Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal ArtsNomina
7 minutes for reading

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Larisa Latynina from Kherson is a Nine-time Olympic Champion in Gymnastics

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Larisa Latynina from Kherson is a Nine-time Olympic Champion in Gymnastics
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Larisa Semenivna Latynina (1934) was born in Kherson. She is a nine-time Olympic champion in gymnastics. From 1964 to 2012, she has been the owner of the largest number of awards in the history of the Olympic Games — 18 (5 gold, 5 silver, 4 bronze).

 

HEAD START

 

Life is not only a race for success. But it also includes this element. And it is often said that the conditions of this race are unfair. Some people start from a point that is much closer to a finish than their rivals. Simply because of the posibilities of their parents.

If there is money — there is a good school, skilled tutors, expensive education. No money — so no, no one will judge it. Than, it’s necesarry to be content with what society is generous for. There is a reason why the old anecdote says that it is difficult for the son of a general to become a marshal, because the marshal also has children…

Maybe sport gives chances to the children from poor families, it depends more on the biology rather than the wealth of the family. Usually, if it does, than not for a long period of time — the athlete’s youth passes quickly, and after it ends, the lack of education and connections can quickly drop the ex-star very low…

So, is there anything that can be done to such situations? You know, there is — we are familiar with such examples in science, art, and even in sports. And the most important thing in breaking this vicious circle is always the attitude of the parents. Their attitude towards the child can do wonders — and it does!

 

SINGLE PARENT FAMILY

 

Few people would have predicted the success of Larisa Diriy shortly after her birth — her father left her with her mother when she was not even a year old. The mother, a simple cleaning lady, used to work as a stocker or a janitor at night, found herself in such situation, that is difficult to even invent something that is harder.

When the girl was not even seven, her father sent her mother a letter with the words: “Polenka, I understood a lot, I sinned greatly against you and Laura.” Perhaps he started talking about the family reunion — the daughter wanted to think so. But he did not have time — the war began.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Larisa Latynina from Kherson is a Nine-time Olympic Champion in Gymnastics
Little Larisa Latynina with her mother and father. This portrait is a photo montage commissioned by Pelageya Anisimovna from a photograph of her and her daughter and a photograph sent by her husband shortly before the beginning of the war

Years later, a military man sent Larisa a newspaper clipping, which said that the commander of the machine-gun platoon Diriy Semen Andriiovych defended a tractor factory in the center of Stalingrad and died a heroic death. His name is engraved among thousands of other names on a monument in Volgograd.

The girl herself also had to endure the occupation in her native Kherson. Her memories from that time are terrible — the gallows in the center of the city, columns of hungry prisoners to whom the locals threw bread, and the guards stabbed them with bayonets when they tried to raise it…  Such a common case.

 

A QUARTER OF THE SALARY

 

The city was liberated, life became easier. But all the same, little Larisa had few joys in her life — she grew up without a father, her mother had a small salary, her family was in need. I remember that in 1954 my father bought a good receiver for 1100 rubles. Larisa’s mother earned a little more than 200 rubles …

Nevertheless, Pelageya Anisimovna Barabanyuk took care of her daughter as best as she could — the girl studied well, mostly did not starve, behaved with dignity, was interested in art. In addition to all this, little Larisa developed a fighting character — she tried to be the first everywhere.

Once, while racing with the boys, she saw that she was behind, and jumped to the finish line with a swan dive. She drove on the asphalt with her bare hands and knees, she was left with a scar for the whole life, but then, ignoring the pain, she shouted: “My hands were first!”

But the girl then dreamed not about sports, but about ballet. When a choreography studio opened in the House of Folk Art, she wanted to enter it, but it was required to pay 50 rubles a month — a quarter of her mother’s salary. And she did it! She got out doing her best, looking for part-time jobs, but …

 

CHANGING HOBBY

 

The studio did not last long — it was finished off by financial problems. The leader invited Larisa and another girl from the studio to study in a club that he provided. It was already almost a professional work: they were setting numbers, took part in amateur performances. But the atmosphere changed, and Larisa parted with dancing.

At one time she dreamed of a ballet school — but there was none in Kherson. And the girl went to the gymnastics club by her school. Her first coach, Mykhailo Sotnichenko, immediately realized the potential she had and told her, “Come on, Laura, end up your hopak. Choose gymnastics.”

The girl was still drawn to the usual art — she decided to attend the choir. But the head of the choir refused her — they did not like her hearing, nor her voice. Then it turned out, that he simply fulfilled the request of the gymnastics coach, who did not want to lose the future celebrity.

Pelageya Anisimovna approved her daughter’s new hobby with one indispensable condition — gymnastics should not interfere with schoolwork. And Larisa met the requirement of her mother, and even with a considerable excess — she graduated from high school No.14 with a gold medal.

 

BEGINNING OF THE CAREER 

 

In 1950, Larisa complied with the standards of the first category and got to the All-Union Championship in Kazan as part of the school team of the Ukrainian SSR. She failed the performance — got a zero points on the crossbar. Then cried for several hours — and started to practice even harder.

