The reason why authoritarian regimes have so much success at the Olympics is because their governments prioritize athletic success. The main goal is not the prestige of winning an Olympic medal, but the image that their form of government is superior. If they can produce the best athletes, it suggests they can produce the best scientists, engineers, and institutions.
For better or for worse the Soviet Union was locked into the success of its Olympic athletes. “For better” was Olga Korbut who made women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) one of the most watched sports at the Olympics. “For worse” was Elena Mukhina. The gymnast who the Soviets had presented as “the next big thing.” The political favorite. The one the Soviets felt was destined to be an iconic star of the 1980 Olympics in the same way Nadia Comaneci had been the biggest star of the 1976 Olympics.
Instead Elena Mukhina would find herself in a hospital bed after suffering a training accident two weeks before the Olympics were to begin. An injury that would leave her paralyzed from the neck down and eventually lead to her premature death. A staggering turn of events for a gymnast who was considered the best in the world just 18 months prior.
If the success of Korbut reflected positively on the Soviet Union and promoted the idea that their institutions were strong and its leadership was competent, the downfall of Elena Mukhina had the opposite effect. It reflected poorly on the Soviets. It created a perception that something so horrible could only happen within the Soviet program because only they gave such little consideration to the well being of their athletes. Authoritarian regimes don’t get the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong, and for good reason.
The injury to Elena Mukhina put a damper on all of the previous success Soviet WAG had created for itself. It generated a discussion as to whether such success was only possible because the Soviets had disregarded concepts such as risk aversion and personal safety. Worst of all for the Soviets, it created a perception that a successful Soviet institution was flawed, and lead to a conversation over what other Soviet institutions had flaws as well.
The Soviets needed Elena Mukhina’s story to go away. What followed next was the beginnings of an attempted coverup. A coverup that evolved with time as the Soviets changed their strategy. But worst of all, the coverup itself made its way back to Elena Mukhina. Inflicting more personal hardship on Mukhina when she was at the lowest point in her life and her situation was already dire.
Elena Mukhina was a high profile athlete, in a high profile sport, who had been injured right as the foreign press was descending on the Soviet Union as the Olympic Games were about to begin. Under these circumstances it would be impossible to prevent word from spreading that something serious had happened within the Soviet WAG program.
Mukhina was injured on July 3rd, it would take nearly a week for news of the accident to spread to the Western press. Mukhina was reported to have fallen on first on bars (July 9th), then on the beam, (July 14th) and it wasn’t until July 16th that the AP correctly reported she had been injured on floor. The inconsistency from the Soviets was laughable. Some details of Mukhina’s injury flipped between being reported as correct and incorrect as many as five times.
But the inconsistency wasn’t the root of the problem. The real issue was since the Soviets were unable to engage in a complete coverup, they pivoted to spinning the narrative instead. The new Soviet strategy had three distinct characteristics to it.
Put the blame on Mukhina
Unable to suppress news that something had happened, the Soviets instead had to focus on suppressing the fallout. More specifically, the Soviets had to find a way to absolve themselves of blame. The natural result was to blame Mukhina for injuring herself.
Newspaper articles emphasized Mukhina “practicing difficult acrobatic routines by herself.” They had gone as far as to say she had done it “in disregard of orders from her coach.” None of which was true. Not only was Mukhina being slandered in the press, but she was unable to defend herself or have her version of events told to correct the narrative.
The reality was Mukhina was being personally coached and had been specifically ordered to perform the Thomas Salto at the time of her injury. An analysis of July 3, 1980 reveals a minimum of six different coaching errors and can be fairly described as the most blatant case of coaching malpractice involving a high caliber gymnast. It should be noted that Mukhina was being trained by national team coaches at the time of her injury. Her personal coach Mikhail Klimenko was absent. It was this particular detail that had allowed the Soviets to so effectively propagate the idea that Mukhina injured herself while training on her own.
Downplay the importance of Mukhina
It was the specific fame of Mukhina that had made news of her injury so significant. As the Soviets saw it, if they could make Mukhina less relevant of a gymnast, they could make her injury less relevant. Suddenly, Mukhina’s role on the team was diminished. Her previous accomplishments were downplayed. She became “one of a dozen candidates” in consideration for the Olympic team, as opposed to her pre-injury status as a gymnast the Soviets had spent more time promoting than any other WAG.
There was one quote from an unnamed Soviet team official that was printed in both the Washington Post and the Associated Press. It is perhaps the most awful quote in gymnastics history.
“She was only an Olympic team candidate anyway. We have plenty of others to take her place.”
For the Soviets, it wasn’t enough to deny Mukhina the recognition, awareness, and sympathy for the injury she had endured, they were also trying to cut down her pre-injury accomplishments as well. They wanted to take away what she had accomplished as a gymnast. The legacy and reputation of the legend that had successfully battled Nadia Comaneci and what remained of that gymnast as she lay in a hospital bed were both under assault. The gymnast the Soviets had once felt was so significant they were granting her special treatment to ensure she remained a contender for the Olympic team, was suddenly being treated as someone of no importance.
It wasn’t the first time Mukhina had been treated in such a fashion. When Elena Mukhina struggled in 1979 the Soviets responded by trashing her in the media. It was a tactic the Soviets utilized against star athletes who were underperforming in competition. In some cases, Soviet athletes who had been victimized by this tactic had suffered mental breakdowns over the way the press was treating them and the pressure to match their previous standards of athletic excellence.
One quote that had been made in reference to Mukhina by a Soviet team coach prior to her injury:
“She is too sensitive. She likes music, poetry and to sit and think. She is too sensitive a girl to be a great athlete.”
The Soviet coach would describe her as “too easily touched” and the gymnast who showed up to practice two hours early had developed a reputation for being lazy. The warrior athlete who trained on a broken leg was said to not be trying hard enough. The Soviets had gone as far as to describe Mukhina as having a “frivolous” approach to training. All the result of the Soviet tactic of trying to anger their athletes as a motivational tool. Insults from the past that were suddenly brought back into the limelight in July of 1980 as a way to discredit a gymnast the Soviet Union now wanted to cut down.
But these “insults” were also a way to place all the blame on the athlete when things go wrong. If there is one common theme with Soviet athletics, it is always the athlete that gets blamed. Rarely is there a conversation about how it was the coach who had let down the athlete. Even when an athlete had been seriously hurt, it was she who had hurt herself.
Downplay the severity of the injury
Downplaying the severity of Mukhina’s injury was the simplest and most obvious tactic the Soviets resorted to. The Soviets weren’t exactly quiet on the matter. Nearly every article included a Soviet source described as either a “Soviet spokesman” or a “team source.” But their participation had always come with an attempt to give as little information as possible.
Phrases such as “declined to give details” or “declined to specify the extent of Mukhina’s injury” became the typical response to questions about Mukhina’s condition. When the question of “how did this happen” came up, they “declined to say when the injury occurred and under what circumstances.” The Western media had a pretty good idea of what had happened, but their most accurate reporting was information that was specifically described as “rumors” rather than what the Soviets were saying.
The Soviets initially acknowledged Mukhina had suffered a spinal injury, but specifically denied she had been paralyzed. Quotes from Soviet officials stated Mukhina “has all her reflexes” and “she is not paralyzed.” Both quotes were made days apart revealing a continuous commitment to blatantly lie.
Instead it would be the Soviet gymnasts who seemed to set the moral standard for doing the right thing. A quote from Elena Davydova, the gymnast who won the 1980 Olympics was the best indication of just how serious Mukhina’s situation was, and the proper way to comment on it:
“Of course, I am glad of my victory, but another gymnast should be on the podium, Elena Mukhina. She deserves the reward more than all of us.”
But all of this was inconsequential to what was about to come next. Everything that had happened so far had hurt Elena Mukhina, but it paled in comparison to the damage that was about to inflicted on Mukhina during the Olympic competition.
During the Olympic television broadcast commentators interviewed Yuri Titov and asked about Elena Mukhina. Titov was not just the most influential administrator within Soviet gymnastics, but all of gymnastics due to his status as President of FIG. There is no bigger platform and no larger audience than the television broadcast of an Olympic competition. This was the moment that would matter most when it came to relaying information about Elena Mukhina to the fans. Titov repeated the standard line of lies that have already been covered in this article, but he added something else.
Titov was asked “will she ever compete again?” Titov responded by saying Mukhina was at the age in which a gymnast typically retires. And that was the official Soviet explanation as to why Mukhina wouldn’t return to competition. It was an easily believable lie as Mukhina was widely assumed to be on the verge of retirement even before her injury. It was the perfect explanation to explain Mukhina’s disappearance. It was such an effective lie that Titov’s comments caused fans to send letters to Mukhina asking whether she would return to competition. Those letters took a heavy mental toll on Mukhina and I covered that topic in a separate article. It is linked below and I highly recommend you read it alongside this article.
