal in the rings exercises in spite of obviously being out of shape, also have good chances of clinching the top title.  The Chinese masters headed by Li Ning and Lou Yun, US champion Scott Johnson, Japanese athletes Hiroyuki Konishi and Kyoji Yamawaki, as well as Gyorgy Guczoghy of Hungary and Silvio Kroll of the GDR who took third and fourth places, respectively, in the combined events in Moscow are the main rivals of Soviet gymnasts.

The Moscow championships confirmed that Soviet gymnasts were, as before, among the European front runners despite the absence of twice European champion Dmitry Bilozerchev who is still not back on his feet after sustaining an injury in a car accident.

As for women's gymnastics, a change in the leadership has taken place.  The all-round winner of the previous European championships, all-round world champion Elena Shushunova was only third this time. Daniela Silivas of Romania who received three gold medals for the beam, bars and floor exercises as well was named the best by the judges.

The spectator particularly delights in floor exercises, an event using musical accompaniment.  Movement and grace must complement what has been left unsaid by the music.  It is a difficult task, and only few succeeded in this.  Occasionally it looked like the music had nothing to do with the athletes who were doing their best to win its favor, but did not know how to go about it.  But when Silivas appeared on the platform, an organic fusion of music and movement immediately manifested itself.

Daniela went through the beam exercise with equal splendor.  Watching her I recalled Bach's Chacona in the arrangement for violin.  Playing Chacona implies creating a kind of a perfect and at the same time fragile edifice on all four strings and sustain it by virtuoso movements of the bow until the last chord.  Performing her composition Silivas also created and sustained the perfect and fragile edifice of her gymnastics on the narrow strip of the apparatus.  Her movements were so eloquent and musical that the absence of music seemed a mistake, a misunderstanding.

"I liked Silivas on all the apparatus," noted Natalia Yurchenko afterwards.  "She has come a long way in class.  But I have seen all her combinations before.  Daniela performed them last year."

Sports experts believe that the most complicated program was presented at the last championships by 14-year-old schoolgirl Alevtina Priakhina from Moscow, a pupil of Mikhail Klimenko who trained 1978 all-round world champion Elena Mukhina.  Priakhina demonstrated a vault of utmost complexity and a breathtaking bar combination, while her floor exercises included a double salto with two pirouettes.

Only three-tenths of a point separated Priakhina with her silver in the combined events form Daniela Silivas, who is three years her senior.

"Well, losing to Silivas is nothing shameful," said West Germany's Eberhard Gienger, the 1974 world champion in bar exercises.  "Both Alevtina Priakhina and Elena Shushunova could have easily won had it not been for some unfortunate errors."

Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci of Romania is also of the opinion that Soviet gymnasts have good prospects.  However, in pursuit of complexity they are paying less attention in recent years to the artistic expressiveness of exercises.

"At the Moscow championships," said Comaneci, "we saw that standards of women's gymnastics have grown everywhere.  The participation of representatives from West Germany and Spain in the finals was not accidental.  Bulgarian gymnasts have made great progress, and Diana Dudeva's bronze medals in the combined events and on parallel bars [sic] attest to it.  The GDR athletes are as strong as ever, even without their leader Dagmar Kersten."

In short, we can expect that Europe will be represented by very promising and interesting gymnasts at the world championships.  Captivating rivalry between Romanian and Soviet athletes is to become the highlight of the competitions.

The leading coach of the Soviet line-up and Olympic champion Lidia Ivanova noted that the number of challengers could well increase in Rotterdam.  "In any case," she said, "I'll be looking forward to the performances of Kristie Phillips, 15-year-old all-round champion from the USA, and Yang Yun and Yang Yanli of China."


This page was created on November 22, 2001.
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