Larisa Latynina: The Greatest Women’s Gymnast of All Time

Larisa Latynina in Tokyo on the balance beam.
Larisa Latynina in Tokyo on the balance beam, from the book “Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency”

Larisa Latynina has won 18 Olympic Medals – that’s a career haul of over 2 kilograms, an Olympian achievement that only Michael Phelps has been able to eclipse. When Phelps passed Latynina in 2012, she famously quipped that it was about time a man was able to do what a woman had done a long time ago.

Latynina was gracious in the passing of the torch to Phelps, enjoying the internet limelight despite missing the fame that television brought to gymnasts Olga Korbut or Nadia Comăneci. In the 1950s and 1960s, Latynina, a Ukrainian who competed under the flag of the Soviet Union, was the undisputed queen of gymnastics, on a women’s team with a proud tradition of Olympic glory.

At the Tokyo Games in 1964, Latynina won six more medals, including two golds, bringing her Olympic total of medals to eighteen. Her total 14 individual medals is still a record for female athletes. Despite helping her team to a third consecutive Olympic team gold medal, Latynina gave way in Tokyo to an up-and-coming star from Czechoslovakia, Věra Čáslavská, on the overall individual championship, who would go on to win more individual gold medals in the Olympics – seven – than any other female gymnast.

Amazingly, Latynina continued her run of championships as a coach of the Soviet Union women’s gymnastics team from 1965 to 1977, where her team took gold again and again and again.

In the 1950s and 1960s, so many athletes who competed in the Olympic Games emerged from war-torn environments, overcoming poor conditions to become the very best in the world. As explained in this link, Latynina was no exception, growing up at a time when Ukrainians either resisted or gave in to Soviet collectivization of farms, and the policy ultimately contributing to famines.

And then there were the war years, when both of Latynina’s parents died. According to this ESPN article, her father was killed in battle in 1943, and her mother had to raise her sweeping floors, washing dishes and being a night guard in order to support her daughter’s training, until she too passed away.

Larisa Latynina in MelbourneAt that end of the war, she was 11 and started ballet, her training leading to gymnastic exercises, and eventually to gymnastics full time. At the age of 22, she led the women’s Soviet team to gold in addition to earning three individual golds, continuing a long run of glory for Soviet women’s gymnastics.

Gymnastics would evolve, points more and more earned for athletic difficulty in addition to grace and beauty, in good part due to the impact of technology on sports equipment. “More sophisticated equipment has raised the bar of what the human body can achieve, and, in turn, made the sport more complex. For example, the floor exercise was originally performed on a wooden surface. Later a thin mat was added, and today there is a springy layer that allows for higher jumping without injury.” (See this link.)

Nadia Comaneci of Romania, who along with Olga Korbut were beneficiaries of more advanced technology that allowed them to leap higher, swing faster and tumble more fluidly than generations past, allowing them to display feats of athleticism that had never been seen to a global audience on television. “…you look back at the equipment, it was different then,” Comaneci said. “I don’t want to say primitive, but that’s what it was. The beam was wood, it was not very good for your heels.”

Primitive or not, Latynina was the very best for a relatively long time. As one British journalist wrote of Latynina in 1984, she “so beautifully exemplified youth, beauty and joy that when she had finished, we simply stood up and cried.”