In the free time between her races in Lillehammer, Russian cross-country skier Lyubov Egorova read Memories of a Czarist Family, a book about the Romanovs, Russia's last imperial family, whose rule spanned 300 years. When she competed on the Birkebeineren cross-country course, Egorova was creating a dynasty of her own. As a member of the Russian team that finished first in the 4 x 5K relay on Monday, she raised her medal total to four in Lillehammer—one in each race she had entered.
Those three gold medals and one silver, added to the three golds and two silvers she won in five races in Albertville, kept her on track to become one of the two most decorated athletes in Winter Olympic history. Another medal in the 30K race on Thursday would tie her with former cross-country teammate Raisa Smetanina for most Winter Olympic medals (10). And a win in the 30K would mean a record seven gold medals for Egorova, one more than former Soviet speed skater Lydia Skoblikova accumulated in 1960 and '64.
Residents of St. Petersburg, where Egorova lives with her husband, Igor Sysoev, have been celebrating her victories with fanfare fit for a Romanov. Local newspapers report her triumphs in bold front-page headlines. Last Thursday a TV station in St. Petersburg replayed her win in the 10K pursuit for those who were at work when it was telecast live.
Her fame in St. Petersburg notwithstanding, Egorova, 27, is far from taking on royal airs. In fact she's closer to being one of the heroes of socialist labor that the Soviet propaganda machine used to boast about. Egorova grew up in Tomsk, Siberia, the second child of defense factory workers. As a young girl her first love was ballet, but she also excelled at skiing. Soviet sports officials pressed her to concentrate on the latter, and in 1982 she moved to St. Petersburg—then known as Leningrad—to train on her nation's best cross-country course.
Even now, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Egorova has chosen to remain with the national team coach rather than switch to a private coach, as most of Russia's top skiers have done.
During the cross-country season, Egorova doesn't see much of her husband, a former sailor who, like many Russians these days, is busy buying and reselling vodka and sausage to help make ends meet. He is also supervising the construction of the couple's first house, in a St. Petersburg suburb; the money Egorova will receive from the Russian Olympic Committee for her medal-winning performances—$15,000 for each gold and $7,000 for each silver—will go a long way toward paying for building materials.
The current leader on the World Cup cross-country circuit, Egorova will be looking to extend her Olympic dynasty to the Nagano Games in '98, when she will be 31—the age of many a successful cross-country skier, including Italy's Manuela Di Centa, who also has won four medals at Lillehammer. But first she will put away her skis for a year. "I would love to relax, sit back and take a walk," says Egorova, who has finally acquiesced to her husband's entreaties to have a baby.
"As long as the child doesn't take up skiing. It's too difficult," Egorova says. "Let her dance."