Note: This article was written as an off-shoot of another Elena Mukhina article. It is “further reading” on a topic I cut to save on word count. The primary article is linked below.
The initial reaction from the Soviets to Elena Mukhina’s injury shortly before the 1980 Olympics was an attempt to prevent the public from learning the truth as to what had happened. With so much foreign press descending on Moscow in preparation for the Olympics, the media had started putting the pieces together and discovered the true nature of Mukhina’s injury.
The public was starting to learn the true circumstances of what precisely had happened to Elena Mukhina, but the conduct of Yuri Titov would take things a step backwards. Titov was not just the most influential administrator within Soviet gymnastics, but all of gymnastics due to his status as President of FIG.
During the Olympic television broadcast commentators interviewed Titov and asked about Elena Mukhina. How Titov would respond to that question was going be critical. 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 I had already covered in Part I of this article. He emphasized Mukhina had already missed out on making the team and stressed that Mukhina injured herself on a move “she” invented and “she” thought would help her make the Olympic team. But what happened next would be what made this particular incident so infamous and also so damaging.
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 not only a believable lie as Mukhina was widely assumed to be on the verge of retirement before her injury, but Titov’s commentary had made it appear it was Mukhina’s decision as to whether she wanted to return.
Right as the camera cut back to the competition Titov uttered the phrase “sports program” implying if Mukhina was too old to be a gymnast, perhaps she could try out for a different sport. The Soviets weren’t only denying that Mukhina had suffered a catastrophic injury, but were downplaying it to such an extent they were heavily implying it wasn’t even bad enough to qualify as a career ending injury.
Once again the Soviets were lambasting Mukhina by putting the burden back on her. If Mukhina didn’t return it was because she wasn’t trying hard enough to keep competing in spite of her age. At one point in the interview Titov had given the impression that Mukhina would be “recovered” in “some days.” Treating it as if it were a minor, ill-timed injury that had only disrupted things because it happened so close to the Olympics. Titov was forced to backtrack from this statement when it was asked since she would soon be recovered, then why wouldn’t the media soon be able to interview Mukhina and obtain her version of the events that had transpired?
The reason Titov’s comments were so devastating was because it had left open the question as to whether Mukhina could return to competition. As a result fans all over the world sent Mukhina fan mail. Fan mail with comments encouraging her to return to the gym. The way Titov had phrased his commentary exasperated the situation by making it sound like only a lack of willpower to continue training in spite of her advanced age was all that was preventing Mukhina’s return to competition. It was no wonder fans en masse responded with letters offering encouragement for her to resume training.
Try to imagine this from Elena’s perspective. For years she had been hounded by Soviet coaches asking her to push harder, to overcome pain, and take on grueling workloads. They pushed her past the point of no return, and Mukhina paid dearly for that. Mukhina was so mentally exhausted by the time of her injury that her first thought while laying on the ground after injuring herself was “Thank God, I won’t be going to the Olympics.”
The only positive thing Mukhina had to look forward to was the pressure and expectations to keep competing at a high level had finally come to an end. But now it was the fans who were continuing that battle with Mukhina. Letters acknowledging that Mukhina had a tough road ahead of her to overcome such an injury, but suggested maybe she should try? Trying to encourage Mukhina to get back into the gym. Trying to give Mukhina the “right perspective” that she should keep swinging around a pair or parallel bars. Comments being told to someone who couldn’t even lift a spoon.
And then there is the psychological component. Mukhina had achieved considerable fame in her career. She had developed a reputation for doing some of the most difficult and dangerous moves in the sport. And fans fell in love with her for it. This is the dilemma facing athletes in high-risk sports like gymnastics. These athletes have come to realize that they are famous and loved because of the difficult gymnastics skills they are capable of, and come to question if that is all they are loved for.
What happens when an athlete believes the fans only love her because of her physical abilities, and that same athlete loses the ability to walk? Does she come to believe the fans no longer care about her? Do letters from fans inquiring about a return to competition reinforce this idea? Are fans inquiring about the injury because they care about her personal well being? Or do these letters cause Mukhina to question if the only reason people care about her injury status is because they simply want to know how it will impact future gymnastics competitions.
Mukhina never blamed the fans for the letters. She was far too intelligent to not realize the fans meant well and that the real blame was with the Soviet officials who had lied. Nor did Mukhina regret her lost fame. She was glad to fade back into obscurity and simply wanted to be left alone.
Mukhina is often described as a vocal critic of Soviet athletics. But such a description does not truly reflect the nature in which Mukhina conducted herself in her post-injury life. Mukhina can be described as having elements of an outspoken critic, but was also quite restrained. Some of the commentary inserted as an example of Mukhina criticizing Soviet athletics has a strong possibility of being misattributed. While other commentary is correctly attributed to Mukhina but doesn’t reflect just how much Mukhina held back.
Currently it is #MeToo advocates such as Aly Raisman and Rachael Denhollander who are lambasting USAG for every mistake they make ranging from large issues to small ones. Survivors of sexual abuse who have the right to make unrestrained and constant criticisms in the name of ensuring future gymnasts weren’t hurt in the way they had been hurt.
