Svetlana Khorkina: Toxteth teenager takes aim at Russian queen

When asked what she wanted from gymnastics, the young Svetlana Khorkina replied: "I want to be recognised from half a mile away." From a couple of yards, the greatest gymnast of modern times is unmistakable and not just because on the television next to her there is an advert playing in which she is extolling the delights of drinking yoghurt.

Svetlana Khorkina

Age: 25

Born: Belgorod, Russia

Reigning Olympic, world and European champion

When asked what she wanted from gymnastics, the young Svetlana Khorkina replied: "I want to be recognised from half a mile away." From a couple of yards, the greatest gymnast of modern times is unmistakable and not just because on the television next to her there is an advert playing in which she is extolling the delights of drinking yoghurt.

When she played the part of Henry Miller's final lover, Brenda Venus, on the Moscow stage, the impresario Sergei Vinogradov said he had selected Khorkina rather than a professional actress because "the part required a girl from the moon". In the world of gymnastics where girls appear almost permanently pre-menstrual, tiny and underdeveloped, Khorkina comes from another planet. At 5ft 5in, she is unnaturally tall and, at 25, well past the retirement point of most gymnasts; she is also entirely feminine. To prove it, she once posed for the Russian edition of Playboy. She drinks, she smokes, she does not shy away from celebrity and she may also be the most innovative gymnast there has ever been. Certainly, there are more moves named after Khorkina than anyone else.

But, as we travel north from Moscow towards her training camp at Ozeretskoe, it is not her two World Championships or the individual triumphs that are uppermost in our minds, but failure. The Sydney Olympics ought to have been her defining moment when her boast that "I am gymnastics" would have been proved to the world.

Instead, there was public disaster. First, she fell from the asymmetric bars, a piece of equipment that had always been her own, costing the Russians team gold. Then, in the individual competition, came the vault. As she ran towards it, she claimed she turned and yelled to her coach, Boris Pilkin, that the springboard had been set too high. It had - staff had not adjusted it from the men's competition the previous night. She finished on her hands and knees and watched the rest of the competition chewing gum and staring at the ceiling, carrying according to one observer "a look of imperial disdain". The all-round gold went to Andreea Raducan, who was promptly stripped of it after it was found the Romanian had taken Nurofen, an innocent enough tablet but one that contained a proscribed substance. Khorkina finished 11th.

It is not entirely necessary for Khorkina's reputation that she wins an overall Olympic gold; Olga Korbut dazzled the 1972 Games without doing so. However, her performances almost demand this final recognition: "That's why I am training for the Games probably harder than I ever have," she said. "I will go there absolutely prepared.

"It, Sydney, stung for a while but I have taken something from every competition I have appeared in. You have to; we are in the 21st century now; how many more techniques are there now than when I started? How many changes have there been? You can't survive for long without adapting and learning." But will she be more nervous in Athens because of what happened in Sydney? "It is not a question of nerves," she replied, glacially. "The only nerves I have about Athens in August is getting sunstroke."

Khorkina is ambivalent about whether this will be the end of her gymnastically. She will dance in exhibitions, where she will make more than Nadia Comaneci, who received $1000 from the $250,000 her tour of America earned in 1981. There will be plenty of offers, not least a return to the theatre. In Venus, the story of a love affair between the 85-year-old writer Henry Miller and a Hollywood starlet a numbing 58 years his junior, she made an intense impact. First, only her voice could be heard, then her face appeared on a screen, finally here she was in the flesh. "It looked like the advent of heavenly love, of an otherwordly maiden from another planet, who descends from Olympic heights to the sinful stage," sighed The Moscow News.

"It will be the end of me as a gymnast," she says of Athens. "But I have offers to do commercial shows so I can keep the gift I have alive, not just in Russia but around the world.

"I have done theatre and I would like to do more but with the Olympics coming I can't focus on both." And afterwards? "I don't think it's completely serious as a career option but if people tell you that you have a talent then why shouldn't you exploit it? I am so artistic I believe I could play anyone on earth."

But then Khorkina, brought up in a broken home in Belgorod, a mining city in southwestern Russia near the border with Ukraine, pondered if she had changed the way the sport is perceived and run.

"Oh, absolutely. And I've done it for the right reasons. At this moment, I am unique. I don't think there is anybody to touch me and when I am gone, gymnastics will go back to what it was before. That's why people are always trying to persuade me to carry on. But if I retire, I can always come back."

But to retire and then return would be hard in most sports; in gymnastics it would appear utterly absurd. But like most great athletes she has an unbreakable confidence, despite the tinkling voice. "You might think that. Nothing is impossible."

It would be hard to think of a greater contrast with Beth Tweddle, Britain's serious hope of a first Olympic gymnastic medal since a bronze in the 1928 Amsterdam games. Two years ago, in Greece, they shared a podium at the European Championships, which Khorkina had won for the third time, equalling Comaneci's record. Tweddle took bronze in Patras, a wonderful achievement. "I don't know what she's been doing in training but, to be blunt with you, she did not win gold in the European Championships, so should she expect more in the Olympics? But I wish her all the luck in the world, I hope she does well."

Tweddle, like every other gymnast in Athens, will be considerably younger than Khorkina. Will she feel old as well as under pressure when the teams gather in Greece next month? "Age is not important to me. You know they say a man sometimes prefers older women because they can satisfy him more. It is the same in gymnastics."



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