Russian speed skater
Before American speed skaters Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair raced to fame as Olympic champions, Soviet speed skater Lydia Skoblikova set a standard of excellence. She was the first athlete, man or woman, to win six gold medals in Olympic competition and remains the only woman to win four gold medals in a single Winter Olympic Games. Along the way, she debunked stereo-types about women athletes, Soviets in particular. Three decades later, despite the lack of widespread name recognition, her accomplishments still stand among the greatest in the sport.
A Natural Fit
Skoblikova was born March 8, 1939, into a large family in Zlatoust, a small mining town in the mountains of Siberia in the Soviet Union. Her father worked as a metallurgical engineer, a position that gave his daughter the chance to pursue skating and be educated in the Soviet system. With the area's long, cold winters and many rinks, skating was an obvious choice of recreation, and Skoblikova spent many hours on the ice. By the time she was twelve, her talent and fondness for speed skating took root, and she became serious about the sport.
In 1957, the 18-year old set the women's Soviet records in the 1,500 meter and 3,000 meter distances. That same year, she married her trainer, Alexander Skoblikova, who later placed her under the charge of a series of other trainers when he devoted himself to teaching at the Chelyabinsk Pedagogic Institute near Zlatoust. His wife supported the career change, explaining to Israel Shenker of Sports Illustrated, "I think it's better not to be married to a skater. You have more to talk about." This attitude reflected her broad base of interests, including music and literature. Soon, she too became a teacher at the Chelyabinsk Pedagogic Institute, concentrating on physiology.
Although Skoblikova was not single-minded in her pursuit of speed skating glory, she did want to be the best. Along with her teammates, she undertook a strenuous and innovative training regimen that included gymnastics, running, and an early form of in-line skating for times when ice was unavailable. She was driven to work harder than anyone, telling Shenker of Sports Illustrated, "If anyone else runs 20 times 200, I can do 40 times 200. And at faster speed."
Speed Skating's First Big Star
Skoblikova began her international skating career in 1959, winning an all-around bronze medal at the World Championships. At the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, the first to offer women's speed skating, she competed in three out of the four events. She placed fourth in the 1,000 meter but won a gold medal in the 1,500 meter (setting a world record) and the 3,000 meter, her favorite distance. She didn't race in the 500 meter, thought to be her only weakness.
Skoblikova cut back on her training during 1961 and 1962 to focus on teaching, but still won the all-around bronze medal at the 1961 World Championships and the all-around silver medal the following year. She returned in a big way in 1963. At the World Championships in Karuizawa, Japan, she swept all four races—the 500 meter, the 1,000 meter, the 1,500 meter, and the 3,000 meter. She was humble in victory, telling Sports Illustrated 's Shenker, "The others were just skating worse than I was."
Her greatest triumph, however, came at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, where the 24-year old duplicated her world championship success. The heavy favorite, she swept all four events: the 500, the 1,000, the 1,500, and the 3,000. She set world records in all but the 3,000. This last race took place as the ice was melting, so Skoblikova had to skate through some puddles, which slowed her pace. Yet instead of blaming host officials for the track's condition, writer Robert Condon quoted her in Great Women Athletes of the 20th Century. as saying, "The ice was perfect."
This feat—winning four gold medals in a single Olympics—has not been repeated by any other woman. Only two male athletes, American Eric Heiden and Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen , have since done so. Only one other woman, Russian cross-country skier Lyubov Egorova, managed to equal, almost thirty years later, her tally of six gold medals. As a reward for Skoblikova's singular success, Premier Nikita Khrushchev informed her that she was being made a member of the Communist Party.
Skoblikova added to her gold medal collection at the 1964 World Championships in Kristinehamn, Sweden, where she won the 1,000, the 1,500, and the 3,000 meter races. For the second year in a row, she was named the world champion.
When Skoblikova entered the 1960 Winter Olympics, she encountered both gender and political preconceptions. As the first Games to feature women's speed skating, Skoblikova and the other female competitors were looked upon with suspicion. Speed skating requires quickness, strength, and endurance—attributes that many felt were unbecoming, if not absent, in females. Skoblikova offered a defense to Shenker of Sports Illustrated : "Skating makes us more feminine…. Cycling or skiingtakes a lot of muscle, but skating does you no harm."
Skoblikova's appearance and personality played a role in disarming detractors. The 5-foot, 5-inch blue-eyed blonde weighed a slim 126 pounds and was typically described as attractive in press accounts. Her ready, warm smile and gracious manner charmed spectators. After winning a race, she played to the crowd, waving and smiling broadly. As she told Sports Illustrated 's Shenker, "At the theater you applaud a good actor who gives you pleasure. When I have won a race, giving people pleasure, I like to skate around the stadium wearing the laurel wreath of victory. People applaud and that gives me pleasure."
