Larisa Latynina: An unbeaten Olympian for 48 years – until now

As the legendary gymnast waits to see if her record will fall this time, she tells Emily Dugan about her life, struggle ... and Nadia Comaneci

For 48 years Larisa Latynina has been untouchable. The former Soviet gymnast's record haul of 18 Olympic medals put her far above the reach of any other Olympian.

But this week the 77-year-old is prepared to make way for a new all-time top medallist. Michael Phelps, the American swimmer who already has 16 medals, 14 of them gold, is expected to trump the record she has held on to for nearly half a century.

Pundits believe Phelps should do that comfortably by the middle of this week, because despite competition for gold from his team-mate Ryan Lochte, Phelps only needs to win a medal in three of his seven events during these Games to better Latynina's record.

She is in London for the next fortnight as the International Gymnastics Federation's guest of honour, and will be at the poolside for Phelps's potential record-breaking swim. "I'll be happy for him if he does it, because he deserves it," she says, adding an aside that gives a glimpse of the old Cold War rivalries their countries held: "The only sad part is that he's not from Russia."

Latynina met Phelps for the first time earlier this year in New York, and proudly shows off a photo in which she is giving a Russian doll to the grinning swimmer. "He impressed me a lot because he was very smiley and charming. I think he'll get it and I'll cheer him on," she says, pausing to consider further. "Of course, if [the Russian swimmer] Evgeny Korotyshkin and Phelps compete, then I'm sorry Michael, but I'll cheer for Korotyshkin."

She asked the International Olympic Committee if she could be the one to present his record-breaking medal, but was told it was unlikely. "It would be a real pleasure, really great to give him his 19th medal. I suggested it to the IOC, but I don't think they want me to. The IOC has got many honoured people and everybody wants to do that."

Born in 1934 in the Black Sea port of Kherson, when Ukraine was still under Soviet control, Latynina went on to make her Olympic debut in Melbourne in 1956, when she took home four gold medals, one silver and one bronze. The winning streak continued, with another six medals in Rome in 1960 and in Tokyo in 1964. She still wears her Olympic past with pride and is dressed in the Russian team tracksuit.

Latynina heralded an era of Soviet dominance in sport at a time when athletic prowess was used as a propaganda tool for the country's Communist ideology. These days, her family's lifestyle is more typical of a capitalist modern Russian elite. Ordinarily she lives on an estate in the countryside outside Moscow, but I meet her at her daughter Tatyana's mansion in Sevenoaks, Kent. Tatyana moved to Britain two years ago with her husband, the Russian millionaire restaurateur Rostislav Ordovsky-Tanaevsky Blanco, to be closer to their son, at school nearby.

Sitting in her daughter's opulent water garden – stocked with fat koi and tended by hired hands – she has come a long way from the struggle of her childhood. Resistance to Stalin's collective farming had left widespread famine in Ukraine and things became even tougher when her father was killed at Stalingrad in 1943. Athletic success was one of the few ways to rise in society, and her mother did two jobs to scrape together the money to send her daughter to choreography school, to study ballet. It was only after the school closed that Latynina discovered gymnastics and transferred to Kiev for specialist training.

She was so dedicated to her sport that she even competed at the 1958 World Championships in Moscow while four months pregnant. She took home five gold medals. "I didn't tell anyone. I didn't even say to my coach, Alexander Mishakov, that I was pregnant," she says. "Even now when I see those medals, I think they're hers, too. When journalists used to come to our house and she was little, she'd take out the medals and say, 'These are the ones I won with Mummy.' "

Her success, she says, is partly down to the fact that she was always ruthlessly competitive. This was even evident as a small child running races in the playground. She recalls: "When I was about six, we wanted to find out who was the fastest runner, so the boys drew a finishing line on the pavement in chalk. We started to run and I realised about two seconds before the finish that I wasn't going to be first. I decided to jump and dive forward with my hands outstretched, so they crossed the line first. There was glass on the pavement and I cut my hands to shreds," she says, gesturing to a deep scar still on her finger. "My finger was bleeding, but I was jumping around shouting, 'My hands were first, I've won, I've won.' "

Despite giving Phelps her blessing, her competitive spirit has not gone away. In 1992, there was an award for the greatest gymnast of the 20th century, which went to the Romanian Nadia Comaneci, who in 1976 became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 out of 10 in an Olympic event.

The rejection still smarts. "When they were deciding who it should go to, Comaneci had a very good PR. She only had four gold medals. Gymnastics is a very subjective sport. If a runner runs fastest, he gets the best time – that's objective, but in gymnastics it's just decided by judges. To be honest I was upset. These were the awards for the best gymnast and I was surprised because I was expecting it. The results were unfair, but at the time of the award I congratulated her."

Now, though, she wants to let the medals do the talking. Pointing to a London 2012 brochure which has a picture of her at the top of a list of the biggest medal winners of all time, Latynina says mischievously: "See, there's no Comaneci there."

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Day In a Page

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride