July 31, 2012
Larisa Latynina won 18 Olympic medals in gymnastics for the Soviet Union, but she attended swimming Tuesday night. Michael Phelps was racing. He was trying to beat everyone in the pool and Latynina’s record as well. And when the moment came, she knew exactly what a great champion should do. She put on her lipstick.
For nearly half a century, no one approached the number of Olympic medals that Latynina won from 1956 to 1964. She was the first superstar in gymnastics at a time when womanly grace prevailed over teenage acrobatics. But Phelps tied her record Tuesday with a silver medal in the 200-meter butterfly and surpassed it with gold by swimming the anchor leg of the 4×200 freestyle relay.
Latynina joked in recent weeks that it was time for a man to be able to do what a woman had done long ago. And that it was too bad Phelps was not Russian.
“Forty-eight years is almost enough time to hold a record,” Latynina, 77, said earlier Tuesday by phone.
Later, she attended the swimming competition with her daughter, Tatyana. They wore matching blue shirts with RUSSIA across the front and white slacks, laughing when told that she still appeared fit enough to compete.
Latynina had hoped to congratulate Phelps and present him with his record-setting medal. But her daughter and others said that Olympic rules did not allow it. It seemed a shame, a grand moment to celebrate the most prolific Olympic champions squandered by red tape.
But Latynina remained gracious, fanning herself in the hot upper reaches of the Aquatics Center. “Phelps deserves the record,” she said through an interpreter. “He is such a talented sportsman.”
Then Latynina smiled.
“Among women, I’m sure I will stay No. 1 for a long time,” she said.
This year in New York, Latynina did meet Phelps and presented him with a medal she had won in a Soviet-American dual meet in 1962. She found him “very simple, smiley, lovely to talk to.” They discussed training and, Latynina said, Phelps acknowledged that he had wearied of swimming and was ready to retire after the London Games.
“I think a person should go for sport only as long as they get pleasure from it,” Latynina said. “As soon as they stop enjoying it, they should stop.”
As she neared the loss of her record, Latynina actually gained broader attention than when she set it. Olympic television was in its infancy in her era, the cold war raged and the Soviet Union was a closed society. It took Olga Korbut and her defiant smiles at the 1972 Munich Games to counter the grim stereotype of athletes behind the Iron Curtain.
“She kind of got lost in history,” Paul Ziert, the publisher of International Gymnast magazine, said of Latynina. When the Soviet Union broke up, “we had forgotten about her.”
“If you don’t know anything about people, you lose interest in them,” Ziert said. “You just keep track of the number of medals they won, and nothing else.”
Latynina won nine Olympic gold medals, while Phelps now has 15. If not for the vagaries of history, Latynina might have had a career in ballet instead of gymnastics. She was born in 1934 and grew up in meager circumstances in Ukraine, which was whipsawed by the brutality of Stalin’s repression and Hitler’s invasion. After World War II, Latynina took up dance as an 11-year-old. When the ballet studio closed a year later, she became an athlete.
As a gymnast, Latynina performed with a dancer’s erect posture and classic lines. Her personality was commanding. She was beautiful and unwavering in the consistency of her routines. The Soviets were dominant, and no one was more accomplished than Latynina. It was a different sport, less demanding but more elegant. Women’s gymnastics was actually performed by women instead of girls.
When Latynina won the last 6 of her 18 career medals at the 1964 Tokyo Games, she was two months from her 30th birthday. Today, many gymnasts retire by 18. Some have even been known to take so-called brake drugs, delaying the onset of menstruation. Gymnasts like Latynina celebrated their maturity instead of trying to deny it.
“She was our first legend,” Bela Karolyi, who would help pioneer the acrobatic revolution of gymnastics as a coach of Nadia Comaneci in Romania, said of Latynina. “When she stepped out on the floor, all eyes were on her. She demanded attention and respect.”
Only Latynina and another legend, Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia, have twice won women’s gymnastics’ most coveted prize — the gold medal in the Olympic all-around competition. So determined was Latynina that she competed in the 1958 world championships while four months pregnant with Tatyana, keeping the news secret even from her coach, telling only her doctor.
“I couldn’t say anything because they wouldn’t have allowed me to participate,” Latynina said.
She did and won five gold medals.
“I consider them mine,” Tatyana Latynina said with a laugh. “We won them together.”
Korbut would bring circus acrobatics to women’s gymnastics with her back flips on the balance beam and uneven bars. And Comaneci would bring astonishing technical perfection to the 1976 Montreal Games. Latynina served as the Soviet coach at those Games and was later dismissed because her gymnasts could not match Comaneci’s individual supremacy.
“I don’t know why I should be blamed that Nadia was born in Romania, not Russia,” Latynina is reported to have said.
She has admitted a pang of regret that Comaneci, not herself, was named the greatest gymnast of the 20th century, telling reporters in her joking way that “Comaneci has very good P.R.”
Yet for gymnasts of a certain era and place, Latynina retains a pre-eminent loftiness.
“This is the standard we all try to achieve,” said Oksana Chusovitina, who competed for the Soviet Union, won a team gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games as the Soviet era disintegrated and now, at 37, is competing for Germany at the London Games. “She performed so beautiful and grown-up. It was less complicated, less injury for kids. I wish for it now.”
As the 4×200-meter relay approached Tuesday, Latynina reached for her lipstick and makeup mirror. It was Phelps’s moment, but it was hers, too. As Phelps pushed the United States toward victory by three full seconds and won his record 19th medal, Latynina rose to her feet and applauded.
“It was a pleasure watching him,” she said, not appearing wistful. “I wasn’t thinking about this or that. I never held onto my record like that.”
Larisa Latynina was born on December 27th, 1934 according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larisa_Latynina
December 27th, 1934
12 + 27 +1+9+3+4 = 56 = her life lesson = Composure. Tact. Grace. Poise.
December 27th, 1934
12 + 27 +2+0+1+1 = 43 = her personal year (from December 27th, 2011 to December 26th, 2012) = Congratulations.
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