Shortly before the 1980 Olympics Elena Mukhina who had won the All-Around only two years earlier at the 1978 World Championships was injured in a training accident. Mukhina had landed awkwardly on her neck and snapped her spine. The injury was catastrophic leaving her paralyzed from the neck down. It also meant that her gymnastics career was over and Mukhina would never make it to the Olympics.
For the IOC this was unacceptable. Mukhina was too significant of a figure to be excluded from Olympic history. There had to be a way to incorporate her into the Olympic record book. The solution was to award her the Olympic Order.
Created in 1974 and first awarded in 1975, the Olympic Order was touted by the IOC as more prestigious than an Olympic medal. Not only was Mukhina given an Olympic order, she was awarded it in the silver class. This is significant as the silver class was typically reserved only for high level administrative executives and athletes who had left a legacy greater than sports such as Jesse Owens.
The only other athlete in women’s gymnastics who had been awarded an Olympic Order up to that point in time was the 9x Olympic medalist Ludmilla Turischeva who won it in the bronze class. Prior to Elena Mukhina the only figures who had been awarded an Olympic Order in gold were former IOC presidents. Most of the awardees of the gold class in the 1980s were heads of state, IOC executives, or officials who had a direct hand in organizing an Olympic Games.
An Olympic Order in silver was a demonstration of the IOC’s willingness to go above and beyond to recognize Mukhina. Prior to Mukhina, only one other Soviet citizen had been awarded an Olympic Order in silver, the chief organizer of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The same year Mukhina won the award, the only other Soviet winning the award alongside her was the Secretary-General of the USSR Television Company who had been responsible for the broadcast of the Olympic Games.
The Olympic Order in silver meant the IOC had specifically rejected doing the bare minimum, a face-saving measure, and hoping Mukhina’s story would just go away. Instead the IOC had chosen the absolute highest award it could bestow on an athlete like Mukhina and elevate her profile as much as they could.
For elite gymnasts such as Mukhina, they have success because they possess raw physical talent, but also mental fortitude. They have a natural urge to be competitive, to push themselves to the absolute limits, and are unfazed by the prospect of hard work. They revel in subjecting themselves to grueling workouts and seeing how much pain they can endure before stopping. They take pride in being physically exhausted as that means it has been a productive day. High level athletes do all of this while living an extremely structured lifestyle. Virtually every hour of the day is used for school, training, or sleep.
There is nothing crueler that can be done to a gymnast than to take away her physical ability to move. Mukhina had spent her entire life pushing the limits of her body was now confined to a chair. A gymnast who was used to living a rigorous schedule where the concept of “sitting around and doing nothing” was unheard of, had to spend her entire life doing exactly that.
Mukhina struggled with this adjustment and had even starved herself in an attempt to replicate her pre-injury lifestyle. The injury had severely hampered Mukhina’s ability to move all four of her limbs, but not completely. Mukhina had some function in her shoulders and elbows. The amount of movement she retained can be described as miniscule, but for Mukhina this motor function was priceless.
It gave Mukhina the ability to continue her pre-injury lifestyle of challenging herself. Instead of vying for medals, after great difficulty, Mukhina managed to teach herself how to use a spoon. The process involved using muscles in her neck and shoulder to jerk the rest of her arm to follow her commands. The process was unnecessarily time consuming, but it gave Mukhina a badly needed opportunity to be self dependent.
So when Mukhina learned that she had won an Olympic Order, she took the opportunity to put this physical ability to good use. She decided to write a letter in response:
Dear Mr. Samaranch,
Thank you for the honor you have given me in awarding me the “Olympic Order”
It was the best New Year’s greetings.
The penmanship is of poor quality and the reading level is extremely low. The letter is very unlike Mukhina’s character as she is well known for her ability to produce commentary that was advanced and thought provoking. The reality of the situation is that Mukhina likely had far more that she wanted to say, but was limited only to the words she could physically produce in the written hand and couldn’t fully express the thoughts in her head. The low quality penmanship is reflective of how difficult it was for Mukhina to write this letter and evident that she struggled while writing it. It can only be imagined how much time she spent creating it and how exhausting the process was.
Officially, the justification for giving Mukhina the Olympic Order was “her courageous against paralysis.” And yet the very first thing Mukhina opted to do after winning an award for courage, was to respond with a handwritten letter despite her disability which was a courageous act in itself.
This letter was written just 18 months after her initial injury. These years were the hardest moments of Mukhina’s life due to both the mental adjustment to her newfound situation, and the physical condition as her body was still in the process of stabilizing itself. Mukhina’s situation was made worse due to experimental treatments that seemed to do more harm than good in an attempt to regain motor function. Mukhina had been out of the hospital for only a few months before writing this letter.
But what makes this letter so special is that it is reflective of Mukhina’s personality. Before her injury Mukhina had a longstanding reputation for displaying kindness to others. Someone had done something kind for Mukhina by bestowing an award on her. So Mukhina had to return the favor with an act of kindness of her own so she could say “thank you.” And Mukhina was going to return the favor no matter how difficult it was.
Ultimately, this letter exemplifies that Mukhina’s injury didn’t take away her spirit. Whereas Mukhina was once challenging her body by trying to do as many pullups as she could do, now she was challenging her body to get her arm to form handwritten words. Mukhina’s willpower to challenge the limits of her body as she had done as an athlete was still there.
The “Mr. Samaranch” Mukhina is referring to is Juan Antonio Samaranch, the President of the IOC. Samaranch had been elected to the IOC presidency just 13 days after the injury to Elena Mukhina. He would become one of Mukhina’s strongest supporters stating that Mukhina “deserves the award more than anybody else.”
Samaranch kissed Mukhina on the forehead when she was awarded the Olympic Order. He also personally visited Mukhina at her apartment when his itinerary took him to Moscow. Samaranch also gave Mukhina an open invite to attend any competition. But that was an invite Mukhina never took Samaranch up on.
Mukhina didn’t want to be seen as a sob story and visitors who expressed pity were kicked out of her apartment. Journalists were only granted interviews under the agreement that Mukhina was not the main topic of the project they were working. What Mukhina wanted, was to be forgotten.
The Olympic Order ceremony is the only notable reference of Mukhina having a public appearance. Outside of hospital visits, Mukhina is described as having never left her apartment. The Olympic Order was also one of the few times the Soviet press talked about Mukhina following her injury. After announcing that Mukhina was missing the Olympics due to injury, the Olympic Order was the only other mention of Mukhina because her winning a prestigious IOC award could be spun positively. Virtually all of the information on Mukhina’s post-injury life came only after the loosening of press censorship under Mikhail Gorbachev stemming from his policy of glasnost (openness) that was greatly expanded in the aftermath of Chernobyl.
As for Mukhina’s “courageous against paralysis,” she exemplified the official text of her award by displaying courage for the remainder of her life. Mukhina eventually quit experimental treatments and decided it was better for her quality of life to come to terms with her injury rather than needlessly spending energy trying to reverse it. She took the “glass is half full” approach to life arguing she was blessed to still have her mind and that reduced physical ability to move paled in comparison to losing mental capacity.
Mukhina occasionally took a more public role and briefly dabbled in writing for the press. She specifically credited Samaranch for helping encourage her to enter the field of journalism. Unlike her letter from the early 1980s, Mukhina did not use her hand to produce written content but instead used a dictaphone. Years after writing her initial letter, Mukhina reported that she was still trying to learn how to use a pen. Samaranch would be a lifelong advocate for Mukhina and he is often featured in Russian documentaries covering Mukhina.
Mukhina opted to live her life to the fullest, but she knew her medical condition meant reduced life expectancy. Mukhina horrified her friends when she openly talked about it, but for Mukhina there was no use in hiding from the truth, she embraced it.
When that day came 26 years after her injury, Mukhina’s Olympic Order was prominently displayed when media and filmmakers covered her funeral. The Olympic Order in its original format looked like a medal. It was later modified to be a giant necklace with a chain attaching to a large set of Olympic rings. The necklace is very impractical and awardees are also given a lapel pin so they can display their status in ceremonial wear.
But because the Olympic Order has the iconic Olympic rings on it, the award gives Mukhina Olympic credibility. Without it Mukhina’s life story has to be explained by saying “she was as good as any Olympian and won the World Championships which is the Olympics in non-Olympic years.” But having a set of Olympic rings cuts through all of that and casual viewers who come across Mukhina may not understand how the World Championships relates to the Olympics, but they understand the symbolism of the Olympic rings.
In 1985 the Olympic Order in bronze was discontinued and all future awards were given in only gold or silver. The Olympic Order itself has become easier to obtain since the early 1980s when it was only given in more exceptional circumstance. But the award is still difficult for a gymnast to win. A complete list is hard to come by, but as far as I am aware only five athletes in women’s gymnastics have an Olympic Order.
They are Elena Mukhina, Ludmilla Turischeva, Larissa Latynina, Vera Caslavska, and Nadia Comaneci. Collectively they have 47 Olympic medals, which is an incredibly prestigious group for Mukhina to be a part of. Nadia has the distinction of being the only person ever to have been given an Olympic Order on two different occasions. It also should be noted that Nadia was only 23 years old when she won the Olympic Order for the first time and Mukhina was only 21 was she was awarded it. They are most likely the two youngest people in Olympic history to have won an Olympic Order.