In 1953, she entered the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, having already completed the standard of a master of sports. Attending international tournaments began. But when Larisa did not have time to pass the test because of the trip, she was told, “Baby, you are studying at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute of the Order of Lenin! Here you need to pursuit the knowledge of the science hardly, day and night, but not to tumble on some kind of machines.”

She was used to this — even her first coach did not miss the opportunity to remind her, “And you, Laura, stay! What are you thinking? Do you think that if you won the last competition, now others will carry mats for you?” As an inoculation against star-struck, such an appeal worked quite well.

But in the end, it became simply physically impossible to combine polytechnics with sports, and she transferred to the Kyiv State Institute of Physical Culture, which she graduated with honors in 1959 — a little late, but sports success required time, taking it away from classes.

 

OLYMPIC CHAMPION

 

From the very beginning, Larisa’s sports results were clearly extraordinary. The World Festival of Youth and Students in Bucharest brought her first gold medals. And in 1954, at the World Championship in Rome, she received the gold medal of the champion as part of the team.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Larisa Latynina from Kherson is a Nine-time Olympic Champion in Gymnastics
First world champion medal

But the real sensation was her success at the Olympics in distant Melbourne. Artistic gymnastics is generally a very generous Olympic sport, just like swimming: you can earn more than one medal. But 4 gold, one silver and one bronze — that is a lot even for a gymnast!

Larisa got gold medals for both team performance and three individual victories: in the all-around, vault and her crowning form — floor exercises. In addition, she received a silver medal for beam balance exercises, and a bronze medal for group performance.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Larisa Latynina from Kherson is a Nine-time Olympic Champion in Gymnastics
Vault

Her fame was so great that even a daring speech at a banquet in the Kremlin: “Do you know why we fought so hard in the Olympic arena? We were afraid that if we lose, Nikita Sergeevich will sow all the stadiums with corn,” she got away with almost no consequences. Champions are allowed…

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Larisa Latynina from Kherson is a Nine-time Olympic Champion in Gymnastics
Her signature form of gymnastics is floor exercise

True, the press of the whole world no longer glorified Larisa Diriy — even before the Olympics, she changed her last name, and for a very pleasant reason: she got married. When a six-year-old me read Ogonyok about her successes in Melbourne, she was already Larisa Latynina in those articles.

 

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FIRST HUSBAND

 

Even before the Olympics, Ivan Latynin, a sailor cadet, began to look after her. Pelageya Anisimovna, having learned that her daughter had a boyfriend, demanded that she invite him home. Obviously, she liked him, because after a while she insisted on their marriage.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Larisa Latynina from Kherson is a Nine-time Olympic Champion in Gymnastics
Ivan Latynin and Larisa Latynina

The birth of their first daughter was accompanied by rather dramatic circumstances. Shortly before the World Cup in Moscow, Larisa found out that she was pregnant. They counted on her participation, it was difficult to refuse, but is it possible to perform under such circumstances?

An experienced doctor, Professor Lurie, helped to solve the problem, said, “So, perform! You are young, your muscles are strong, everything will be fine. But most importantly, don’t tell anyone! Even the coach. Commissions, councils will begin, they themselves will be frightened and they will frighten you.

Listen to me, baby, I’m worse at gymnastics than you, but a little better at medicine. I tell you: if you are a brave person, perform! The child will be healthy, the mother will be happy, and the professor will be happy. If you are a coward than sit down, start dying with fear right now!”

Larisa shared the news only with her husband, and he did not object to her decision. As a result, she won five gold medals at this championship, and the baby was born completely healthy. Professor Lurie died shortly before the start of the tournament and never learned how correct his advice was.

 

RUN OF SUCCESS

 

After a wonderful performance in Melbourne, a series of victories for Latynina began, which did not stop for a long time. Both in 1958 and in 1962 she became the absolute world champion, and at that very championship in Moscow she received 5 gold and 1 silver medals.

At the European Championship in 1957, she won every single gold medal, at the 1961 Championship, she became the absolute champion in terms of points. Her last performance took place at a tournament in Dortmund, when she was already 32 years old — pretty old age for such sport.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Larisa Latynina from Kherson is a Nine-time Olympic Champion in Gymnastics
Postcard issued in Kyiv. 1957

Melbourne was only the first successful Olympics. After 4 years, at the Olympics in Rome, she also won 6 medals: 3 gold, 2 silver and a bronze one. She received the same number of medals in Tokyo — 2 of each type. At the same time, she won floor exercises at 3 Olympics in a row.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Larisa Latynina from Kherson is a Nine-time Olympic Champion in Gymnastics
Olympic pedestal

Larisa once admitted that she could not count her sport awards — it turns out to be 140, then 150… When they ask her which of them are most dear to her, she remembers both the first and the last as the most memorable, and she is sure to add the awards of the tournament in Moscow, where on the platform she thought not so much about prizes, but about the fact that she would soon have a child.

