Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina (born 1934) won a stunning eighteen Olympic medals between 1956 and 1964. Her medal tally stands as a record high for any athlete in the history of the Games, and she was also the first female Olympian to win nine gold medals. Her crowd-pleasing gymnastic displays began an era of Russian domination in the sport, and Latynina was the first in a series of talented women gymnasts to gain world attention outside the Soviet Communist bloc.
Latynina epitomized the ideal Soviet athlete, in an era when an authoritarian state socialism dominated that part of the world and tightly regimented the lives of its citizens. She came from humble beginnings, her talents were recognized early and cultivated with the help of generous state funding for sports, and when she began winning, she deflected praise from her individual achievement by speaking of the pride she felt for her country as its Olympic representative. But Latynina would later express disillusionment about the way political propaganda had tainted her career.
Classic Soviet Tale
The future Olympian was born Larissa Semyonovna Dirii on December 27, 1934, in Kherson, Ukraine, when that country was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). At the time of her birth, Ukrainians had been forcibly resisting the collectivization of their individual farms under Soviet leader Josef Stalin for the past few years, and Moscow's retaliatory policies had led to widespread famine across the once-fertile Ukraine.
World War II brought even greater hardships. With the country at war against Nazi Germany, the average Soviet citizen endured enormous hardships and food and fuel shortages. Latynina had lost both of her parents by the time the war ended in 1945. She turned 11 years old that year, and around this same time she began taking ballet classes. She aspired to become a dancer, but standard ballet training at the time involved occasional gymnastic exercises with hoops and balls, and Latynina proved so talented at this that her teachers redirected her toward the sport.
By the age of 16, Latynina had won the national schools gymnastics championship. She graduated from high school in 1953, and a year later took part in the 1954 World Gymnastics Championships in Rome, Italy, where she placed fourteenth. She also began courses at the Physical Training College in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. She married a fellow student there, Ivan Latynin, and began competing as Larisa Latynina. Her next major event came with the 1956 Summer Olympic Games, held that year in Melbourne, Australia. Soviet athletes were a relatively new element in the Games, having participated only since the 1952 Olympics after a 40-year absence from the games.
Won First Olympic Gold
In Melbourne, Latynina was part of a team of Russian women gymnasts who swept the competition that year. It marked the beginning of the Soviet women's domination of the sport for the next 40 years. She took six medals, four of them gold. Her first-place finishes came in the individual all-around competition and on the vault, and she tied for another gold medal in the floor exercise with Ágnes Keleti of Hungary. She also won a silver medal for the uneven bars, a bronze for the team drill with portable apparatus—a segment that was later discontinued—and another gold for team competition. These victories helped the Soviets advance past the United States in the all-important medal count by a large margin, 98-74. Both countries viewed the Olympics as a showcase for the merits of their respective ideologies—for the Soviets, the collective spirit as an expression of national solidarity, and for the Americans, the triumph of individualism. At the 1956 Summer Games, held during the height of Cold War tensions between the two nations, the Melbourne medal tally was a decisive Soviet propaganda victory, and marked the first time the U.S.S.R. had beaten the United States in the Olympic numbers game.
It was also an era when Soviet gymnasts began to dominate the sport, and were commended for displaying grace as well as the requisite athleticism. Latynina was the first gymnast to achieve celebrity status on an international level thanks to her Olympic performance in 1956. Many years later, she was interviewed for Red Files, a PBS documentary film series that utilized recently declassified documents of the Soviet Communist era. Latynina was featured in the Soviet Sports Wars segment of the series. She recalled that after her Melbourne win, she enthusiastically participated in the propaganda campaign. "I was a very big patriot," she said. "My gymnastics was not only mine-it belonged to my Soviet motherland and all the people."
Latynina's winning streak continued at an impressive pace. She won every event in the European Gymnastics Championships in 1957, and a year later won every event except the vault. She also won in competition in 1958 while five months pregnant, and had not let the competition physicians know of her condition, because she would have been forced to withdraw. Her daughter Tanya was born in December of 1958, and Latynina was forced to sit out the 1959 European Championships. At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, she returned triumphantly, winning another six medals. This time, three were gold—for all-around, floor exercise, and in team competition—followed by two silver for the balance beam and uneven bars, and a bronze for vault. She was one of the undisputed stars of those Games, along with American boxer Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) and Wilma Rudolph, the U.S. sprinter. Again, the Soviets dominated these Games, winning 103 medals overall versus a U.S. tally of just 71.
