Perhaps fittingly for a cross-country skier, Raisa Smetanina’s journey to sporting greatness was lengthy and gruelling – but it remains almost unsurpassed in the annals of the Olympic Winter Games. And it all began in Innsbruck in 1976.
Smetanina, a 23-year-old physical education teacher from Mokhcha, Kome in the north-west of the Soviet Union, collected two gold medals in the Nordic skiing events – her first successes on her way to becoming the first woman to win 10 Olympic medals, a haul of four golds, five silvers and one bronze.
Cross-country skiing is a tough sport. Races are run over five, 10 and 20km routes against the clock, with racers in the individual competitions departing the starting gates in 30-second intervals.
The sport consists of classical races, where skiers use a diagonal stride, and freestyle, which has no restrictions on technique and is faster. Competitors choose their skis and ski wax based on the weather – this is now done by computer – and if a skier is being passed he or she must give way, while the passing competitor must shout “Track!’
Given her day job, it was little surprise that Smetanina had the stamina to triumph so many times in Nordic skiing – but the fact that two years after Innsbruck she fell over with exhaustion during a World Cup race gives some idea of the demands competitors face.
Before Innsbruck, her only notable success had been a relay gold medal in 4x5km at the 1974 Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden. But in Innsbruck she began her Olympic odyssey by taking a silver medal in the 5km race, missing a gold medal by just over one second.
Then she claimed the top spot in 30:13:41 in the women’s 10km classical event, leading almost all the way and beating Helena Takalo of Finland by 47s. Takalo got her revenge in the 5km, narrowly overcoming her Soviet rival.
Smetanina was also part of the USSR team that took gold in the women’s 4x5km freestyle relay, beating the chasing Finns by just under a second to triumph in 1:07:49.75. She emerged from the Games as the most successful athlete, along with West Germany’s Rosi Mittermaier.
She had further success at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, winning four golds in the 20km and 4x5km; four silvers and four bronzes in the 4x5km, 5km and 20 km, and won three golds at the Holmenkollen ski festival.
In 1979 Smetanina received the Holmenkollen medal, Nordic skiing’s highest honour, before being awarded the Russian Federation’s Order of Friendship of Peoples medal in 1984.
The gym teacher went on to take part in another four editions of the Winter Games, representing the USSR four times and the post-Soviet Union unified team in 1992 in Albertville, where she won her final medal, in the 4x5km, less than two weeks shy of her 40th birthday – becoming the oldest female medallist in Winter Games history.