If there is one major drawback to being a fan of old school sports, it’s the lack of newly produced content. The gymnasts in question have long been retired and every major competition is already on YouTube. There isn’t the thrill of having another chapter written as new results come in, as was the case with Simone Biles and Angelina Melnikova at the 2019 World Championships.
So I was delighted to see a new video of Elena Mukhina surface. The footage comes from a 1979 exhibition display while she was touring the United States. Many would be surprised to learn that Mukhina stepped foot on American soil. In this era Soviet gymnasts were making routine visits to the United States. Virtually all of the star Soviet gymnasts from the 1970s made multiple visits to United States and Mukhina was no exception. There is even a picture of Mukhina touching the Liberty Bell. It is one of the most iconic symbols of American history.
The Soviet sports program had been sending its athletes to the United States for decades. Even in the mid 1950s it wasn’t uncommon for Soviet teams to tour the United States and vice versa. The initial objective of these tours was to promote friendship in the wake of hostility between East and West.
The most famous example was the 1962 track and field meet (world athletics) that was held between the United States and the Soviet Union. Held at the Stanford football stadium, the event would be watched by 81,000 people. It was widely covered in the press including the New York Times. The competition was even broadcasted on national television. The national broadcast was particularly noteworthy given that in this era of television it was often challenging to broadcast sports nationally. The famed 1962 USA-USSR meet would take on additional significance for its role in promoting friendship at a time of hostility between East and West when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred just three months later.
Even before Olga Korbut’s legendary performance at the 1972 Olympics, Soviet gymnasts had been travelling to the United States. After Korbut’s breakout success at Munich, gymnastics would serve as one of the preeminent sports in the Soviet international tours. Olga Korbut’s massive fame made the value of Soviet gymnastics go beyond simply winning medals. As one of the Soviet Union’s most internationally recognizable citizens, Soviet gymnastics was now a tool to spread Soviet cultural influence. And thereby, project soft power. But there was also a financial stake as well as the popularity of Soviet gymnasts made people willing to open their wallets to see them.
The international tours would at times be both physically and mentally grueling for the athletes. It was additional wear and tear on their bodies. The travel schedules were exhausting. It would frequently lead to divisions between teammates as well as divisions between national team members and administrative officials.
By the time Elena Mukhina came along in the aftermath of the 1976 Olympics, the Soviet gymnastics tours had again taken on a very new role. In the wake of their success with Nadia Comaneci, the Romanians had opted to start their own series of international tours. The Romanian and Soviet gymnastics programs were not only competing for medals, these rival tours meant they were directly competing with each other financially.
Korbut was one of many tools of soft power the Soviets had. The Soviets would be known for more than just gymnastics with a strong space program, chess program, and various other achievements. This gave the Soviets a wide variety of ways to spread their technological and cultural achievements. As a relatively small European nation, Nadia was by far and away the biggest instrument of soft power the Romanians had.
If Nadia was a Bulgarian gymnast this wouldn’t have been as much of a problem for the Soviets. But Nadia was Romanian, a country whose entire government policy was built on challenging the Soviets and more specifically, Soviet supremacy at every opportunity. The pressure was on the Soviet gymnastics program to find someone who could render Nadia irrelevant.
Their search would eventually lead to Elena Mukhina who was exactly what Soviet officials had been looking for. Even before her victory at the 1978 World Championships that would result in her winning the All-Around (AA) title, Mukhina had already visited the United States.
Mukhina’s trademark move was a full twisting Korbut flip. Event organizers would frequently cite her connection to Korbut as a way to give Mukhina instant credibility with the crowd. Now that Mukhina could also be promoted as the top ranked gymnast in the world after her 1978 title, her 1979 tour would be an even greater chance for her to shine.
