Before there was Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time was a Soviet gymnast by the name of Larissa Latynina. During the 1964 Olympics Latynina would win the last of her Olympic medals. In her career she had medaled 18 times despite participating in only 19 events. The one time she had failed to medal was a fourth place finish at her very first Olympics.
Latynina would lose the gold medal in the prestigious All-Around (AA) to Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia in one of the most epic showdowns in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) history. But it would be a little known event that occurred two months later that would change the sport forever.
In this era of Soviet gymnastics the highly prestigious USSR Championships were held after the Olympics. For Latynina, this competition would be nothing more than an easy win and a mere formality as she took a post-Olympic victory tour. But to the surprise of everyone, Latynina would finish in second place. More shockingly, Latynina didn’t lose to one of her fellow Olympic teammates.
She lost to a complete unknown.
Larissa Petrik was described as “junior-class” and hadn’t even been awarded a “Master of Sports” title that is bestowed on Eastern Bloc athletes before they compete in elite international competition. But all of this was inconsequential to the most shocking thing about the upset. Petrik was only 15 years old.
In the last two decades WAG had been dominated by gymnasts who were mostly in the 23 to 35 age range. The 1952, 1956, and 1960 Olympics each had a gymnast aged 30 years or older win an AA medal. The 1964 Olympics only narrowly missed this mark with Latynina celebrating her 30th birthday two months after the Olympics. In those three Olympics, only on rare occasions would someone under the age of 20 make the Olympic team of an established WAG power. And even then they would have to wait until their second Olympics before being a serious medal contender.
This had been the case with Vera Caslavska who had spent six years from her debut in a major elite competition (1958 World Championships) to rise from someone at the bottom of the top ten to beating Latynina. But even before Petrik’s defeat of Latynina, there were early warning signs that the sport was about to be hit by a wave of young athletes.
At the 1964 Olympics the East Germans (competing under a unified German flag) had sent the 19-year old Birgit Radochla who had finished fourth in the AA. Czechslovakia had sent an 18-year old (Jaroslava Sedlackova) and even the Soviet Union was getting in on the action by bringing Elena Volchetskaya who was aged 19 or 20 (databases have her listed with different birth years).
The major gymnastics powers were starting to open to the idea of younger gymnasts. But this was only on a limited basis and only for gymnasts who were at least 18 years old. And it certainly wasn’t expected that they could directly challenge a gymnast such as Latynina.
Elena Volchetskaya didn’t make her way onto the Olympic team overnight. She had competed in the 1960 Junior USSR Championships and had been a regular at the senior level USSR Championships and USSR Cup since 1961. Her career goes all the way back to 1959 when she was formally named to the Youth National Team. Volchetskaya’s made the 1964 Olympic team only after she had spent six years building up her competitive resume.
Petrik had managed to do in an instant what had taken Caslavska and Volchetskaya six years of work. That is why her victory was so startling and sent shockwaves throughout the gymnastics community. Petrik was two years younger than Zinaida Voronina, the silver medalist of the Category I competition at the USSR Championships (a level similar to USAG’s L10). Latynina had lost to a gymnast who was half her age.
Before Petrik’s win, no one thought someone that young could compete with the best. After Petrik’s win, every gymnastics federation was rethinking their entire approach towards young gymnasts. And it was more than simply the gymnastics community that took note of Petrik’s victory.
In an era where WAG lacked widespread exposure and news events occurring within the USSR tended to stay within the USSR, Petrik defeating Latynina was mentioned in the New York Times (NYT). It was a remarkable occurrence for WAG given the era. The NYT article noted it as “an example to be followed in training a new generation of athletes.” But at the end it made a reference to the white bows Petrik wore en route to her victory over Latynina.
The white bow would become a sort of unofficial mascot for the Soviet gymnastics program. Large white bows were typically worn by young Soviet schoolgirls. The white bow represented youth and the larger the bow, the younger the girl. At early ages the white bow could be as large as the head of the girl wearing it. Over the years it would shrink. Eventually they would turn into small little ribbons before disappearing altogether.
