From being unbeatable when three months pregnant, to highlighting her background as a ballerina and embracing the moment she was overtaken as the world’s most decorated Olympian, octogenarian gymnast Larisa Latynina is loving life and delighted to share her story with a whole new generation of Olympic fans.
Larisa Latynina, the 18-time Olympic medal winner, remains adamant, at 84 years old, that the remarkable success she enjoyed throughout her record-breaking career was primarily down to the example set by her tireless mother.
“I feel so grateful to my mum that I grew up always wanting to win and be a winner,” Latynina said. “My mum was alone because my father was killed in the war [World War Two], at [the Battle of] Stalingrad, but she still brought me up like that. And as a Russian team we always spoke about how we could win because we were all children of winners, from the war.”
The young girl from southern Ukraine used this innate drive to stunning effect, becoming one of the most relentless winners of all time. Starting in Melbourne, Australia, in 1956, the willowy Latynina claimed a staggering nine golds, five silvers and four bronze medals over the course of three Olympic Games. For 48 years, from 1964 to 2012, she stood alone as the most decorated Olympian of all time.
Looking back at such achievements now, Latynina appears to be almost bashful about having hit such historic heights.
“There are some disciplines like gymnastics and swimming where you can win a lot of medals during one Games compared to many where there is only one medal available,” Latynina explained. “I always felt it was a bit unfair for those athletes [who could win only one medal per Games] and that perhaps they were a bit jealous of us or felt a bit hard done by.
“That is one of the reasons why I never felt like I was really special, because it was just thanks to me competing in this kind of sport that I won so many medals.”
In fact, although it seems scarcely believable, Latynina did not even realise the significance of what she had done until many years into her retirement.
I have given my life to gymnastics. I love it. Even now I follow it all and I get very emotional about great performances and new resultsLarisa Latynina Ukraine
“I only understood I was the most successful Olympian in the world in the 70s,” she said. “It was only after a Czechoslovakian journalist sent me an article which was all about me being the most decorated Olympian ahead of Carl Lewis [the USA sprinter and long jumper]. It talked about me and Lewis having nine Olympic gold medals each but me having 18 in total, compared to his 10.”
Latynina’s success was based around great elegance, artistry and natural creativity, some of which stemmed from a background in ballet, which she took up when she was 11 years old, before she noticed a class doing gymnastics “which looked so close to ballet” and asked if she could join in. Throughout the next 20 years, Latynina maintained the erect posture and classical lines of a ballerina and started a particularly deep love affair with the floor exercise.
“Floor is and has always been my favourite because it is the exercise where people can most express themselves,” said the woman who won floor gold at each of her three Olympic appearances.
Her passion for performing was quickly matched by a love of proving herself the best, with the Olympic Games Melbourne 1956 providing the catalyst for her record-breaking career.
“I was always crazy about gymnastics, and as soon as I won those gold medals in Melbourne [in the all-around, vault, floor and team events], I knew I wanted to continue and that I didn’t want to stop and just look at those four medals for the rest of my career,” she explained.
With television coverage of the Olympic Games in its infancy and the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union raging in the background, Latynina’s extraordinary feats perhaps did not garner quite as much international attention as they might have done. But all that changed when a certain Michael Phelps headed to the London 2012 Games with 16 Olympic medals in his back pocket.
“I don’t remember ever being so popular as I was when I went to the London 2012 Olympics,” Latynina said with a big smile. “I was never as popular as that during my career. The attention I got from all the journalists and media was great. I had been on my own [as the record holder] for almost 50 years.”
Latynina, then 77, was in the crowd when Phelps, swimming the anchor leg, finally surpassed her medal total by claiming gold in the 4x200m freestyle relay.
The requests for her time have not stopped pouring in since, even with the gymnast now well into her eighth decade. From TV shows to “endless events”, Latynina is loving life as a truly appreciated global star.
“I am in-demand,” she laughed. “I have given my life to gymnastics. I love it. Even now I follow it all – not just the Russians – and I get very emotional about great performances and new results.”
The attention she is getting is entirely fitting for someone who not only helped change the face of Olympic sport, but is also brimful of great stories – not least the one about the time she headed off to the World Championships in 1958 almost three months pregnant and won five gold medals.
“I didn’t feel different physically, better or worse than normal, I was just desperate to finish the event so I could tell everyone that I was pregnant,” Latynina said, roaring with laughter. “Nobody knew – even my coach and my best friends. I was just waiting for the end so I was free to tell everyone.”