With her all-time record set to fall, little-known Latynina looks back
Michael Phelps will likely break Larisa Latynina's all-time medal record in London
Despite being most decorated Olympian of all time, Latynina is a relative 'phantom'
Amid difficult circumstances, Latynina's unrivaled will to win propelled her to record
MOSCOW -- The most decorated Olympian of all time -- or the person who will hold that distinction for about two more weeks -- could walk the streets of New York City unnoticed.
Her name is so unknown that American journalists are divided on how to spell it. Olympic buffs know little about her outside of statistical accomplishments -- three Olympic Games, 18 medals, nine of them gold.
"She's kind of a phantom," said Bill Mallon, past president and co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians.
"Here you have this person holding the record for most medals, and we don't know who she is," said David Wallechinsky, co-author of the encyclopedic Complete Book of the Olympics.
That is likely to change as Bob Costas and NBC's swimming crew will surely mention Larisa (or Larissa or Larysa) Latynina on prime-time broadcasts throughout the first few days of the London Olympics and especially on July 31, the likely date Michael Phelps will win his 19th career Olympic medal, breaking the record set by the balletic Soviet gymnast 48 years ago. To many, including Latynina, it will cement Phelps as the best Olympian ever.
"Well, if you want to know the greatest of all time, the first thing you look at is how many medals they have won," Latynina, 77, said in a Russian interview translated for SI.com.
Latynina and Phelps met for the first time earlier this year in New York City for a sponsor's event. Both expressed appreciation for each other.
"He is a great champion and I'm a huge admirer of his great talent," said Latynina, who will attend the London Olympics and, her family hopes, play a role in the presentation of Phelps' 18th medal. "I just enjoy watching him swim."
Born in 1934 in Kherson, a Black Sea port in southern Ukraine, Latynina first showed artistic promise while in ballet school. She was plucked for gymnastics, but her teenage results were mixed, according to Dr. Barbara Keys, a senior history lecturer with an emphasis on the Cold War at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
Latynina debuted internationally as a 19-year-old at the 1954 world championships, finishing 14th in the all-around.
"Her coach told her she needed to work harder on her self-control," Keys said in an e-mail. "Over the next few years, she worked very hard to control her nerves and her excitement, and to ensure that when she made an error, she could move on without letting it shake her confidence."
She later became an Olympic star, ruling for nearly a decade in a sport that now sees continuous turnover. (This year, the U.S. women's gymnastics team consists of all Olympic rookies for a third straight Games). Her reign ended just as television and the sport's increased popularity brought gymnastics to a new level. Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut followed Latynina and, as detailed later, were sometimes subject to her scorn. Latynina now spends her days tending to a vegetable garden at her Moscow-area home, her medals in safe keeping (save two golds she gave to her coaches) and her memory still quite vivid.
"Well, I remember just about everything," she said with a laugh. "Each Olympics had its own things to remember."
Latynina won four golds, one silver and one bronze at her first Olympics in 1956 in Melbourne, beating out 35-year-old Hungarian Agnes Keleti for the all-around title the same year as the famed "Blood in the Water" water polo match between the Soviet Union and Hungary.
She then competed at the 1958 world championships in Moscow while four months pregnant. She didn't tell a soul she was expecting, fearful she would be forced to sit out.
"How did it affect my performance?" Latynina asked. "Well, as one could tell I did OK," she said, smiling. "I won."
She grabbed five of six gold medals, settling for silver on the floor exercise. The event provided a prime example of just how different the sport was 50 years ago.
"We didn't have spring floors for tumbling," said Abie Grossfeld, a U.S. gymnast at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. "We had a plank of wood."
"They were doing what are considered primitive gymnastics today," said Paul Ziert, publisher of International Gymnast magazine. "There are kids who are 5 years old who are doing those skills already.
"The equipment, everything was different then."
Latynina had a baby girl, Tatyana, and returned for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where she won three more golds (including the all-around), two silvers and a bronze. The gymnastics competition was held outdoors under a tent, she said, still remembering the heat.
"I came back to the sport after giving birth to my daughter and when many people had thought that I would not come back," Latynina said. "But I did, [I] not only made a comeback but again won the overall title."
The 1964 Tokyo Games would be her Olympic farewell. There, she took two golds, two silvers and two bronzes. She ceded the all-around title to Czech Vera Caslavska, who would become the second-most decorated Olympic gymnast of all time with 11 total medals.
Latynina remembered crying during the closing ceremony.
"When the Olympic flag was coming down -- I just knew it was my last Games and I would never experience such moments again," she said.
All the medals were the product of perseverance through difficult times. She was born a year after Ukraine's Holodomor famine. Her father, who left the family when Latynina was 11 months old, later died in the Battle of Stalingrad.
"The Soviet Union was going through a transition," said Dr. Jenifer Parks, a history professor at Rocky Mountain College who earned a doctorate in Soviet history at North Carolina.
