Prior to the 1976 Innsbruck Games, USSR speed skater Tatyana Averina had broken the world record an astonishing 11 times – four times in 1000m, twice in 1,500m, twice in the 500m and three times in the four-distance mini combination.
One of the best all-round speed skaters in the world in the 1970s, Averina, then 25, arrived in Austria as the hot favourite in all four women’s events.
She didn’t disappoint – amassing four medals and breaking an Olympic record in the process. Her prowess on the ice helped her country top the medal table, winning 13 gold, six silver, and eight bronzes.
Almost 90 years after the first Speed Skating World Championships in Amsterdam, new technology was beginning to have a significant impact on the sport – in the years that followed, race times were cut significantly.
The introduction of sleek ski suits and streamlined helmets all made headlines in Innsbruck, heralding a new era in sporting innovation. All this was to Averina’s advantage – though, given her athletic brilliance, poise and explosive power, it’s likely she would have made the same impact had she worn a sack on the track.
In Olympic competition, skaters race in pairs against the clock around a 400m oval. During these exhilarating and occasionally perilous contests, which typically see racers hit speeds of 60kph, competitors must change lanes in the back straight of each lap, with the skater passing from outside to inside having priority.
Races are physically gruelling, with skaters constantly buffeted by centrifugal forces of 50-60kg, forcing them to lean heavily towards the sheet ice track.
College student Averina, from Gorky in Russia, made her international debut at the 1970 World All-around Championships, where she came 12th. A year later she claimed her first distance medal at an international championship, winning bronze in the 1,000m at European level.
In 1972 she won the 500m at the Winter Universiade, before becoming Soviet sprint champion the following year. Success on the international stage followed when she won her first medal, a silver, at the World Championships in 1974.
All the time she was getting faster, setting world records that year in three events. She won another World All-Around silver in 1975 and broke eight world records at the Medeo rink in Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union.
She came to Innsbruck amid a glow of high expectation – at least in most quarters. During the Games the Swiss newspaper Sport infamously wrote: ‘In skating … today there is hardly a sportsman or sportswoman who dare to fight for medals at all distances and are able to succeed.’
By the end of the competition Averina was the most successful skater at the Games –collecting medals in all four races and proving the newspaper’s claims about the death of the all-rounder comprehensively wrong. Averina took gold in the 1,000m and 3,000m, and bronze in the 500m and 1,500m.
It was no mean feat, given the fierce rivalry among sprinters at the top of the sport. In the 3,000m, had the top three racers – Averina, Andrea Mitscherlich of East Germany, and Lisbeth Korsmo of Norway – been on the track at the same time, they would have been separated at the finish by a distance of just 40cm. But it was Averina who set a new Olympic record of 4:45.19.
At the World All-arounds that year the Russian won another silver, followed by gold in 1978. She made her final international appearance atthe 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid in the US, where she finished a disappointing 18th in the 1,500m.
Sadly, Averina died suddenly in 2001 – but her legacy as one of the finest athletes ever to grace the Winter Olympics lives on.