The dominance of the Soviet women at many of these Games' events also fueled rumors about the use of performance-enhancing drugs and even female impersonators. No one suggested Skoblikova, with her petite and shapely figure, was anything but a very talented skater.
|1939||Born March 8 in Zlatoust in the Soviet Union|
|1952||Decides to pursue competitive speed skating|
|1957||Marries Alexander Skoblikova|
|1959||Begins her international speed skating career|
|1960||Wins two races in first women's speed skating events in Winter Olympics history|
|1962||Begins teaching physiology at the Chelyabinsk Pedagogic Institute|
|1963||Sweeps all four events at World Championships and is crowned world champion|
|1964||Competes in her second Winter Olympics and wins all four races|
|1974||Becomes head of the physical education department at a Moscow university|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1957||Sets women's Soviet records in the 1,500 meter and 3,000 meter distances|
|1959-61||Wins all-around bronze medal at USSR National Championships|
|1959-61||Wins all-around bronze medal at World Championships|
|1960||Wins two gold medals at Winter Olympics|
|1962||Wins all-around silver medal at World Championships|
|1962-64||Wins all-around silver medal at USSR National Championships|
|1963||Wins four gold medals at World Championships and is named world champion|
|1964||Wins three gold medals at World Championships and is named world champion|
|1964||Wins four gold medals at Winter Olympics|
|1964||First woman named Soviet Athlete of the Year|
|1967||Wins overall silver medal at USSR National Championships|
|1996||Inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame|
|1999||Named by Associated Press as one of top 10 female Winter Olympians of the 20th century|
|2002||Named to Bud Greenspan's list of 25 Greatest Winter Olympians|
The atmosphere at these Olympics, moreover, was thick with patriotic fervor. The Soviets seemed particularly unwilling to embrace the Games as a friendly competition. Instead, they viewed the Games as a way to prove Communist superiority and to instill pride among their people. Toward that end, the Soviets had supported and promoted their best athletes. Skoblikova benefited, receiving financial support and time off from her teaching duties to train. This led to charges, officially denied by the Soviets, that their athletes violated the Olympics' amateur-only requirement.
Despite the tension, Skoblikova won over many fans, including American figure skater Carol Heiss, who won a gold medal at the 1960 Games, where she met Skoblikova. Heiss later told Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star, "The Russians always intrigued us, and she was so nice. But the ways things were, I didn't see her again until about 10 years ago. It was so much fun. It was like the years melted away."
An Enduring Legacy
Nearing thirty, Skoblikova competed in the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France, but was not able to replicate her previous success. She raced in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters but failed to medal. Although her achievements had already earned her a celebrated place in sports history, her name remains relatively unknown outside her native country, mainly a result of the Cold War context in which she competed and the extent to which the sport has evolved. But her speed skating exploits have not been forgotten. Among her honors, she was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1996 and was named by Olympic historian and filmmaker Bud Greenspan in 2002 as one of the 25 Greatest Winter Olympians of All Time.
Related Biography: Russian Skier Lyubov Egorova
At the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, Russian cross-country skier Lyubov Egorova tied Skoblikova's record of six Olympic gold medals and was hailed as a sports hero. Her career and reputation, however, were derailed when she failed a drug test at the 1997 World Championships.
Egorova was born in Siberia in 1966 and moved to St. Petersburg as a teen to train on her country's best cross-country course. Described as a late bloomer, she didn't win her first international competition until she was 25. At the 1991 and 1993 World Championships, she won three gold medals. She also was the 1993 World Cup overall champion. Competing for the Unified Team at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, she medaled in all five nordic skiing events, winning three golds and two silvers. She matched Skoblikova's gold count at the 1994 Games, winning three more golds and a silver.
Egorova's downfall came in 1997, when she was caught taking a banned substance, Bromantan, which can enhance performance and mask other drugs. She was stripped of the gold medal she won days earlier and was barred from World Championship competition for two years. Egorova professed shock, insisting that she did not knowingly take Bromantan. Many did not believe her explanation that she accidentally consumed the substance by taking a medication.
Egorova lives in St. Petersburg with her husband and resumed competing at the end of her two-year ban. Although her Olympic record is unaffected, the scandal angered fans and competitors.
Nathan Aaseng, in his book Women Olympic Champions, wrote about Skoblikova's legacy: "First, she was a key member of a Soviet national women's team that pushed the limits of achievement far beyond those of the previous generation.… The Russians' success in turn pushed East Germany, the United States, and other countries into developing female athletes.… Second, Skoblikova stood out as an important contradiction to the stereotype of Soviet female athletes as cold, masculine machines. Her combination of incredible strength and endurance, grace under pressure, willingness to let her emotions show, and pride in her appearance, reinforced the idea that women could be warm and feminine and still enjoy and excel in sports."
