Latynina signs off with six gymnastics medals
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.