The pentathlon was introduced to the Olympic Games in Tokyo and it produced an absorbing contest between three outstanding athletes. The favourite was Irina Press, from the Soviet Union, who had set the world record in the event back in 1959. Her aptitude was clear – at the Rome Olympic Games four years previously, she had competed in both the 80m hurdles and the sprint relay with distinction – a gold over the hurdles, and fourth place with the relay team.
In Tokyo she replaced the relay with the shot put, a sign of both her versatility and her aptitude for the multiple disciplines of the pentathlon. As it happened, she was to miss out on medal in both the hurdles and the shot put in 1964. But in the pentathlon, she started as favourite.
Challenging her were two other greats of the sport – the former world record holder Galina Bystrova, also from the Soviet Union, and the British star Mary Rand, who had won the long jump gold just two days before. After the first day, Press held a comfortable lead. She and Bystrova had gone quickest over the hurdles, with Rand just behind, but her best shot put was far superior to her rivals – two and a half metres longer than Bystrova and a yawning six metres beyond Rand’s best. It was to prove the key to her gold medal.
Rand actually won the next three events – the high jump, long jump and 200m, to overtake Bystrova for second place and close the gap to Press, but the Soviet champion was able to secure solid results in each, and won the title by more than 200 points, setting a new world record in the process. Three days later she competed in the individual shot put competition, but her best effort was way short of her longest put from the pentathlon, and she finished outside the medals – although her sister Tamara did win gold.
Like her sister, Irina Press retired from competition two years later and turned to coaching instead.