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Sketch by Carole Manny
Russian speed skater Lydia Skoblikova (born 1939) became the first athlete to win four gold medals in one Olympiad, in the 1964 Winter Games at Innsbruck, Austria. Her six golds overall for the former Soviet Union remain a record in the sport. The "lightning from the Urals" also won numerous medals in the World Championships.
Had Cold Winters in Siberia
Skoblikova was raised in a metallurgical engineer's family in Zlatoust, in Siberia, a sword-making community in the Ural Mountains that was also the home of world chess champion Anatoly Karpov. Thanks to the long winters, outdoor rinks were abundant, and the sports-minded city built many athletic facilities. Skoblikova began skating at age 10 and racing at 12. An Associated Press article in the New York Times wrote, "In an atmosphere where the winters are long and the skating rinks plentiful, she rapidly mastered the techniques of the sport."
Skoblikova worked up to five hours a day fine-tuning her style, and built her endurance through bicycling and skiing. "In the European countries, skiing and skating is started in babyhood," Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times. "In Innsbruck, for example, the kids gulp down their lunch at the noon recess and snatch a couple of runs down a nearby Alp before returning to classes." And in the Netherlands, many Dutch people get from place to place by skating across the country's frozen canals.
Golden Breakthrough at Squaw Valley
At age 19 Skoblikova qualified for the Soviet team in the 1959 World Championships in Siberia and earned a bronze medal for her third-place finish. Ironically, given her international success, she never won a national championship. She captured two distance events at the Worlds the following year, and won the 500-meter sprint at the Worlds in 49.5 seconds; in the latter event, she led a Soviet sweep of the top four finishes.
In 1960 she qualified for her first Olympiad, the Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California. Skating, including all its subcategories, was one of four winter sports at Squaw Valley. Skoblikova, largely unknown internationally at the time, drew headlines with her Olympic victories in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters; she set a world record in the 1,500 meters. She barely missed another medal in the 1,000 meters, finishing fourth.
Squaw Valley would be a mere opening act for Skoblikova, who balanced her sports regimen with a job teaching anatomy and physical education at the Physical Culture Institute in Chelyabinski, Siberia. She and her Soviet teammates continued to excel in the Worlds. After near misses for golds the previous two years, Skoblikova dominated the 1963 Worlds in Karuizawa, Japan. She won all four events—the 500, 1,000, 1,5000, and 3,000 meters—gliding over what the New York Times called "one of the finest 400-meter skating layouts in the world."
Won Four Golds in 1964
One month before the 1964 Olympic Winter Games at Innsbruck, Skoblikova, an Iron Curtain athlete who spoke infrequently and measuredly, suddenly predicted the Soviet Union would sweep the women's figure skating events. "We will pick up silver and bronze medals, too," she said at a Moscow press conference held by the Soviet State Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, according to Theodore Shabad of the New York Times. The Soviet team was strong in speed skating, entering eleven men and six women at the Innsbruck games, but no female solo figure skaters competed there.
The USSR emphasized nationalism in advance of the Games. According to Shabad, Yuri D. Mashin, the country's leading sports official in his role as chairman of the Central Council of Soviet Sports Societies, said that patriotism "may play a decisive role" in Olympic results. He added that 55 of the 74 Soviet athletes belonged to the Communist Party or the Young Communist League. The 1964 Soviet squad was fairly new; only about one-third of the athletes had Olympic experience, Mashin said.
Skoblikova was considered a solid favorite to prevail in the 1,000, 1,500, and 3,000-meter races at Innsbruck, but beatable in the 500-meter sprint. Skoblikova, however, won the 500 in 45 seconds, and led a Soviet sweep in that event. She won her 1,500 meters in 2 minutes, 22.6 seconds and prevailed in the 1,000 in 1:33.2. The skater, meanwhile, remained self-critical. "I know I was somewhat slow," she said in the New York Times. "I didn't take all the advantages I could have."
In the 3,000 meters, her biggest competition appeared to be mushy ice; warm weather made the ice puddly throughout the competition and the lack of snow jeopardized such events as the bobsled, forcing the Austrian army to carve snow out of mountains and transport it to the luge and bobsled runs. Still, Skoblikova made Olympic history, finishing the 3,000 in 5:14.9, to become the first athlete of either gender to win four gold medals in one Olympics. Despite a hot sun and sub-par ice, she missed breaking her own world record by merely a fraction of a second.