For someone who had the same right to lambast the Soviet system for even its most trivial offenses, that was not the role Mukhina sought. Mukhina did make commentary that reflected quite poorly on the Soviet system, but much of it comes in the context of an interviewer pointing the conversation in that particular direction. Journalists and historians who specifically sought out Mukhina in order to obtain her perspective, rather than Mukhina seeking out others to have her voice heard.
Mukhina would go as far as to specifically put part of the blame on herself for the injury, claiming she should have said “no.” In the process she defies a fundamental rule that it is the responsibility of the coach, not the athlete to decide if he or she is in the proper mental state to continue training risky skills.
It is hard to criticize Mukhina for being wrong, but on the topic of asserting she deserves some of the blame, Mukhina absolutely is. Mukhina would go as far as to specifically absolve both the national team coach who was coaching her at the time of the accident, and her personal coach of blame. Mukhina is either the most forgiving gymnast that ever was, or the kindest that ever was. Leave it to Mukhina to try to minimize the lifelong guilt and burden for those who had to live with the fact they had confined her to a terrible life-long condition.
As Mukhina put it, they were also victims of the system. Which is a lesson that should be taught in regards to Yuri Titov. It is important to note every Soviet institution operated in a flawed system that pressured its own administrators into behaving in such a reckless fashion. It is not in Mukhina’s style to target specific individuals in her criticisms. Most of Mukhina’s criticisms of Soviet sport are rather philosophical in nature. She talks about the person behind the athlete being lost in the race to win medals and the consequences of exposing young children to rigorous Olympic level training. Commentary that is relevant to all sports and not just gymnastics.
This is not to say Mukhina wasn’t vocal against the Soviet system, she absolutely was. Only to draw the comparison that she didn’t do it to the extent of Raisman and Denhollander. But there is one specific topic that is the exception to all of this, one particular issue that truly bothered her. It comes up multiple times in Mukhina’s rhetoric. And that topic was the issue of the Soviet coverup and the letters fans had sent Mukhina encouraging her to keep training after her injury.
Unlike other examples of Mukhina’s criticisms where she is lead into the topic of Soviet misconduct by the interviewer, the letters are a topic she interjects into the conversation on her own initiative. Pivoting the conversation towards the issue of people writing to her and asking for a return to the gym. Making her voice heard on something no one would know to ask.
It goes completely against Mukhina’s typical behavior and references to the post-injury fan mail appear in Mukhina’s rhetoric in different decades. It was an issue still on her mind long after those letters had been sent. Revealing the extent to which those letters truly bothered her. Referring to them as “stupid” and “absurd” which was a rare detraction from the gymnast who typically emphasized politeness and a kind choice of words.
But the letters weren’t all bad. Mukhina would later cite the outreach from fans via letters as helping to find self-empowerment. The letters reminded Mukhina that she still had a voice and people wanted to hear it. The letters encouraged Mukhina to take a more public role by writing for various publications, although she never brought herself to write for columns regularly.
Mukhina expressed remorse that she couldn’t respond to every letter due to both the sheer volume she received and her physical limitations stemming from her injury. That is the kind of person Mukhina was. Kind, considerate, and was raised in a way where she felt duty bound to respond to those who had taken the time to send her well wishes. Most notably, she hand wrote a thank you note to IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch. Note: My article on that story is one of my most popular articles on this site of all time.
The moral of the story is a lesson that is more relevant today than at any point in sports history due to the introduction of social media. Fans have more tools than ever to speak directly to their favorite athletes. It is possible for fans to say deeply hurtful things to athletes without even realizing it. A comment that sounds innocent and stated with no intent to inflict harm can accomplish exactly that.
A recent example occurred with Russian figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva. A popular Netflix television drama about figure skating called “Spinning Out” depicted skaters drinking large qualities of alcohol. As a result fans asked Medvedeva if that was an accurate representation of how often figure skaters drink. This bothered Medvedeva to such an extent that she filmed her first ever live stream in English specifically to address the issue. Evgenia said the questions made her “really upset and really sad.” Fans had innocently asked if a popular television show was an accurate depiction of what goes on behind the scenes in the life of an elite figure skater. What they had unintentionally done is ask Medvedeva if she was a heavy drinker and had made her feel that figure skaters were now widely perceived as constantly being drunk.
Fans often view their messages only in terms of intent. They don’t intend their messages to be hurtful and may not realize that their messages will be perceived in a manner far different from how they were intended.
This was an issue that ultimately occurred with Mukhina inflicting further hardship on her at a time when that was the last thing she needed. While the behavior of the fans was something that could have been improved on, the true culprits were the Soviet sports administrators who chose protecting their own interests at the direct detriment of the athlete who had been hurt.
It was a scenario that would be repeated in ensuing decades, most notably with USAG and their attempt to coverup the Larry Nassar scandal. USAG’s actions had hurt a wide range of gymnasts, but they had taken extra steps specifically in regards to Simone Biles. Like Mukhina, an attempted coverup added to Simone’s pain at a time when she was already going through so much. If there is one takeaway when it comes to analyzing the Soviet coverup of Elena Mukhina’s injury and the Nassar scandal, it is that coverups aren’t without consequence. They always add additional trauma to an already terrible situation. And the ones who bare the brunt of that additional trauma are the gymnasts.
More Mukhina content:
Link to: Elena Mukhina’s Trip to America