Celebrating Russia’s gymnasts
Russia has dominated many sports over the years, but surely some of its most famous sportsmen and women are the famous names who took world gymnastics to a new level in the latter decades of the Soviet Union.
It was Emperor Peter I who sought to popularise gymnastics in Russia as a compulsory subject in military education. But after the 1917 Revolution, Soviet gymnastics rejected Western models and began to follow a new path. And it worked: the debut of Soviet gymnasts at the Olympic Games in 1952 was a triumph, the team winning nine gold medals and taking the podium 22 times.
And so began the golden age of Soviet gymnastics. The USSR dominated most major events, despite fierce competition with Japan in the men’s events and gymnasts from Eastern Europe in the women’s. The whole world knew the names of Larissa Latynina, who won 18 Olympic medals, half of which were gold; Nikolai Andrianov with 15 medals, 7 of them gold; and Victor Chukarin, who ended his career undefeated. Spectators loved the brave and emotional Olga Korbut, calling her ‘the miracle with pigtails’. Nobody has yet managed to beat the Soviets’ record overall in Olympic gymnastics of 182 medals.
In the 1990s, star gymnast Alexei Nemov rose to fame as four-time Olympic champion. Outrage at the unexpectedly low score he received after an outstanding performance at the 2004 Olympics led to a change in the judging rules, and a rating for complexity was introduced. This worked well for Russia, as many unique elements were invented and first performed by Russian athletes. For example, Svetlana Khorkina, double Olympic Champion and nine-time champion of the world, introduced seven very complicated elements which only a few can repeat even today.
The collapse of the Soviet Union severely damaged Russian gymnastics, and many athletes went abroad. However, a new generation, eager to win, soon grew up. The long-awaited Olympic gold in the uneven bars was won in 2012 by Aliya Mustafina, while other young athletes such as Maria Paseka, Angelina Melnikova, Denis Ablyazin and Anton Golotsutskov continue to go all out to build on their considerable achievements.