Belenky's Crucifix and Lambada

By Lilia Kovaleva

Sport in the USSR, 1991      There is a standing joke for those unfamiliar with Valery Belenky (blondie, literally):  "Which one's Belenky?  That dark-head over there."

At first the discrepancy used to confuse the chief coach of the national team of male gymnastics, Nikolai Andrianov.  Belenky and Sergei Kharkov joined the national team simultaneously.  It took Andrianov a few days to sort things out.  He would call out "Belenky!" expecting to see Kharkov, and was invariably surprised when confronted by a dark-haired, dark-eyed stocky gymnast.  To his call of "Kharkov!", on the other hand, a fairish, goodlooking man responded instead of the one he had meant.

But in a very short while Andrianov noticed that Valery stood out as the more confident and fearless menber of the team.  During training sessions he was interested in little else but work.  He was not affected by either the approval or criticism of his coach as long as he himself was satisfied with his performance.

Today Belenky is the winner of the World Cup, a team world championship, he is an all-around champion of the Soviet Union, the winner of the World Stars '90 contest and various other international competitions.

It all began in Azerbaijan's capital Baku where Valery was born on September 5, 1969.  Baku is still his home city.  He took up gymnastics in 1977.  It was his mother, an eye doctor, who brought him to the gym.  Valery confessed that at first he just went through the motions.  But eventually he developed a passion for the sport and now he is so completely absorbed in gymnastics that it took him a while to answer my question about his other pastimes.  His one and only coach -- Alexei Orekhov -- is a man of great patience, kindness and modesty, according to Valery.  Belenky looks upon him as his instructor in matters of sport and life alike.  He will never take a major step without first consulting Orekhov.

"As a boy, I used to take gymnastics as a kind of game," says Valery.  "It was always so much fun training under Alexei Orekhov.  I still feel the same way about it, though now I have a more mature attitude to sport as a means of self-assertion. There is also the money.  Top gymnasts are very well paid.  Not to be sneezed at.  As you see, there is nothing particularly complex or muddled about my way of thinking.  And I live accordingly."

Experts note similarity in the style of performance by Belenky and Nikolai Andrianov: both are marked with elegance, precision and are technically superb.  Valery has always worshipped the many-time Olympic champion, now he looks up to him as a kind of mentor as well.  Andrianov, for his part, does not grudge the young gymnast advice and attention.

The utter self-abandonment with which Belenky works results in frequent injuries (fortunately, never serious; probably they were also responsible for his painfully slow progress to the top).  His legs are permanently patterned with a quantity of grazes and bruises.  Going halfway is something Valery has never accepted.  When working, he goes to the end.  Orekhov calls him a "no-nonsense gymnast."

Belenky's father, a cabinet-maker of some fame in Baku, used to go in for gymnastics himself.  When Valery was about seven, his father was a not infrequent participant of gymnastics shows at various festivals in the city.  Once he bungled a somersault, but managed such a smooth entry into the next exercise that the spectators never suspected that anything was amiss.  Not so his son.  The boy whizzed up the platform, yelling, jumping, turning cartwheels.  He was an impossibly comic sight and the emotional Baku public regaled both with a generous hand.

Valery is a cheerful person with roguish brown eyes and an engaging smile.  According to the Olympic champion, Valery Lyukin, who often shares rooms with him during team training sessions, Belenky is absolutely indispensable as a team member.  He knows how to relieve tension with an apt joke or a grin, and is generally a good mixer.  Even at the end of a particularly exhausting day of training Valery can make the others forget their weariness.  Lyukin confessed that he missed Valery when he was away.

"This last year Valery was invariably in high spirits: joking, laughing all the time and -- dancing, too; he has infected the rest of the team -- men and women alike," says Lyukin.  "I told him: 'Are you thinking of joining a dance company?'"

"Amazing, but Valery can dance lambada right after a training session.  When everybody else is dead-beat and a trip to the shower seems almost too much of an effort, there's our Valery dancing.  Would you believe it!"

I supposed Belenky is a born actor.  When you talk to him, he ends every sentence with a fitting grimace.  I told him as much.  He shrugged, made a funny face and said the stage had never figured among his life ambitions.  Having entered the Institute of Physical Education, he had made his choice.

Gymnastics fans and experts know how many extra-complex elements there are in Valery's performance.  He does Tkachev's kip and Gaylord's somersault on the bar.  While training he used to do the triple somersault on the floor.  But his favorite apparatus is the long horse.

When asked how long he could hold crucifix on the rings, Belenky promptly replied, "Seven seconds."

The athlete does not think of apparatus gymnastics as a health hazard; one should merely avoid overstraining.

I asked Andrianov whether he was not worried about Belenky burning himself out in his zeal to get ready for the major events, say, the 1991 Indianapolis Championships or the 1992 Olympics.

"Dear me, no! Belenky has enough energy for a dozen gymnasts."

Valery, who was within hearing at the time, nodded, satisfied.

This page was created on March 30, 2001.
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