Expressed Gratitude, Not Pride
Latynina was honored at home with some of the U.S.S.R.'s most prestigious civilian awards, including the Order of Lenin and the Soviet Badge of Honor. Each granted her special perks, such as a better apartment and chance to purchase hard-to-obtain consumer products. Expected to voice enthusiastic support for her country in return, she fulfilled her obligation without hesitation. In a 1964 interview with Alexandr Maryamov for Soviet Life, an English-language magazine produced in the Soviet Union to showcase life in the U.S.S.R., she expressed proper enthusiasm for her sport, and respect for those who had helped her succeed in it. Maryamov asked her which of her awards was her favorite, and she replied that it was "the small gold medal I was awarded in 1953 for graduating from school with honors. It was at school that I first took up gymnastics and, with the fine guiding hand of our school coach Mikhail Sotnichenko, came to like it. That was when I won my USSR Master of Sports badge. When I got back home to Kherson from the Melbourne Olympics, I presented one of the medals I had won there to my first coach."
Latynina continued to train diligently, and her winning streak remained an impressive one. At the 1961 European Championships she won first place in two events, and finished second in two others, a feat she repeated the following year at the 1962 World Championships. She was one of only four women ever to win four consecutive World Championship titles, along with two other Russian women, Lyudmila Turishcheva and Svetlana Khorkina, and the American gymnast Shannon Miller. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics would be Latynina's final one as a competitor, however, for she was nearly 30 years old and past the usual age for women gymnasts.
Latynina was still in peak competition form, however, and in Tokyo won gold medals in the floor exercise and team competition, silver medals for individual all-around and vault, and a pair of bronze for the balance beam and uneven bars. Her performance in the floor exercise event was recalled some twenty years later by a British sports journalist Rex Bellamy in the Times of London. Bellamy was actually writing about the Wimbledon tennis championships of 1984, and of the grace on the court of a relative unknown, Carina Karlsson. Watching her, Bellamy asserted, "Takes me back … to the Tokyo Olympics, when the floor exercises of a Russian gymnast called Larisa Latynina so beautifully exemplified youth, beauty and joy that when she had finished, we simply stood up and cried."
Retired from Competition
At the 1965 European Championships, Latynina won four silver medals and a bronze. A year later, at the 1966 World Championships, she finished in eleventh place, and officially retired from competition. She had already moved over to the second segment of her career, coaching a new generation of elite Russian gymnasts, and became the Soviet national team coach in 1966. Her position as the top Soviet women's gymnast was taken over by her protégé, Natasha Kuchinskaya. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Kuchinskaya was the gold-medal-winning star gymnast, but back at home, Latynina recalled in the Soviet Sports Wars documentary, Kuchinskaya began to balk at the rules. "She began to disappear, to miss trainings. She'd complain: 'I don't want to do this, or I don't want to do that.' Well, for us it seemed like her fame had gone to her head."
Kuchinskaya was supplanted by another Russian woman to emerge as the sport's newest darling: the petite Olga Korbut, a crowd favorite at the 1972 Munich Summer Games and an overnight media sensation. Korbut dominated the European and World competitions, but Latynina voiced some rare public criticism of her student in late 1973 in Komsomolskaya Pravda, the national newspaper for the Communist Party's youth organization. At the time, few statements from public officials ever made it into the Soviet press unless they had been officially sanctioned at some level. In that article, Latynina claimed that the other top Soviet woman gymnast, Lyudmila Turishcheva, was actually the leader in Russian women's gymnastics. The Russian-language article was recapped by the Times of London, and quoted Latynina as saying that Korbut's star status "was fully deserved but popularity is not leadership. The right to leadership is won not by appraisals of the fans." She also asserted that Turishcheva, who had recently won the European Championships after Korbut had an injury, "has held that right for a long time."
