A Successor

By Stanislav Tokarev

Sport in the USSR   In an interview Elena Davydova, the all-round 1980 Olympic gymnastics champion, said that her ideal in gymnastics was personified by Natalia Kuchinskaya and Olga Korbut.

In doing so she was naming gymnasts who were never all-round world, European or Olympic champions.

But these two women I would consider the symbolic figures of gymnastics, embodying as they did the highest qualities -- qualities which have given Soviet gymnastics the reputation it has.  Moreover they embodied something so brilliant, so, if some can put it like this, ultra, so extreme, that it was this very thing that stopped them getting the highest honors.  Neither of them was able to balance these qualities, and thus they retired from sport before their time, having generously given the world their talents, enriched the gymnastics platform and exhausted themselves.  But nevertheless they have stuck in our memories, and always will, and have played an enormous role in the creative process.

Natalia Kuchinskaya personified the joy and grief, happiness and pain of the surrounding world, feelings which she ennobled and perceived with a greatly heightened sensitivity.  The world -- with the beauty of woods and fields, of city avenues and back-streets, radiant with sun, rain or snow, with the beauty of a face flashing past in a crowd, a face precious just in that it's alive -- that was the poetry of Kuchinskaya, the basis of her movements on the platform.  Everything she did was lyrical, every movement a stanza, every exercise a poem.  The public raved but it was as if Natalia did not need their ecstasy, it was as superfluous as applause to a nightingale.

Ecstasy and applause were wings to Olga Korbut, wings which carried this young girl upwards.  A fiery spark of energy, she enjoyed taking risks and the thrill of danger.  When her seemingly weightless body, one unbroken muscle, achieved something which at that time seemed impossible, seemed to break the laws of motion, it was for her one of life's pinnacles.  And later when it seemed as if the stands were going to collapse from their cheers, she would continue her mischievous dialogue with the crowd -- beaming, jumping and expressing with her whole being what she was -- a daredevil, a little imp, desperately in love with her sport.

It was the voice of art which resounded after Kuchinskaya appeared on the world platform.

But after Korbut...Oh after Korbut there was an explosion -- young girls, tiny like she was, wholeheartedly courageous like she was, would rush to turn somersaults in the air, to swivel in different planes, to fly and over as if cocking a snook at the laws of gravity.

Davydova is of the generation that came to gymnastics right after Korbut.  She shined early, coming second in the countrywide championships that preceded the Montreal Olympics.  Then she beat both Maria Filatova and Natalia Shaposhnikova, and others who were destined just a little later on to lead our team.

She won then, but afterwards it was as if she had come to a halt -- and a long one, lasting an entire Olympic cycle.

Nevertheless she played secondary roles -- the team reserve, lower-ranking international competitions.

If she hadn't, to everyone's surprise, won the country's Cup in June 1980 she wouldn't have been included among the Olympic six.

And then, on one of the warm summer evenings of the Moscow Games, the Luzhniki hall resounded suddenly with cries of "Yelena, Yelena!", and even before being announced the winner, and not her normal self at all, she few out on to the platform to be greeted by huge bouquets of July flowers....

At the Moscow Olympics Davydova's exercises met the highest criteria in their complexity, and at the same time stood out from the others in the originality which grace every detail.  Thus, for example, in the floor exercises Davydova did not do a double somersault like everyone else, but flipped backwards through one and a half turns, with a switch at 180 degrees.  And this immediately drew the judges' attention after the by then routine sequence of double somersaults.

Only when this victory had actually happened, a victory over the beautiful Rumanian Nadia Comaneci, over the tough-willed Maxi Gnauck from the GDR and all our favorites, only then did we really take a good look at her.

It seems to me that we saw the fine figure of Korbut.

With the inspired face and far-set, wide-open, unforgettable eyes that are Kuchinskaya.

She lives in Leningrad, but hasn't for very long, coming recently to study at the Lesgaft Institute of Physical Education.  Her trainer, Gennady Korshunov, who graduated from a Physical Education School here in Leningrad, had told her ever since she was a child of this pale blue city of palaces, golden spires and embankments graced by sphinxes, of a city harmonious and austere, poetic like gymnastics.

She grew up in Voronezh, at the renowned school of gymnastics founded by Yuri Shtuckman, a school which has given the world a multitude of famous names.  It's true that she wasn't accepted straightaway at the school -- as a child she looked like a little pudding, and Stuckman had taken as his standard the Olympic champion Lyubov Burda, long-legged and beautifully proportioned.  Korshunov, then a young specialist, took the risk of admitting her, noticing this little mite peeping through the school windows and imitating what she saw.

Korshunov was trained by Shtuckman, a magician of a man who combines the power of fantasy, the power to create quite new elements, and a subtle, dramatic musicality.

Korshunov himself was musical even as a child, even organizing his own band in the PT school as a young lad.  He began as an acrobat, his searching imagination able to come up with hitherto unseen stunts and ways to carefully and gently lead his pupil on.  He loves her like a father and is sparing towards her, as few are in a profession where, whatever one may say, one has to force the muscles and hearts of one's pupils to act.  Gennady says, a youthful look playing on his face, that "any adult is in a position to use force to get his way with a child, but I always want to be able to look Yelena straight in the eyes."  And if, as it sometimes happens, she plays up, Korshunov never raises his voice, wondering instead why she has suddenly rebelled -- maybe he has given her too much to do, maybe he's to blame.

Is that not perhaps why, at 19 years, an age when other girls have stopped wanting to even look at gymnastics apparatus, Davydova still loves gymnastics with the passionate enthusiasm of a young girl?

Features of Kuchinskaya and Korbut mix perfectly in Davydova.

What has she got of Kuchinskaya?  I would say the selflessness with which she totally devotes herself.  If it's the free-style and music playing, Yelena will sing too -- Spanish or Gypsy songs, two-line ditties maybe, of she'll hum along with the limpid tones of Tchaikovsky.  She greets each new piece of apparatus with the glee one might feel for a special celebration, and all the time music rings inside her, even if others can't hear it.

What has she got of Korbut?  She flies like a bird through the air, is as rich and varied, and, most of all, as unusual and innovative -- one of the best in the world.

She loves having her breath taken away -- staying with her grandmother and grandfather in the country after the Olympics for instance, she learnt to ride a motorbike and instantly tore down a forest track, full of potholes. (Korbut's driving is also apparently not the stuff to gladden a traffic policeman's heart.)

But she also loves to fish quietly at dawn, when it is still only half-light, the sky still not blue and the river shimmering silver; she says one seems to think and breathe so well at such minutes.

She loves reading, especially history books.

Of the subjects she takes at the Institute she prefers physiology, anatomy and biomechanics -- wanting perhaps to know all about how her body works in gymnastics.

What else?  She loves cooking and baking pies.  Ice cream.

She's a simple girl, from a simple, good, working family.

Simple?  Well maybe not entirely.  Korshunov maintains one of the main reasons for her winning the Olympics was that previously when she competed he would spend all his time following the points allotted to her rivals.  But at the Olympics he forgot all about them.  This time he sat right at the very top of the stands and just kept repeating the words, "Yelena, I'm here, I'm with you."

To explain why this worked -- in the past when Gennady spent the whole time watching the scoreboard he was, of course, a bed of nerves.  He didn't say anything to her, but he suffered, and with her sensitive heart she felt every nuance of his mood. And here too she was bound to feel everything -- however far away in the stands he was.  And thus he was sure that if he strained every nerve to feel calm, she would also feel this sense of calm.  And she heard his words, "Yelena, I'm with you."

This page was created on June 23, 2001.