This footage from Mukhina on a display tour in 1979 gives us an inside look on what these trips to the United States were like for Mukhina. Television commentators directly compared Mukhina to Nadia to describe her strong mental composure. Cathy Rigby also cited the growing competition from her Soviet teammates that Mukhina was facing, but before she could finish that comment, Mukhina fell on her signature full twisting Korbut flip.
Mukhina completed the rest of her bars routine, briefly waved to the crowd and made her best attempt to put on a smile. But then Mukhina immediately started chalking up. This wasn’t a competition. It was an inconsequential display (gala) where there were no standings to worry over. Yet the commentator stated that he could see tears in Mukhina’s eyes. The footage gives us a brief close up that isn’t enough to show whether Mukhina was crying or not, but she certainly gives the appearance of someone who is downhearted.
Mukhina’s somber reaction to missing her trademark move demonstrates just how much of a perfectionist she was. The personal desire to always get these routines right is what makes an elite gymnast so successful. But that same attitude could also be the result of how much pressure these athletes were under. They were subjected to an environment where even the most inconsequential mistake would be harped on.
The full twisting Korbut flip was one of the highlights of this display. Fans had paid to see this daring, jaw dropping move. And Mukhina was certainly going to give it to them. Mukhina remounted the bars because the willingness to get back on the apparatus in spite of what happened a few moments ago is what makes a gymnast, a gymnast. The desire to satisfy the crowds and be loved by them is as gratifying to the athletes as the medals themselves.
Mukhina did what she had intended to do the first time around and nailed the full twisting Korbut flip. The audience roared and this time Mukhina didn’t need to feign happiness as she waved to the crowds.
We often think of the rigors of an Olympics as happening once every four years or the select major competitions that happen a couple times a year. This footage gives us an insight of the rigors of being a competitive gymnast in all the other days of the year. Gymnasts don’t get to turn them off when a competition ends. The pressure remains on them for 365 days of the year. These tours frequently brought the gymnasts joy as they were able to travel, sightsee, and interact with fans. But it can also be understood how even a fun trip can at times be a grind.
The commentary within the footage is foreshadowing. Rigby’s commentary on the increasingly fierce competition Mukhina was facing from her own teammates was an ominous warning sign that would eventually come true. To the detriment of Mukhina, the 1980 Olympic quad would be one of the finest examples of pacing. In late 1979 and early 1980, virtually everyone seemed to be hitting their stride at the right time.
Mukhina also had to contend with two promising juniors in Elena Naimushina and Stella Zakharova who had now come of age. Zakharova was also on this tour and television commentator Jim McKay declared “there is someone new to reckon with” while Rigby agreed and specifically cited Stella giving Mukhina a run for her money.
If the emphasis placed on the Soviet gymnasts to have a successful 1979 tour to counter the growing competition from Romanian tours wasn’t enough, there was even more pressure placed directly on the tour itself. On the men’s side Nikolai Andrianov also won the 1978 AA. For the first time in 18 years, Soviet gymnastics held both a men’s and women’s AA title simultaneously. It translated to even more pressure from the Soviet hierarchy as they did not want to waste a rare dual AA victory.
This very tour itself was another example of the growing list of circumstances that would all lead to July 3, 1980 when Mukhina’s career met a tragic end. Under normal circumstance the victor at the 1978 World Championships would have all the momentum heading into the Olympics. But instead there would be another World Championships held in 1979. It would be the first time a single Olympic quad had multiple World Championships.
It is rather obvious how much the 1979 display tour was intended to prepare Soviet gymnasts for the 1979 World Championships, which were also being held in the United States. The final stop on the ten-city display tour was Fort Worth, the host city of the 1979 World Championships. The January 5th start date of the 1979 tour meant Mukhina was already in a rigorous process as she prepared to defend her AA title only two months after her 1978 victory.
But she never made the trip back to Fort Worth. Mukhina missed the 1979 World Championships with an injury and in her absence the Romanians triumphed. In response Soviet coaches feared they were falling behind the Romanians and pressed their gymnasts even harder.