If you were to predict what type of person your favorite competitor in Women’s Artistic Gymnast (WAG) will eventually marry, choosing a fellow athlete would be a pretty safe bet. Despite the long list of famous WAGs who married someone from Men’s Artistic Gymnastics (MAG), it isn’t something that is overwhelmingly common. WAGs often marry athletes from a wide range of backgrounds such as football, soccer, and other Olympic sports.
Often times when they do marry within the sport of gymnastics, only one member of the relationship is a Olympic gymnast whereas the other had a more modest career. Scenarios like Daria Spiridonova and Nikita Nagornyy are not exactly rare, but not frequently occurring either. There is one exception to all of this, the 1968 Soviet Olympic WAG team where half the team married members of the 1968 Soviet MAG team.
The trend started at the 1966 World Championships when the Soviet WAG team featured the 18 year old Zinaida Druzhinina and a 17 year old Olga Kharlova. Both gymnasts would marry a MAG member of the same 1966 World Championships team. The first was Mikhail Voronin who won the All-Around title that year. He married Zinaida and for the rest of her career she competed as Zinaida Voronina. The second was Valery Karasev who married Kharlova and she became known as Olga Karaseva for the rest of her career as well.
The 1966 World Championships is often described as the event that laid the foundation for both marriages. It initiated both a meeting between a pair of future spouses, while also providing plenty of down time for them to mingle. Both Zinaida/Mikhail and Olga/Valery would marry shortly after the 1966 World Championships. The 1968 Soviet team would feature not one, but two husband and wife duos in gymnastics. But there was more to come.
Larissa Petrik was also a member of the Soviet WAG team at the 1966 World Championships and made the 1968 Olympic team as well. She competed at the Mexico City Olympics at the age of 19. On the MAG side the Soviets had a newcomer by the name of Vladimir Klimenko. The relationship between Larissa and Vladimir would not develop as rapidly as the previous two marriages, but by the 1972 Olympics they too would tie the knot and become the third husband/wife duo that were veterans of the 1968 Soviet team.
Note: Petrik’s married at a later stage in her career whereas Olga/Zinaida married very early in their careers. This explains why the latter are more commonly associated with surname of their spouse whereas Larissa Petrik is more commonly associated with her maiden name.
So what about the other three members of the 1968 Soviet WAG team? The 1968 Soviet WAG team marked the debut of two young gymnasts who were newcomers to the senior lineup. The first was Lyubov Burda who turned 15 in the Spring of 1968. The second was Ludmilla Turischeva who celebrated her 16th birthday in the Fall of 1968. Their young ages is the most likely reason as to why their interaction with the men’s team in 1968 didn’t lead to a future marriage.
But both Turischeva and Burda would return to the Olympics in 1972, and this time they would be competing as adults. On the men’s side there was newcomer Nikolai Andrianov. Nikolai and Burda would marry shortly after the 1972 Munich Olympics. Turischeva would also marry a 1972 Olympian, Soviet sprinter Valeriy Borzov. Although it should be noted that Ludmilla and Valeriy’s relationship developed after the Munich Olympics.
The 1968 Soviet team remains unique for marrying so many athletes from the men’s side. But within the Olympic movement as a whole, it also remains unique for the number of “Olympic power-couples” it produced. In other words, the husband/wife combinations who combine for the most Olympic medals across all Olympic sports. Of the six members of that 1968 WAG team:
-Lyubov and her husband combine for the 2nd most.
-Ludmilla and her husband combine for the 4th most.
-Zinaida and her husband combine for the 6th most.
The above statistic comes from Bill Mallon who can best be described as the top historian on Olympic history. It requires each spouse to have a minimum of one Olympic medal to qualify. Mallon also provided the data on what the list would look like if each spouse had a minimum of two Olympic medals each.
The answer would bump Larissa Petrik and her husband up to 11th place. One Soviet team of six WAGs accounts for three of the top-six Olympic power couples, and four of the top-eleven. The statistic also doesn’t account for athletes who later divorced. They remain in Mallon’s data regardless of what their current status is.
For many of these examples, the relationships ultimately ended in divorce. Luba Baladzhaeva over at Gymnovosti was kind enough to provide insights as to why Soviet athletes from this particular era frequently married at young ages. And why many of these relationships ended in divorce.
The answer is a combination of social norms, divorce being a less stigmatizing/rigorous process, and government policy of the communist era which encouraged marriages if one wanted to qualify for a better housing assignment.
“You couldn’t buy an apartment in USSR, it was given to you. Married couples could get a room or an apartment to live together otherwise, there was basically nowhere to be alone, people normally didn’t have their own private bedrooms, five people could easily live in a two-room apartment.“
“In their times, it wasn’t common to just live together without marriage, so people got married in every relationship.“
“It was also generally easy to get a divorce, nothing like what I hear about [the United States] where it’s long and expensive. It’s still relatively easy in Russia, so people don’t view it as such a big deal. You don’t even need a lawyer unless people are fighting over property or kids.“
As for why the 1968 team is such an anomaly, I believe the answer can be found in Data Crunch #6.1 which measured the average age of female gymnasts. It was the 1965-1968 Olympic quad which experienced by far the greatest decline in age. Before the 1968 Olympics, Soviet teams were filled by women in their mid to late 20s who by that point in life were already married. Within a decade the sport would be overtaken by child athletes who were far too young to develop such relationships that would lead to marriage.
The time period from 1965 to 1972 was stuck in between the eras where Soviet WAGs were either too old or too young to have their ages align with their male counterparts. Another interesting aspect of the 1965-1968 Olympic quad, it was the era where female gymnasts first started receiving significant levels of fame. This could also be an answer as to why the marriage trends of this particular quad were such an outlier.
Natalia Kuchinskaya and Ludmilla Turischeva were the only two members of the 1968 team who did not marry a MAG Olympian. They were also by far the two most famous members of the team. Could the increase in attention being paid to WAG, and the “celebrity” status go with it have played a factor? As Soviet WAGs became more famous, did their social network expand giving them more opportunity to marry high-profile figures from outside of the gymnastics community? Did the resulting fame have any impact on marriage trends?
The 1965-1968 quad was the era that changed gymnastics. It witnessed the start of the age drop in WAG, the point in which daredevil acrobatic elements started taking off, and the beginning of its athletes receiving serious attention from the media. One thing I have always wondered, was the unique marriage habits of the 1968 team a direct byproduct of these winds of change? Or was it all merely a coincidence?