Link to: How Fan Mail Bothered Elena Mukhina
After the Olympics press coverage of Mukhina was rare. In October of 1980 Mukhina’s injury was covered by International Gymnast in what was one of the few examples of Mukhina coverage from 1980-1986. International Gymnast stated Mukhina fell on the uneven bars but emphasized that was the Soviet account. Four months after her accident the Soviet version of events still had the wrong apparatus Mukhina fell on. The International Gymnast report stated Mukhina:
“…was again able to move her arms and legs, so that there is obviously no chance of paraplegia.”
The report also stated Mukhina attempted the move that would lead to her injury “contrary to the will of her coach.” International Gymnast was an American magazine. The Soviet press in contrast hardly covered Mukhina at all. From 1981-1986 Sovetsky Sport the top Soviet sports newspaper covered Mukhina only once. Pravda a major non-sports publication also covered Mukhina on one known occasion.
In both cases Sovetsky Sport and Pravda covered Mukhina being awarded a highly prestigious Olympic Order from the IOC. It was covered in the Soviet press because it was something that could be spun positively. A renowned international organization had decided to honor a Soviet athlete. The Pravda article would prove to be one of the worst articles ever written on Soviet gymnastics.
Link to: My write up on Elena Mukhina winning the Olympic Order
The Soviet Union was notorious for propaganda and press censorship. But this was rarely a problem with Soviet gymnastics largely because Soviet press coverage of its athletes was based on human interest stories. Soviet gymnastics coverage featured the revelation of biographical details of its athletes to generate a more personal connection with fans and the recapping of competitive results rather than attempts to spin a narrative. The Mukhina Pravda article was a rare example of Soviet gymnastics coverage being completely corrupted by political spin.
Pravda took advantage of the incident to talk about the greatness of Soviet athletes. Their gymnastics team had managed to overcome the grief of what had happened to Mukhina and won gold medals in spite of adversity. They had showed great mental fortitude by not allowing the injury to Mukhina to scare them as they competed difficult skills of their own. Pravda also blamed the Western press and claimed they “tried in vain to play on another’s grief.”
According to Pravda the Elena Mukhina story was incomplete without praising the greatness of her fellow gymnasts in some way. Pravda used Mukhina’s story as “another striking example of our Soviet way of life.” Praising all the institutions and Soviet society that had banded together to come to Mukhina’s aid. The Sports Committee of the USSR, the Central Committee of the Young Communist League, and the Central Army Sports Club were all specifically cited.
The Pravda article was the first real indication of Mukhina’s injury. It stated she broke three vertebrae and even goes as far as to use the term “paralysis.” But it specifically avoids making a direct statement on whether it was a temporary or a life-long condition. It uses the phrase ” signs of movement” to describe Mukhina’s initial hospital stay. But also describes her needing around the clock care and a return to “socially useful activities” as a future goal. Implying an injury that is quite significant if this is her condition 14 months after the injury. But the Pravda article ends with a comment that Mukhina in the future could become a gymnastics coach or judge. A statement that broaches the line between acceptable optimism and an unacceptable attempt to overstate Mukhina’s recovery prospects.
From 1980-1986 the Soviets never made a serious attempt to make information widely available on what exactly had happened with Mukhina. The common understanding that Mukhina had been seriously hurt and was now confined to permanent paralysis becomes a mainstream view in 1981 and 1982 by foreign sources. But it isn’t clear on what basis they made that pivot.
The IOC Olympic Order which was awarded specifically because of Mukhina’s injury is the best example of there being widespread understanding of Mukhina’s true condition. Mukhina attended the award ceremony in a wheelchair and was pictured while sitting in it. After the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster the Soviet policy of glasnost (openness) was greatly expanded. Press censorship was loosened and press freedom was increased. Starting in 1987 Elena Mukhina starts regularly appearing in Soviet media as a result of the newfound press freedoms. It is at this point that Mukhina’s story is finally being told accurately in an official Soviet source. It marks the first time that an in-depth account of what had happened is released as opposed to vague details that had been the only information available beforehand. But most significantly, Elena Mukhina’s story is now being told in her own words.
More Mukhina Content:
Link to: Elena Mukhina’s Trip to America
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