The Elena Mukhina Tapes

For those who don’t know who Elena Mukhina is, she is the most heartbreaking story to have come out of the Soviet gymnastics program. Mukhina achieved breakout success at the 1977 European Championships. The following year Mukhina achieved the trademark win of her career by winning the All-Around title at the 1978 World Championships. The win effectively made her the top ranked gymnast of the world.

Her career came to an end when two weeks before the 1980 Olympics were to start, Mukhina broke her neck in a training accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down. At the time she had just celebrated her 20th birthday. The injury would eventually lead to her premature death at the age of 46.

In between the 1977 European Championships and the 1978 World Championships, the Soviets released a documentary by the name of You Are in Gymnastics. As the current star of the Soviet program at the time, Mukhina received top billing and a majority of the camera time.

The documentary features a “pep talk” between Mukhina and her coach Mikhail Klimenko. The exchange is roughly 3.5 minutes in length and is broken up into four clips throughout the half hour documentary. The clips can be found in the above YouTube video.

The clips themselves are harrowing as they show a mostly downtrodden Mukhina and provide insights about the coaching environment she was subjected to. It even provides a foreshadowing moment (1:28) where the possibility of Mukhina seriously hurting herself is openly discussed.

You always learn how to be safe, but then you start thinking: Will you be able to prevent an accident if you do something badly? Can you let (these thoughts) happen? No you can’t. Because that will tear you apart.

It is the type of foreshadowing moment that feels more appropriate for a fictional story. Created by a writer as part of plot-building device to foreshadow the climatic twist to the story where the popular protagonist meets his or her doom. But none of this is a work of fiction. What makes these clips so powerful is that they were an actual prelude and a real-life example of a foreshadowing omen. These are real clips of a real person who in the end, really did get hurt, and the damage couldn’t be undone.

For a series of clips that featured so much eeriness in regards to the rhetoric and the words being spoken, so is the cinematography. It must be remembered that this documentary was being filmed in 1978 when the Soviet Union had extreme censorship standards in place. Usually when a gymnastics documentary is being selectively edited to present a more favorable narrative, the controversial moments are excluded entirely. We are only left to assume that there were controversial exchanges that never made it into the published version.

You Are in Gymnastics is different because the four Mukhina clips provide very questionable moments where it is possible the producers made edits to misrepresent the actual conversation at hand. We can actually see the specific moments where it is possible for misrepresentation to be inserted into the documentary.

One example comes at 1:40 where there is a cut between the comment made by Klimenko and Mukhina’s response. For all we know the Mukhina’s response to a different comment could have been used instead. Another questionable cut comes at 1:04 where Mukhina suddenly has a more positive demeanor, but Mukhina’s arm placement is inconsistent suggesting filmmakers used different footage to fake her response to what Klimenko was saying.

At 2:28 the camera pans away from Mukhina and towards the wall. This is another reoccurring theme throughout the Mukhina tapes. Mukhina’s reactions are not always being shown. Instead a different gymnast is shown practicing on beam while Mukhina and Klimenko become narrations. The camera constantly makes cuts and pans, often under questionable circumstances. It most likely was an attempt to hide/minimize Mukhina’s negative demeanor.

It didn’t seem like Mukhina was very cooperative with the film crew which is why they went with such unusual pans, cuts, and pivots. While it does feel as if there were misrepresentations being made, many of these exchanges do seem mostly genuine. I wanted to point out these censorship possibilities so viewers know which part of the footage they should trust, and which parts should be questioned.

One of the common themes in Soviet sports media is coaches frequently boasted about their ability to invoke psychology as a training tool. At 1:13 Klimenko talks about how being a gymnastics coach is hard work. Reinforcing the idea on Mukhina that she is a burden to him. At 2:11 Klimenko outright dares Mukhina to leave him and train without a coach.

These tactics have an even deeper meaning when two critical details are understood about the gymnast and coach who are engaging in conversation. Elena Mukhina had been an orphan since she was six years old. What Klimenko was dangling over Mukhina’s head was the prospect of her going it alone and to leave the closest thing she had to a father-figure. Klimeko asked this knowing full well what Mukhina’s answer would be, but he asked anyway to remind Mukhina that leaving him was an unrealistic option.

Klimenko knew to do this because his educational background was in psychology. The coaching relationship between Mukhina and Klimenko was marked by a power imbalance. One was a 17 year old with limited life experience. The other was twice her age who had professional training that could be used as a tool for manipulation.

