120 Years, 120 Stories (Part 36) : Latynina – The All-time Record Medal Holder in Olympics

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In an earlier edition, we talked about Carl Lewis and Mark Spitz and how they won medals at multiple Games. In this episode of our special Olympic series, we are to talk about a personality who did win a whooping 18 medals in her Olympic career and created many records – a few of which are still to be emulated.

Larisa Latynina, a Soviet gymnast, romped through the beams and the bars to sweep away medals in the three Games that she took part in from 1956 to 1964 – a span of eight years. Born in 1934 at Soviet Ukraine, Latynina was initially a ballet dancer before her training school shut down. She then switched to gymnastic. The initial years of her life were not exactly pretty having lost her father in a battle. Raised by an uneducated mother who used to do odd jobs to make both ends meet, Latynina tasted her first success at a team event at the 1954 World Championships soon after she completed her graduation.

At her debut in the 1956 Melbourne Games, Larisa Latynina got the better of her Hungarian rival Agnes Keleti to win the all-around event along with leading the Soviet contingent to the team win. She picked up another two golds – one each on the floor event and on the vault. She followed it up with a silver on the uneven bars and a bronze in the team event over portable apparatus (the latter is no more a part of the Olympics). In all, she returned home with four golds and one each silver and bronze.

The Soviet gymnast was however a favourite at the next Games in Rome having won at many international events in the four years in between. Again she retained her supremacy in the all-around, team and floor events but came third on the vault. She came second-best on the uneven bars and the balance beam. Again her tally at the Games read six – this time however a gold less and a silver more. At the end of the Rome Olympics, the gifted gymnast stood equal to Paavo Nurmi’s tally of 12 career medals at the Games. However, the athlete from Finland had two more gold to his credit.

At the 1964 Tokyo Games, the defending world champion Latynina went down to the youngster Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia in the all-around competition. However, the Soviet queen went on to retain her titles in the team event and in the floor exercise for a third straight time. She picked up another two medals to again end the Games with six podium finishes – comprising an equal number of all metals.

With this, Latynina scripted her name into the Olympic history and becoming the most successful Olympian of all-time with 18 medals in her kitty – 9 gold, 5 silver and 4 bronze. Her nine gold medals kept her tied to Nurmi for most career Olympic gold and which was later equaled by American duo of Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis. It was recently that Michael Phelps surpassed her records almost five decades since she called time on her career – but her record haul of 14 medals in individual events still remain untouched. She is also the only female athlete to have recorded most title wins at the Olympics and features at the top in that elite list of multiple medal winners which is otherwise mostly dominated by the other gender.

As a gymnast, she is the only gymnast till date to have won the triple of team, all-around and another event at the same Games and only the third woman to have won every individual showpiece at the Olympics and the Worlds that they took part in. Except for the beam balance in 1956, Latynina won a medal in each and every event that she participated at the Games.

Post retirement, Latynina coached the Soviet gymnast team till 1977. As a coach, the toughest challenge that she faced was to tackle the threat the Soviet gymnasts faced from the Romanian wonder-girl Nadia Comaneci who leapfrogged her to be awarded the greatest gymnast of the century despite having a shorter career as compared to the Soviet veteran.

Larisa Latynina is a huge name in the history of sports. Such was her unparalleled passion for the game that she participated and even won at the European Championships in 1958 while four months pregnant – a fact that she hid from the coach. She won five golds and a silver in that tournament. The octogenarian received the Olympic Order in 1989 and was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1998.

Photo by Greg L. photos

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