Ukraine’s Larisa Latynina and Germany’s Birgit Fischer are two of the most successful Olympians of all time, winning a quite extraordinary 30 Olympic medals between them. Here, the gymnast and the kayaker reflect on their respective careers and share tales of Olympism in action.
Where Larisa Latynina stepped, Birgit Fischer followed. From Melbourne 1956 to Tokyo 1964, Latynina, representing the USSR, dominated her chosen sport of gymnastics, reducing her rivals to bystanders as she won a head-spinning nine gold, five silver and four bronze medals. Starting out some 16 years later, kayaker Fischer did likewise, claiming eight golds and four silvers across a remarkable six Olympic Games.
The pair have set the bar almost impossibly high for their fellow Olympians. Both claim a clutch of records, including Latynina’s as the most-decorated female Olympian of all time and Fischer being the only female Olympic champion ever to have won gold medals 24 years apart. And even in retirement, the duo continue to inspire and amaze.
What do you remember most about your first Olympic Games?
LLI was very proud of myself and so happy to just be at the Olympic Games. And then I went and won six medals, four of them gold.
BF: I really enjoyed it, winning gold in a kayak at such a young age (she was 18 when she triumphed in Moscow in 1980) was such an amazing feeling. It was unbelievable for me that I was even fighting for a starting place in what was a very strong East German squad.
What has been your favourite Olympic moment of all time, so far?
LL: I think it was Tokyo in 1964, because I knew that it was my last Olympic Games and that I would never get a chance to compete on that type of stage again.
BF: The best thing about the Olympics is the Olympic Village. There you will meet really many great athletes of different sports and disciplines that you would never meet otherwise. All nations so peaceful together, that's a wonderful feeling.
What role have the Olympic Games played in your life?
BF: The Olympic Games were such an important part of my athletic career, the pinnacle. They brought a lot of publicity to me as an athlete, but more importantly to my sport.
What is your favourite Olympic host city where you either competed in or watched the Olympic Games?
LL: It has to be Moscow. I love Moscow. I was really upset that there was a boycott in 1980. The Opening Ceremony was so beautiful; I was doing the commentary.
Where do you keep your Olympic medals?
LL: As soon as I got back from my first Olympic Games in Melbourne (in 1956), I took one of my gold medals, I don’t remember which one, and I gave it to my first coach. I knew that without his support I could never have won those golds. I don’t want to tell you exactly where the rest of my medals are but they are in a safe place.
What are you most proud of in your career?
LL: I am so proud that I won the Floor gold medal three times. That still makes me feel so good. It is my favourite discipline. I love the way you can express yourself as a gymnast when you do a Floor exercise. And I am so proud that at all three Olympic Games I competed in we won the team gold medal. We had so many high-quality gymnasts, it was easy to win.
BF: My two children are my greatest success.
What qualities do you need to be an Olympic champion?
LL: Most of all, it’s very important that you can focus and commit yourself entirely to your sport and yourself. If you can do that, you can be a champion.
How have the Olympic Games changed during your lifetime?
LL: During life everything changes, and it is the same with the Olympic Games. It is a normal process. Every Olympic Games edition is different and has to be new and special for each athlete.