A more candid explanation of the official Soviet displeasure with Korbut-mania was offered by Latynina in the Soviet Sports Wars interview a quarter-century later. "Korbut was more popular in America than in the Soviet Union," Latynina said. "She was, well, how should I say it: she didn't behave properly-always demanding attention. She was a primadonna. That's not how we were raised." But Korbut's fame would be fleeting, for at the 1976 Montreal Olympics she was ousted from her slot by Nadia Comaneci of Romania. This seemed to signal the end of Latynina's career coaching Olympic-caliber gymnasts. "The sports committee acted like I'd committed some deadly sin because we'd lost," Latynina recalled in Soviet Sports Wars about the 1976 Games. "They said I was outdated, obsolete. I was so insulted. I said, well, if I am outdated, then I won't waste your time. So I gave them my resignation, and walked out."
After 1977, Latynina served as a coach for an elite Moscow team and was the director of gymnastics for the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Twice divorced, she married another athlete, Yuri Israilevich Feldman, with whom she lived in Kolyanino, near Moscow. Still revered as one of the Soviet era's greatest athletes, Latynina expressed mixed feelings about her participation in the Cold War sports showdowns. Her summation of her career was chosen to end the Soviet Sports Wars documentary. Its final shot featured Latynina and her words. "I believed in our system," she admitted. "I believed and believed and believed. Now, sadly, I don't anymore. I realize it was all cheap propaganda. We athletes used to call out to our people: go forward. Now, all my work and all my beliefs have left me with nothing. Absolutely nothing."
Notable Sports Figures, 4 vols. Gale, 2004.
Soviet Life, September 1964.
Times (London, England), October 22, 1964; November 7, 1969; December 7, 1973; July 3, 1984.
Red Files: Soviet Sports Wars, PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/redfiles/sports/ (January 19, 2006).
"Latynina, Larisa." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/latynina-larisa
"Latynina, Larisa." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/latynina-larisa
Gymnast Larisa Latynina won 18 medals in Olympic competition, and is the most decorated Olympian to date in any sport. She competed in the 1956, 1960, and 1964 Olympics, as well as at the world championships in 1954, 1958, 1962, and 1966. She is the only gymnast to have won medals in every event on the program in two different Olympics.
An Orphan Seeking Beauty
Born in Kherson, Ukraine in 1934, Latynina, who began her gymnastic career under her maiden name, Dirii, initially dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer, but her childhood was difficult. Deeply affected by years of poverty, World War II, and its aftermath, Latynina was also an orphan. She dreamed of making a better, more beautiful life, and as part of this dream, she began studying ballet when she was eleven years old.
Like many other schools in the Soviet Union at the time, Latynina's incorporated exercises with hoops and balls performed to music, and her teachers soon steered her into gymnastics. By the time she was sixteen, she was the national gymnastics champion of the schools division.
She was a dedicated student, and graduated from high school with honors in 1953. In school, she had also studied gymnastics, and her devotion to the sport paid off at the 1954 World Championships, when she placed 14th all-around.
Latynina studied at the Physical Training College in Kiev; at the school, she met and married Ivan Latynin, a ship's engineer.
Becomes a Gymnastics Superstar
At the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, Latynina won gold medals in the all-around and on vault, and tied for gold on floor exercises. Her team won silver medals on bars and bronze medals in the team drill event. Their wins were part of a notable shift in the sport of gymnastics: "away from strength, power, and sustained movements," according to an article on the Women in Gymnastics Web site, and toward "beauty, grace and choreography." Latynina made such an impression at Melbourne that she became the first internationally acclaimed superstar in the sport of gymnastics. She was twenty-one years old.
Interestingly, Latynina noted that her routines were not particularly difficult or innovative; instead, she tried to perform each move perfectly and with elegance.
In 1957 and 1958, Latynina won every event at the European championships, and in 1958, at the World
Championships, she almost duplicated this feat, winning gold medals in every event except the vault, in which she won a silver medal. Her winning sweep was made even more remarkable by the fact that while competing in these events, she was pregnant with her daughter, Tanya. Tanya was born ten days before Latynina's twenty-fourth birthday.
In a 1964 article in USSR Soviet Life Today, Latynina told Alexandr Maryamov that her daughter deserved half of the credit for her win at the World Championships. Latynina knew that she was five months pregnant during the tournament, but had kept her condition a secret from her doctors, since she knew that they would make her withdraw from competition.