"[Joseph] Stalin died in 1952, and during Stalin's lifetime, really the whole emphasis was we just have to win so we can show how dominating we are. After Stalin's death, however, and [Nikita] Khrushchev came to power, still they were supposed to win of course -- and they did most of the time -- but there was more emphasis of using athletes as ambassadors. They were supposed to behave themselves. Be pleasant. Be approachable. She was great at that. She was pretty, soft-spoken. She was kind."
She never got into trouble. Or if she did, it wasn't much written about. Parks remembered one story from a Russian reference book in her research. On a trip abroad, gymnasts appeared to go missing, raising fears they had gone out to a bar or found mischief. They were eventually spotted riding up and down an elevator, having never seen one before.
"There were ways they kept their athletes in line," Parks said. "All of their international trips would have a KGB agent of some sort keeping an eye on things."
An SI reporter saw Latynina at a Leningrad training school in 1960 and reported the following:
Though she was working on the uneven bars, one of the most spectacular events in women's gym competition, she wasn't at what might be considered optimum eyeful condition. Her lovely chassis was covered with bulbs, electrodes, ammeters and every other kind of measuring device; on her head she was wearing what looked like a football helmet, and from it burst an explosion of wires. I was told that top-level technicians were trying to get a better understanding of what made her tick the way she did, so that future athletes could be more efficiently evaluated and more scientifically coached.
Latynina didn't recall any unorthodox measures like that. She explained her success much the same way today's sports stars would.
"I can't just say I was so much better than the others," Latynina said. "In many [crucial] situations I think I was a bit more focused, more composed, probably had a bit more desire and a will to win than the others."
She also had great athleticism. Latynina said her standing high jump and standing long jump were unofficial Soviet records at the time (she was 5-foot-3, 115 pounds, bigger and taller than Korbut and Comaneci).
"Big-time smiles, big-time leaps," said Muriel Grossfeld, a U.S. gymnast at the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympics. "She was a performer."
She was beautiful, too.
"She was really attractive, had a great body," said Abie Grossfeld, Muriel's ex-husband. "She had blond hair. Always had it up. It was long, but it was like rounded in a bun type of thing because that's how they competed, keep their hair out of the way."
Latynina's spoils included a free "luxurious three-room apartment," the money to buy a Soviet-made car and the kind of recognition that accompanied a Soviet sports hero at the time. (Even though Soviet TV coverage of the Olympics did not begin until 1968, Parks said.)
"I was pretty famous," Latynina said.
She made appearances on TV shows (still does in retirement, as recently as three years ago on a cooking program you can watch on YouTube), was a congressional delegate and posed for photos with cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) and Gherman Titov.
The Soviets went to exhibitions in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Latynina remembered buying a $24 fur coat and $5 high heels in New York City.
After retiring, she coached the Soviet women to team gold in 1968, 1972 and 1976. In 1972, she reportedly didn't want Korbut on the Olympic team -- Korbut confirmed, "Politics. She wanted girls from Russia, not from Belarus," -- but Korbut made it anyway and won two individual golds.
Asked to name the greatest Olympic gymnast of all time, Korbut said, "To win the medals, it [does] not mean you're the best. To win the heart of the world, this is the best. ... I think I did that," sprinkling in a laugh at the end.
In 1976, Latynina had a falling out with the Soviet sports ministry after Comaneci beat two Soviet gymnasts for all-around gold.
"They were unhappy with Larisa because they thought it was her mistake," Latynina's daughter said.
Still, Latynina helped organize the 1980 Moscow Olympics and continued as an ambassador for the sport. The International Gymnastics Hall of Fame inducted Latynina in 1998. A year later, she was up for Best Female Athlete at the World Sports Awards of the Century in Vienna, Austria.
Several family members accompanied her to the awards, sure she would win by virtue of her Olympic medal record. But she did not. Comaneci thwarted her again.
"My jaw just dropped out," Latynina said. "I was snubbed.
"Comaneci was a great gymnast, make no mistake about it, but she only won one Olympic all-around title while I won [two]. And that's a fact, not fiction."
Comaneci said she's never met Latynina, only read about her.
"It's not necessarily the medals, it's what you know about somebody [that] gets [them] a status of a legend," Comaneci said, adding later, "she [Latynina] put gymnastics on the map at that particular time. That was the most important era for the [growth of the] sport. They're still talking about her."
Clearly, Latynina's overwhelming will to win, a trait she shares with Phelps, never faded as she delved into retirement.
"I had that competitive drive in me," she said. "I never like to lose, ever."
Which makes her answer to this last question extraordinary. When asked how she would like to be remembered, Latynina recalled one of her final competitions, the Soviet national championships following the Tokyo Olympics, where she was beaten by teenager Larisa Petrik. (Latynia said the decision came with the help of the Soviet sport bosses "who wanted to show me it was time to go and leave it to the younger generation.")
Of that competition, Sovetsky Sport wrote "Larisa Senior congratulates Larisa Junior with a big smile on her face."
But Latynina remembered it differently
"Of course, I had cried later at home when I was by myself so no one, even my closest friends and family members, could see me cry," Latynina said.