For established gymnasts such as Latynina, the white bow was perplexing as they wondered, “how am I losing to…that?” It was further embarrassment on top of the shame of losing. But within a decade the sport would be dominated by young gymnasts and it was widely accepted that the younger a gymnast was, the better she was. Where youth was associated with success, the white bow, a symbol of youth became a symbol of strength that saw widespread usage in Soviet WAG newsreels, interviews, and filmography.
As for Petrik, she became a widely known figure within the Soviet press and when she returned home following her victory, massive crowds at the train station would meet her. While Petrik reveled in the spotlight, the Soviet gymnastics program underwent a near total purge of its existing national team. Soviet gymnastics coaches had completely changed their thinking and were now focusing on their teenagers trying to find the next Petrik while ignoring their veterans. Among the causalities of careers that ended in 1964:
Tamara Lyukhina: A 2x Olympian who had competed in Soviet domestic competition since 1957.
Lidia Ivanova: A 2x-time Olympian. She was a veteran of the 1956 Olympics.
Tamara Manina: A 2x-time Olympian. She was a veteran of the 1956 Olympics and her career went all they way back to 1953 when she was the Soviet Junior National Champion.
Sofia Muratova: A 2x-time Olympian. She was a veteran of the 1956 Olympics and her career went all the way back to 1945 when she was the Soviet Junior National Champion.
Latynina managed to keep her career intact and joined Petrik at the 1965 European Championships where they were the two Soviet representatives. Latynina reasserted her dominance by finishing second in the All-Around (AA) and medaled on every event. Petrik’s only medal would be a tie for bronze on the balance beam. For a brief moment it appeared the traditional way of things had prevailed. But then it happened again. There was another upset. This time it involved two completely different gymnasts.
If Latynina was the most iconic Soviet gymnast of the era, the second most iconic was Polina Astakhova. At the conclusion of the 1964 Olympics, Polina’s ten career Olympic medals made her the eighth most decorated Olympian of all time (albeit in a three way tie). At the time she was one of just eleven Olympians with a double-digit medal count. That number has since grown to 35.
At the 1965 USSR Championships, the 29 year old Polina Astakhova finished second and was defeated by Natalia Kuchinskaya, a gymnast with the exact same birth year as Petrik. In the Junior Division, another gymnast Olga Karaseva, who also shared the same birth year as Petrik won the AA. And just like that, three gymnasts who were all 16 years old (Karaseva, Kuchinskaya, and Petrik) were now the foundation of the Soviet team. The slightly older Zinaida Voronina, would be the leader of the new quartet.
Astakhova and Latynina would be the last of the old establishment gymnasts still on the team. Not even Elena Volchetskaya, the youngest member of the 1964 Olympic team had managed to retain her position following her poor showing at the 1965 USSR Championships. The 1966 Soviet World Championships team would feature two establishment gymnasts, Astakhova and Latynina, and four gymnasts of the new wave: Voronina, Karaseva, Kuchinskaya, and Petrik.
The team and AA competitions would be disastrous for the Soviets with Czechoslovakia taking both major titles. It was the first time the USSR had lost both in the same competition. The two veteran gymnasts proved too old to carry the team and the new wave was too raw and inexperienced to pick up the slack.
Entering 1966 Latynina had won medals in 38 of the last 40 individual events she had participated in at the Olympics, World Championships, and European Championships. Her two non-medals in that time were both fourth place finishes. A gymnast who had typically medaled in every event walked away from the 1966 World Championships without having won an individual medal. It would prove an anticlimactic end to one of the most dominant careers in the history of WAG.
Only Astakhova remained. Unable to beat Kuchinskaya or Petrik, Polina could hope only to repeat her bronze medal finish at the 1966 USSR Championships in her attempt to further her athletic career. But the following year at the 1967 USSR Championships it happened again. There was another upset. This time Astakhova came in fourth place. She had been knocked off the podium entirely by a 14 year old named Lyubov Burda who took bronze. And like Latynina, Polina’s athletic career came to an end.
But with the end of one legendary career came the start of another. At the very same competition another 15 year old would emerge, Ludmilla Turischeva. And soon the 1968 Olympic team would be complete. Voronina, Karaseva, Kuchinskaya, and Petrik would be the older members of the team. Joining them would be Burda and Turischeva. In just one Olympic quad, the average age of a Soviet Olympic gymnast had dropped by seven years.