Latynina skipped the 1959 European Championships because of her pregnancy, but after giving birth to her daughter, Latynina returned to competition. At the 1960 Olympics, Latynina won a medal in every event she competed in: a gold medal in all-around, floor exercises, and in team competition; silver medal on uneven bars and balance beam; and a bronze medal in the vault.
In competition at the 1961 European championships, Latynina won gold in floor and all-around, and silver on uneven bars and balance beam. She repeated her gold wins in floor and all-around at the 1962 world championships, and also won silver in the vault and balance beam.
In 1963, Latynina began graduate study at the Kiev Physical Training Institute. She was also a member of a committee that judged movies made by the Kiev Film Studios. As a celebrity, she met other Soviet heroes, such as cosmonaut Gherman Titov and his family.
At the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Latynina won gold medals in floor exercises and team competition; silver medals in all-around and vault; and bronze medals in un-even bars and beam. In an article in the London Times, a reporter commented that because Latynina was twenty-nine at the time, her career might be winding to a close, and "we may never see her like again…. But at such moments as she gave us this evening, hope springs eternal."
At the European championships in 1965, Latynina won four silver medals, in all-around, uneven bars, beam, and floor exercises, and a bronze medal in vault.
Latynina's daughter Tanya expressed no interest in following in her mother's footsteps. Tanya's father, Ivan Latynin, told Maryamov that he was grateful for this: "One gymnast in the family is quite enough! I'm a nervous wreck every time Larisa competes." He said that when she competed on beam, he had to either close his eyes or leave the venue.
Latynina's coach, Alexander Mishakov, told Maryamov, "It's a pleasure to work with Latynina because she demands so much of herself." He noted that Latynina filled every moment she had with activities. At the time, she was doing graduate work at the Kiev Physical Training Institute, and had been elected to the Kiev City Soviet for five years in a row. In addition to these duties and her intense gymnastics training routine, she found time for the theater, movies, fishing, dancing, getting together with friends, and spending time with her husband and daughter. Part of her intense activity was a result of the Soviet system of training athletes: athletes received many privileges in the Soviet system, but they were then obligated to serve their government by giving lectures and undertaking public service. Latynina's stint in the Kiev City government was part of this obligatory service.
Maryamov asked Latynina if she had a favorite medal, and Latynina replied, "The small gold medal I was awarded in 1953 for graduating from school with honors." Latynina also noted that in addition to gymnastics, she enjoyed reading poetry, listening to classical music and jazz, and watching theater and ballet. She told Maryamov, "I'd say they all help in my gymnastics work. I suspect that without them I'd be less of a gymnast."
|1934||Born December 27, in Kherson, Ukraine, Soviet Union|
|1953||Graduates from high school with honors|
|1954||Comes in 14th at World Championships|
|1956||Wins four gold medals and one silver at Olympic games in Melbourne, Australia|
|1957||Wins European Championship gold medals in all-around, vault, uneven bars, beam, and floor exercises|
|1957||Receives Order of Lenin|
|1958||Wins World Championship gold medals in team competition, all-around, floor exercises, uneven bars, and beam; wins silver in vault|
|1958||Gives birth to her daughter, Tanya|
|1959||Graduates from Kiev Institute of Physical Culture|
|1960||Wins two gold medals, two silver medals, and a bronze medal in Olympic games|
|1960||Receives Soviet Badge of Honor|
|1961||Wins European Championship gold medals in all-around and floor exercises; silver medals in uneven bars and beam; comes in fourth in vault|
|1962||Wins World Championship gold medals in team, all-around, and floor exercises; wins silver in vault and beam; wins bronze in uneven bars|
|1963||Begins graduate study at the Kiev Physical Training Institute|
|1964||Wins two gold medals, two silver medals, and two bronze medals at Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan|
|1964||At USSR Championships, wins silver medal in all-around|
|1965||At European Championships, wins silver medals in all-around, uneven bars, beam, and floor exercises; bronze medal in vault|
|1966||At USSR cup, comes in fifth in all-around|
