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Larisa Latynina

01/10/1964

Gymnastics

The Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina arrived in Helsinki with a considerable burden on her slender shoulders. The world expected her to set records that would stand for many years, and she did not disappoint. Until Michael Phelps came along, Latynina had enjoyed the most lucrative Olympic career in history.

In Melbourne, Latynina had won four golds. Three more had followed in Rome and now, at the age of 29, she was returning to the Olympic gymnastics competition for the third time, still hungry for golds and also to boost her total haul of medals.

She did so admirably. Latynina won gold medals, for the third Games in a row, in both the floor exercise and team competition, in which she recorded the best score for the Soviet team. She also brought home a silver and two bronze medals in this, her final Games as an athlete.

She had grown up in Ukraine and had initially had dreams of being a ballerina. But, when she was 11 years old, her dancing career came to a sudden end when her local ballet studio closed. In search of an outlet for her combination of energy, poise and competitive streak, Latynina turned to gymnastics instead. It was an era when gymnasts tended to start competing in their teens and continue into their late 20s, as opposed to the much earlier progression of modern gymnasts.

Her feats took her career total to 18 Olympic medals – nine gold, five silver and four bronze, a total of medals that stood for decades until it was finally overtaken, 48 years later, by Phelps in London. Latynina was there to watch, applauding Phelps as he overtook her mark.

She remains, though, by far the most successful female Olympic athlete and she also holds the record for the most individual medals, with 14. Latynina, who was also a mother of two young children, retired from competition after the Tokyo Games but became coach to the Soviet national team, a job she continued for more than a decade.

Discover the best photos of Tokyo 1964

  • Vyacheslav Ivanov - 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games

    1964 Tokyo - Vyacheslav Ivanov (URS) 1st, on the top, and HILL Achim (EUA) 2nd. © 1964 / IOC

  • Opening Ceremony Tokyo 1964

    Yoshinori Sakai has lit the Olympic cauldron

    ©IOC

  • Opening Ceremony Tokyo 1964

    Yoshinori Sakai, the last torchbearer, stands next to Greek actress Aleka Katseli at a rehearsal prior to the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games

    ©Central-Press

  • Larisa Latynina (USSR)

    Larisa Latynina, with a bronze medal around her neck, on the third step of the podium after the beam competition of the Tokyo 1964 OG. On the top step is Czechoslovakia’s Vera Caslavska, while Tamara Manina (USSR) stands on the second step

    ©IOC

  • Yoyogi National Gymnasium

    An aerial view of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, circa 1965. Designed by Kenzo Tange to house the swimming and diving events in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, it is now a major venue for basketball and ice hockey. (Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • Anton Geesink

    Dutch judo champion Anton Geesink arrives back in his home town of Utrecht after winning the gold medal in the open event at the Tokyo Olympics, 6th November 1964. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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