Psychology has positive values when deployed on children, especially in the realm of education. But inside the training hall of a high-level sport where elite-level athletes are children, it can become a weaponized tool. Mukhina wasn’t being coerced into solving a difficult math problem on the chalk board, but to keep working past her physical limits as she was encouraged to perform increasingly more dangerous acrobatic stunts.

Klimenko may have been one of the most extreme examples of a Soviet coach utilizing psychology, but he was far from the only one. It had been a staple of Soviet women’s gymnastics since the 1960s. You Are in Gymnastics is an example of how these coaching behaviors were widely celebrated and actively promoted within the Soviet gymnastics program.

The Soviets and other communist nations were very public with these tactics, which validated there usage elsewhere. These tactics not only existed during the Cold War, but took on new importance in the aftermath of the Cold War when it became less socially acceptable to resort to physical abuse as a way to motivate a gymnast. As a result, abusive coaches pivoted even more towards mental/emotional abuse.

At 3:00 Mukhina and Klimenko have a conversation regarding personal goals. This is one of the other important things to understand about Soviet athletics. These gymnasts were identified at a young age not just for their athletic attributes, but their mental attributes as well. They were selected for high-level sports because talent scouts noticed they reveled in pushing their body to the limits, strived for the highest goals imaginable, and wanted the thrill of performing the most dangerous acrobatic skills in the world.

Klimenko had so much success invoking psychological tactics with Mukhina because Mukhina herself bought into this mindset. Both Mukhina and Klimenko used the term “psychological” when they were interviewed in news articles. Mukhina’s usage of the term has as much to do with this mindset coming naturally to her as it does with Klimenko instilling that mindset on her.

Note: It is for the reader to decide whether Klimenko’s conduct in the Mukhina tapes constitutes emotional/mental abuse, it is not my intention to imply that it is. I am frequently asked as to whether Klimenko is to blame for Mukhina’s injury. The following quote comes directly from Elena Mukhina:

I’m not condemning anyone or blaming anyone for what happened to me. Not Klimenko or especially the national team coach at that time, Shaniyazov. I feel sorry for Klimenko – he’s a victim of the system, a member of the clan of grownups who are ‘doing their job.‘”

One further detail that is critical to understanding the Mukhina-Klimenko coaching relationship is that they had risen up the Soviet ranks together. Before their partnership, both had witnessed unsuccessful careers, but found instant success as soon as they joined forces.

There are other tough moments in the footage. At 0:10 Mukhina is told she is not trying hard enough and her avoiding the difficult work is a constant theme throughout the Mukhina Tapes. At 2:38 she appears to be especially distressed. All while she is chided for her constant crying throughout the footage. But it is later revealed that crying helps her train and is described as being as procedural as chalking up.

Perhaps the most significant part of the footage comes when Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci is invoked in the discussion. Nadia is a crucial part of Elena Mukhina’s story. The success of Nadia shellshocked the Soviet Union and orders came down from the top to find a gymnast who could break Nadia’s stranglehold on the sport.

It didn’t help that a tense political rival existed between Romania and the USSR. It didn’t help that the next Olympics were slated to be held in Moscow and the Soviets did not want to see Nadia trounce the Soviet team at “their” Olympics. And it certainly didn’t help that before Nadia, the title for the most famous gymnast in the world was a Soviet athlete and they wanted that title back.

As the top Soviet gymnast following the 1976 Olympics, this burden weighed the heavier on Mukhina than any other gymnast. “Beating Nadia” is a central part to Mukhina’s storyline and the events that lead to her tragic demise. To see this all laid out and directly explained to Mukhina in a recorded conversation is a very significant piece footage to have.

The Elena Mukhina tapes end with Mukhina being asked to react and her response is “I don’t know how to react.” In this final exchange we see Mukhina’s reserved/quiet nature. But we also see the type of response that exists in a culture where athletes don’t feel comfortable speaking what is on their mind. The Elena Mukhina tapes are only 3.5 minutes in length, and in that short time we get a wide range of historic symbolism.

The tapes provide one of the most harrowing examples of foreshadowing in a a real-world scenario and the capturing of the Soviet program telling its gymnasts to catch Nadia. But the most eerie thing of all, is how many parallels this footage has to problems that are currently at the forefront of gymnastics as the sport tries to change its culture. From the debate over what constitutes emotional/mental abuse, to the sport trying to break its culture of silence. It was all laid out for public viewing 40 years prior.

Further Reading:
After Her Injury a Soviet Coverup Hurt Elena Mukhina Even More
How Fan Mail Bothered Elena Mukhina
Elena Mukhina’s Trip to America
Shortly After Her Paralysis Elena Mukhina Wrote a Letter
Would Elena Mukhina Have Made the Olympic Team if Not For Her Paralyzing Injury?

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