Larisa Latynina life and biography

Larisa Latynina picture, image, poster

Larisa Latynina biography

Date of birth : 1934-12-27
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Kherson, Ukraine
Nationality : Russian
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2010-06-25
Credited as : Gymnast and politician, Olympic gymnast,

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Larisa Latynina (also known as: Larisa Semyonovna Latynina, Larissa Semyonovna Latynina) born December 27, 1934 in Kherson, Ukraine is a Russian gymnast and politician.

Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina 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."


AWARDS

Won four gold medals in women's gymnastics, 1956 Olympic Games, Melbourne (for individual all-around, vault, floor exercise, and team competition), as well as a silver medal (uneven bars) and bronze medal (team and portable apparatus); won three gold medals at 1960 Olympic Games, Rome (for individual all-around, floor exercise, and team competition), two silver medals (uneven bars and balance beam), and a bronze (vault); won two gold medals at 1964 Olympic Games, Tokyo (for team competition and floor exercise), as well as two silver medals (all-around and vault) and two bronze medals (uneven bars and balance beam).

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