"Mrs. Skoblikova had her mind on great things today," Fred Tupper wrote in the New York Times. Already possessing World (5:04.3) and Olympic (5:14.3) records in this event, she had hoped to finish in less than five minutes. "But the sun was against her," Tupper wrote. "The early skaters found the ice firm and fast, but by noon pools of water dappled the rink." Skoblikova led by half a second midway through the race, "then she really poured it on," Tupper wrote, adding: "In a furious final lap, her head down and her arms swinging, [she] roared across the finish as the crowd waved and screamed."
The four victories brought her worldwide acclaim. "I like to skate around the stadium after a victory. People applaud and that gives me pleasure," she said after winning the 1,000 meters, as quoted by the Associated Press in a New York Times article. Eric Heiden of the United States won all five men's speed-skating events in the 1980 Games at Lake Placid, New York, but Skoblikova is still the only woman to capture six Olympic golds in individual events. American speed skater Bonnie Blair also won five golds, but they covered three Olympiads, including her three victories in 1994 at Lillehammer, Norway.
Women's Sports in Limelight
Skoblikova's success drew attention to women's sports. The women accounted for most of the USSR's 11 gold and 25 overall medals at Innsbruck, and the Western media took notice. "If Lidiya Skoblikova—with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and dimpled cheeks—does not match some Westerners' conception of a Siberian woman speed skater, her grim application to training regimen and fierce determination to win typify the Soviet approach to the IX Winter Olympics," the New York Times wrote in a "Women in the News" profile. The newspaper added: "Her voice is strangely harsh, coming from a girlish, heart-shaped face." Her husband, Alexander Polozkov, remained in Siberia during the games but sent congratulatory telegrams.
Media coverage of women's sports was outside the mainstream. Writers in that day often called the athletes "ladies," or "girls," and addressed them by the honorifics Miss or Mrs., with Skoblikova interchangeably called both in the New York Times. Arthur Daley, writing an Olympic wrapup column in that newspaper, referred to "dames," "feminine intrusion," "dolls," "distaff," and even track and field "Soviet amazons." He also wrote: "Not only have the dames made the old Grecian ideal crumble, they also have twisted the perspective of the entire operation. Women have been known to do things like that, bless their darling little hearts." Daley called Skoblikova "the speed-skating matron."
Never Won National Championship
Skoblikova won all four events in the World Championships one month after the Olympics, but in the Soviet championships, she did not win a single event. Inga Veronina, her principal competition within the USSR and fully recovered from an illness, emerged as the overall champion. Skoblikova, after a two-year hiatus from the sport, set another record in the 3,000 meters in 1967, but failed to win a medal in the 1967 Worlds or the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France. She retired one year later.
After retiring competitively, Skoblikova remained active, joining the Soviet National Olympic Committee. In 1983 she received a silver Olympic Order from the International Olympic Committee for having contributed significantly to the Olympic movement. Skoblikova continued her Olympic involvement after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. In 2002 she had trouble obtaining a visa to follow the Russian team to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City in the United States, but obtained one after appealing to the U.S. embassy, along with Vyacheslav Vedenin, who won two golds in Nordic skiing in 1972.
Changed Face of Russian Sports
Skoblikova and other former Soviet athletes witnessed a new generation of Russian stars benefit financially. She attended a 2002 reception in Salt Lake City that honored athletes with old-style honors and new-style cash. "The money was from a grateful state, which in an earlier era showered privileges and riches on its athletic stars—albeit secretly," Serge Schmemann wrote in the New York Times. "But in the new Russia, the state works side by side with generous sponsors, whose posters cover the walls of Russia House, and whose support is critical." Figure skater Anton Sikharulidze told Schmemann: "It's not the Soviet Union, but I think we've kept the good traditions, which is a good thing."
The Slava Academy of Outstanding Sports Achievements in 2005 nominated Skoblikova in the Legend category for a Glory national sports prize. The academy consists of well-known coaches, athletes, journalists, and scientists, as well as others in cultural affairs.
The breakup of the USSR, however, separated Russia from the only skating rink the Soviet Union had built with natural ice—in Kazakhstan, which became independent in 1991. "Russia was a speed-skating powerhouse in the 1960s–80s, but many local skaters have been forced to train abroad for the past two decades, for lack of good facilities," said Russian Life, published in the United States by the Russian embassy. In 2004, thanks to the efforts of Skoblikova and others, Russia opened a state of the art, multi-purpose indoor ice skating center, one of the world's largest, in Moscow's Krylatskoye neighborhood. The stadium hosted the International Skating Union's World All-Around Speed Skating Championships. "We've been waiting for it for 20 years," said Skoblikova, according to the Associated Press. "Now we have everything and there will [be] no more excuses for bad results."
Associated Press Newswires, September 9, 2004.
Australian, January 30,2002.
New York Times, January 31, 1960; February 22, 1963; January 18, 1964; February 2, 1964; February 3, 1964; February 11,1964; February 17, 1964; March 4, 1964; February 17, 2002.
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