And her 18 Olympic medals, 9 of which are gold, became a record that could not be beaten until 2012. Only in 2012 in London, the great swimmer Michael Phelps beat her by one medal.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Larisa Latynina from Kherson is a Nine-time Olympic Champion in Gymnastics
With Michael Phelps

 

AFTER THE FAME

 

Sport is a cruel and inexorable thing. A person still has to live and work for many decades, but he is no longer particularly suitable for the business that brought him success. It’s necessary to look for yourself in something else, and this is a time of tragic decisions and severe trials for a lot of people.

A pretty good way out, leaving many things of the prevailing lifestyle for those who changed little — coaching. Not everyone succeeds — after all, the coach needs not only what the athlete already has, but also many other qualities, primarily pedagogical.

Latynina, as one would expect, did it, and quite well. Her coaching career lasted almost as long as her sports career, and was equally successful. The USSR national gymnastics team that was led by her won three Olympics in a row — in 1968 in Mexico City, in 1972 in Munich and in 1976 in Montreal.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Larisa Latynina from Kherson is a Nine-time Olympic Champion in Gymnastics
In coaching

But coaches have their professional risks. At the 1976 Olympics, Latynina’s wards won the personal championship, but lost the title of absolute champion to the phenomenal Romanian Nadia Comaneci. The fact that such nuggets like Nadia are born once in a century didn’t matter — “the main thing in the Olympics is not to win, the main thing is to participate, but our participants must win!”

Are sports officials to blame for the losses? There is always a better target for such accusations — the head coach. Latynina was accused that her training methods were outdated, that gymnastics was no longer the same, that she preached femininity, but tricks, speed and complex elements were needed. They won — Latynina had to leave “of her own free will”.

 

PERSONAL DIFFICULTIES

 

The personal life of sports celebrities is usually not easy — continuous traveling does not contribute to the strength of family ties. For a long time, her life with her first husband was quite tolerable, but slowly this and that began to accumulate… As a result, they parted relatively peacefully.

There was another tragedy in their lives, which is known a little. In addition to her daughter Tatyana, who competed at the world championship while still in her mother’s womb, she had a son, Andrij, who died. Under what circumstances, the mother never speaks. She must be in too much pain…

She spent ten years of her life with another man, about whom it is also difficult to find information — if she talks about him, then these are bitter words. True, she admits, “He shocked me with his mind, amazing memory, the way he courted me — everything that I did not see in my husband.”

About the following time in her life, she says, “The best years, somewhere from thirty-six to forty-six, have gone nowhere. There were very strong experiences: both betrayal, and resentment, and humiliation. I don’t wish that on any woman. For myself, I crossed out these years from my life and do not return to them.”

 

HAPPY END

 

But she also got a successful marriage — although not immediately. On the eve of her 51st birthday in a rest home, she met Yuri Feldman, professor, doctor of technical sciences, at that time he was the chief engineer of the Dynamo plant. He plucked up the courage to approach her and offered to teach her how to play tennis, which she herself had long wanted. This was not the end of the matter…

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Larisa Latynina from Kherson is a Nine-time Olympic Champion in Gymnastics
With beloved husband

Everything was not so simple — Yuri was a member of the CPSU, was a member of the party committee of the plant and was married at the same time. We still remember how party committees reacted to such situations. When he announced that he was filing for divorce, he was summoned to a party meeting and began to get under his skin.

Latynina later recalled, “He stepped over all this and one, I think, beautiful day, he came to me with a suitcase. Appeared and said, “I’m for good.” It is noteworthy, that I am his third wife, just like he is my third husband.” Who cares? The main thing is that they lived for more than 30 years in a prosperous and beautiful marriage, in love, attention and mutual care.

While they were able, both worked — she was a sports functionary in various positions, he — at his Dynamo plant in fairly high positions. Then they abandoned city life, bought an estate in the suburbs and were happy until Yuri passed away in 2020.

 

WHAT IS NOW

 

Now Larisa Latynina is already 87 years old, and she is a non-public person — at her age it is already difficult. But everything is fine with her, her daughter married a Hispanic and gave her two beautiful grandchildren. And her success is an unattainable landmark for many people.

She has enough honorary titles and awards — she is an Honored Master of Sports of the USSR, an Honored Coach of the USSR, an Honored Worker of Culture of Russia. Latynina was awarded with many orders — both Soviet and Russian, and, of course, the Ukrainian Order of the Princess Olga of the III Class.

IOC Chairman Juan Samaranch presented her with the Silver Order of the IOC, UNICEF honored her with the Golden Tuning Fork award, her name (the first of the names of Soviet athletes) was included in the New York Olympic Hall of Fame, she is one of the 25 best athletes of the 20th century — and other, and others….

Larisa Latynina wrote several books, and the first of them, Sunny Youth is in Ukrainian. She is not forgotten at home — even by the decision of the Kherson City Council of April 27, 2000, she was awarded the title of “Honorary Citizen of the City of Kherson”.

Her difficult but glorious life continues — let her live longer and have time to find out how many people around the world admired her victories, culture, intelligence and willpower, let her continue to prove to us that the starting position in life is not the main thing, and the hard work shown, will and endurance will help to achieve everything.

 

All illustrations from open sources

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