The Soviet Gymnasts Who Were Victims of Their Own Success.

Note: I highly recommend reading Part I first.

When the Soviet women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) team traveled to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, they came with a familiar face. In the 1960s it was common for top Soviet gymnasts to immediately take over the top coaching positions in retirement. This had been the case for Sofia Muratova who had been the most decorated gymnast to retire in 1964. Muratova had been a coach on the ill-fated 1966 World Championship team that had failed to secure either the All-Around (AA) or Team titles. Soviet officials decided to move on to a different coach and selected the recently retired Latynina to lead the Soviet team.

Coach Latynina at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City

This meant Petrik was in the rather awkward position of having her fate put in the hands of Latynina, the person whose career Petrik had a direct hand in ruining. For Petrik, the selection of Latynina as coach would be emotionally painful. In her childhood Latynina was Petrik’s idol. But Petrik would come to resent what she perceived as Latynina’s open favoritism towards Kuchinskaya. When people saw Natalia Kuchinskaya, they saw a future star, a headliner of the Soviet team, the future of gymnastics. In an era where appropriate standards of media commentary towards female athletes had yet to be established, Kuchinskaya was constantly praised for her good looks in the media. She was constantly described as “beautiful” and people didn’t mean her gymnastics when they said it. Petrik in contrast was rarely called “beautiful” and when people saw her, they saw a gymnast who was a strong member of the Soviet team, but they didn’t see a gymnast worthy of being treated in a fashion similar to Natalia.

And the worst part for Petrik, is that Kuchinskaya genuinely was the superior gymnast. Kuchinskaya had all the traits of an all-time great, but she would lose her passion for the sport. Kuchinskaya retired not long after the 1968 Olympics leaving her as a sort of enigma in WAG history. She would be remembered as a gymnast who was one of the most talented the sport had ever seen, but would never reach the potential so many had pegged her for.

So significant was Kuchinskaya’s legacy that Minot Simons II, one of the finest WAG historians of all time opted to start his series on the history of women’s gymnastics in 1966. He did this not because of Vera Caslavska, but because of Kuchinskaya who won six medals in her debut at the World Championships that year. It was the success of Kuchinskaya in 1966 that he considered more significant to the development of WAG.

Natalia Kuchinskaya (L) and Vera Caslavska (R)

Petrik, Voronina, and Karaseva would all continue their gymnastics careers and each of them would make it to 1972. But in a twist, Larissa Latynina opted to keep all three of them off the 1972 Olympic team. Petrik viewed this as Latynina’s revenge for the defeat she had suffered in 1964 that would mark the downfall of her career.

Whether the trio should have been named to the team is tough to answer. The Soviet WAG dynasty was as dominant as the Americans are currently. Both programs had fields so loaded, that there were more worthy athletes than spots available. Latynina could have gone in a wide range of different selections and any of them would have been acceptable. For elite-level athletes such as Petrik, it is a tough pill to swallow and they often look for ulterior explanations to explain why they were left off the team rather than come to terms with the reality that there were better athletes available.

Complicating the process is the that trio were all established veterans which comes with a decline in participation as the athletes try to preserve their health by competing less frequently. Meanwhile coaches opt to select younger gymnasts for competitions to give them experience in the buildup to an Olympic Games. If Petrik, Voronina, and Karaseva deserved to be named to the Olympic team, it would have been on the basis of what they did in closed-door training sessions, information that isn’t available. A look at the Soviet domestic competitions in early 1972 reveals that the six best performing Soviets were the same six that made the 1972 Olympic team. Latynina herself wrote in her memoirs that she wanted them to make the team, but couldn’t justify their selection. In recent times Petrik has since reconciled with Latynina, but she still publicly comments on her omission from the 1972 Olympic team.

But this heartbreak and resentment from Petrik is completely understandable. Voronina, Karaseva, Kuchinskaya, and Petrik would all suffer the same fate as Elena Volchetskaya, one of the gymnasts the quartet had unseated. All five of them came up in an era where they were told they were too young to be considered for the Olympics and would have to wait until they were older. And so they followed the rules and waited until they grew older. But when it was finally their turn, the rules had changed. A younger generation of gymnasts who were never told they had to wait their turn were now going to get team spots. Volchetskaya, Voronina, Karaseva, Kuchinskaya, and Petrik would all be 1x Olympians. There were six veteran gymnasts that were active in 1964 that went to multiple Olympics: (Latynina, Astakhova, Muratova, Lyukhina, Manina, and Ivanova). The 1970s would feature six more Soviet gymnasts who were named to multiple Olympic teams (Saadi, Korbut, Kim, Filatova, Burda, and Turischeva).

Burda at the 1972 Olympics

Voronina, Karaseva, Kuchinskaya, and Petrik watched their two younger teammates in 1968 go on to be a 2x Olympian (Burda) and a 3x Olympian (Turischeva). It was the ultimate insult for a generation of gymnasts who were wedged between two eras of multi-Olympians and the consequences of what happens when the average age of a sport declines faster than the age of the current athletes.

All five of them had contributed to (if not instigated) the trend of rapidly declining ages in Soviet gymnastics. But this very same decline that they were responsible for creating would soon apply to them pushing Volchetskaya, Voronina, Karaseva, Kuchinskaya, and Petrik out of the sport. They would be victims of their own success.

The history of WAG is largely written as before and after Olga Korbut. Before Olga Korbut, the sport struggled with widespread recognition. After Olga Korbut, WAG was one of the most popular Olympic sports. Olga Korbut deserves every bit of the recognition she has received for her role in popularizing the sport. Olga Korbut proved that if people watched they would fall in love with the sport. But why were people watching in the first place?

The answer is the gymnasts of the 1960s. Vera Caslavska who brought a new perspective on how a gymnast should interact with the crowd. Soviet young guns such as Voronina, Karaseva, Kuchinskaya, Petrik, and Volchetskaya who brought a new element of youth to the sport. Cathy Rigby who added an American name to the mix that broadcasters and the Western media could promote. They started the momentum where the sport witnessed its initial growth. They brought new ideas that would lay the foundation for how WAG could achieve a larger audience. They gave Olga Korbut the spotlight she needed to bring the sport to new heights.

For the five Soviet gymnasts, they became the forgotten generation of the USSR dynasty. The obscure names wedged in between giants like Latynina and Korbut. Only Kuchinskaya is in the Hall of Fame. Their stories are just as compelling as any other era of Soviet gymnastics. Volchetskaya’s success on the domestic level at such a young age in the early 1960s and breaking the age barrier by making the 1964 Olympic team is one of the most remarkable athletic achievements to occur within Soviet WAG program. Larissa Latynina being upset by Larissa Petrik is one of the finest examples of an iconic upset in not just gymnastics history, but sports history. Yet it is an event that is rarely talked about due to WAG itself doing little to promote its own history from the pre-Korbut era.

But perhaps the most compelling part of their story is that they didn’t just pave a path for the next generation of Soviet stars, they helped create them. It was Larissa Petrik who discovered Tamara Lazakovich. While Petrik never made the 1972 Olympic team, Lazakovich did. She would win four Olympic medals including the AA Bronze. But the greatest find came from Elena Volchetskaya. She would discover a talented young gymnast and started coaching her. The name of that gymnast?

It was Olga Korbut.

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