|1966||At USSR World Trials, comes in sixth in all-around|
|1966||At World Championships, wins silver in team competition; comes in eleventh in all-around|
|1966-77||Coaches USSR international women's team|
|1972||Becomes honorary coach of the USSR|
|1977||Member of Organizational Committee, 1980 Olympics|
|1998||Inducted into International Gymnastics Hall of Fame|
|2002||Receives Ukrainian Star Award|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1956||Olympic gold medals in team competition, all-around, vault, floor exercises; silver medal in uneven bars|
|1957||European Championship gold medals in all-around, vault, uneven bars, beam, and floor exercises|
|1957||Order of Lenin|
|1958||World Championship gold medals in team competition, all-around, floor exercises, uneven bars, and beam; silver in vault|
|1960||Olympic gold medals in team competition and all-around; silver in uneven bars and beam; wins bronze in vault|
|1960||Soviet Badge of Honor|
|1961||European Championship gold medals in all-around and floor exercises; silver medals in uneven bars and beam|
|1961||USA-USSR meet gold medal in team and all-around|
|1962||World Championship gold medals in team, all-around, and floor exercises; silver in vault and beam; bronze in uneven bars|
|1964||Olympic gold medal in team competition and floor exercises; silver medal in all-around and vault; bronze medal in uneven bars and beam|
|1964||Sweden-USSR meet gold medal in team competition|
|1964||USSR Championships silver medal in all-around|
|1965||European Championships silver medals in all-around, uneven bars, beam, and floor exercises; bronze medal in vault|
|1966||World Championships silver in team competition|
|1998||International Gymnastics Hall of Fame|
|2002||Ukrainian Star Award|
Knowing that she could not continue competing forever, Latynina began planning a career shift, from competing to coaching. By 1964, her first protégé, Tanya Palamarchuk, had already won a Master of Sports rating. In addition to coaching, Latynina often spoke, hoping to popularize the sport among young people. "It's the sport closest to the arts that we have," she told Maryamov.
At the 1966 World Championships, she placed 11th all-around. She retired from competition after this event.
From 1966 to 1977, Latynina was a Soviet national team coach, and from 1977 on, coached a local team in Moscow. She was director of gymnastics for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and was honored with the Olympic Order from the International Olympic Committee in 1989.
Latynina has been married three times. She lives with her current husband, Yuri Israilevich Feldman, a former cycling champion, in Kolyanino, near Moscow. She is still revered as a national sports hero in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Ukraine, and often attends gymnastics competitions in Moscow. In 2002 she was honored with a Ukrainian Star Award.
In 1998, Latynina was named to the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. She was also honored in 2000, when a path in the Sydney Olympic Village was named "Larisa Latynina Way" in her honor.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY LATYNINA:
Ravnovesie, Moscow, 1975.
Gimnastika K=Skvoz'Gody, Moscow, 1977.
Riordan, James. Soviet Sports Background to the Olympics. New York: New York University Press, 1980.
Schultz, Heinrich, and Stephen S. Taylor. Who's Who in the USSR 1961-62. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1962.
"Mrs. Latynina Falls from Power." Times (London, England) (October 22, 1964): 4.
"Larisa Latynina (USSR)." Gymn Forum, http://www.gymn-forum.com/bios/latynina_1.html (November 19, 2002).
"Larisa Latynina," International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. http://www.ighof.com/honorees_latynina.html (November 19, 2002).
"Larisa Latynina." International Gymnast. http://www.intlgymnast.com/legends/latynina.html (November 19, 2002).
"Larisa Latynina: The First International Superstar." Women in Gymnastics. http://historypages.org/gymnastics/latynina.html (November 19, 2002).
Maryamov, Alexandr. "Grace and Charm." reprinted from Soviet Life Today, September, 1964, in Gymn Forum. http://www.gymn-forum.com/Articles/SL-Latyn.html (November 19, 2002).
Ostrovsky, Ihor. "Ukrainian Stars Isolated." Day (Kiev, Ukraine) (June 4, 2002)http://www.day.kiev.ua/(November 19, 2002).
Sketch by Kelly Winters
"Latynina, Larisa." Notable Sports Figures. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/latynina-larisa
"Latynina, Larisa." Notable Sports Figures. . Retrieved October 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/latynina-larisa