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

Emily Dugan
Wednesday 01 August 2012 18:33 BST
Top Olympian: Larisa at her daughter's Sevenoaks home
Top Olympian: Larisa at her daughter's Sevenoaks home (Justin Sutcliffe)

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."

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