Is Oksana Chusovitina the Last Soviet Athlete?

In a previous article where I did a data visualization of Oksana Chusovitina’s career, one of the comments I saw in response that I found particularly interesting was a person asking if Oksana is the last athlete from the Soviet Union who is still competing. The answer is surprisingly “no.” There was an athlete by the name of Nino Salukvadze at the 2020 Olympics who was a member of the Soviet delegation all the way back in 1988.

But the reason I wanted to make this article is to talk about how this question goes so much further than simply Nino Salukvadze and Oksana Chusovitina. The Soviet Union sent 582 athletes to the Summer and Winter Olympics in 1988, and then promptly broke apart into 15 different countries. This created a situation where Oksana Chusovitina was by no means the only athlete who was able to extend her career in a way that hadn’t previously been possible.

There are ten “true” examples of an Olympian who represented either the USSR and/or the 1992 Unified Team competing deep into the 2000s. But I’d personally bump that number to 16 because there are six additional athletes who I feel should be treated as “de facto Soviets.” Three of them represented one of the Baltic countries at the 1992 Olympics. These were the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, but did not contribute athletes to the Unified Team of ex-Soviet nations at the 1992 Olympics. By 1992 they were already competing as their own independent countries.

The other three “unofficial Soviets” are those who have roughly the same birth year as Oksana Chusovitina, but did not qualify to the Olympics in 1992. Instead, they made their Olympic debut in either 1994 or 1996. They were still byproducts of the Soviet system and came of age at around the same time as Chusovitina did. Which is why I feel it is unfair to treat them as athletes who aren’t directly comparable to Chusovitina.

Below is a visualization where I put the careers of these 16 athletes on a timeline.

The first major takeaway is just how strong of a presence these athletes had in the 2000s. All 16 of them competed at either the 2006 or 2008 Olympics. While Gabby Douglas and Viktoria Komova were dueling in London, there were 14 Olympians from that 2010/2012 quad who had a link to the old Soviet program.

The second major takeaway is that Oksana Chusovitina appears to have survived the “cliff” that knocked out most of the ex-Soviet athletes. Whereas 14 of 16 athletes from the 2006/2008 cycle advanced to the following Olympic quad, in the Olympic quad after that a staggering 50% of them witnessed the end of there careers. And then that figured was halved again for the 2018/2020 cycle. In just two Olympic quads, 79% of these athletes were ushered into retirement.

In hindsight, the last two Olympic quads were probably exponentially harder for Chusovitina than any of her previous accomplishments. It was so much more than Chusovitina adding two additional Olympic appearances to her total, but Oksana yet again breaking into uncharted territory.

Looking at the graphic another interesting insight is the career of Afanasijs Kuzmins which spans from 1976-2012. It is incomprehensible to think that someone who was competing as an athlete could have theoretically watched Olga Korbut on beam and McKayla Maroney on vault while walking around the Olympic campus. I’m going to profile a few of these athletes just to give additional context regarding their careers as some of them are quite interesting.

Nino Salukvadze: This Georgian athlete is the reason Oksana Chusovitina can’t claim to be the oldest Soviet still competing, or the active ex-Soviet with the most Olympic appearances. Unlike Chusovitina who represented the Unified Team at the 1992 Olympics, Salukvadze directly represented the Soviet Union all the way back in 1988.

But the most interesting moment of her career is that in 2016 she actually competed in the same Olympics as her son, making them the first, if not the only mother-son duo to compete at the same Olympics. Her son, Tsotne Machavariani did not appear in the 2021 Olympics making Nino the absurd example of a parent who has appeared in the Olympics more recently than her own child.

Nino Salukvadze is the first woman to appear in nine Olympic Games and the athlete who has effectively blocked Chusovitina from achieving that record outright if Oksana successfully qualifies to Paris-2024.

Albert Demchenko: He is one of the athletes who perhaps could have matched Chusovitina’s mark by being an ex-Soviet athlete who made it to the 2018/2020 cycle. Albert Demchenko’s career is unique in that he nearly broke the record for the most appearances in the Winter Olympics.

So how come he never matched Chusovitina’s mark nor became the Winter Olympian with the most Olympic appearances? Albert Demchenko was one of the most high profile figures of the 2014 Russian Olympic doping scandal. At one point he was slated to be banned for life with his medals stripped until the decision was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. While Demchenko successfully defended his 2014 results, the case appeared to have played a factor in his not pursing an appearance for the 2018 Olympics.

At the 2018 Olympics a Japanese athlete would break the record for most appearances by a Winter Olympian instead. Albert Demchenko’s daughter Victoria Demchenko is not an Olympian, but she did compete in the 2012 Youth Olympics.

Ekaterina Karsten: This is another example of a descendent from the old Soviet system who nearly matched Chusovitina’s mark by making it to the Tokyo Olympics. But she withdrew from contention less than a year before the 2020 games were originally set to begin due to an injury.

Sergei Dolidovich: This is the third example of an athlete who almost could have matched Chusovitina’s streak of eight consecutive Olympic appearances. He also could have been the first athlete on this list to appear in an Olympic Games during the 2022-2024 cycle. Whereas previous cases were based on Olympians who had explicitly stated an intent to try for an eighth Olympic appearance, in the case of Sergei Dolidovich it is based on the “what if he hypothetically decided to come out of retirement” train of thought.

While it may seem like a reach to assume a specific athlete will break his retirement pledge, one thing I’ve learned while researching this article is that it is actually quite common for Olympians with seven Olympic appearances to retire and then come out of retirement. Some of the previously mentioned athletes in this article have done exactly that and it is not a personality trait unique to Chusovitina.

But that can’t happen with Sergei Dolidovich as he is effectively blocked from the Olympics. Dolidovich is from Belarus and openly opposed its dictator Alexander Lukashenko during the 2020-2021 mass demonstrations against his regime. Dolidovich’s political stance costed him his coaching job on the national team, along with any hope of mounting an athletic comeback. But it has also impacted the career of his daughter who also openly supports her father’s politics. Daria Dolidovich is 17 years old and a promising junior, but her national governing body has deactivated her individual identifying number. It is the skiing equivalent of an FIG license and without it she cannot compete internationally.

Note: My article “The Six Flags of Boginskaya” provides more insight on the 2020-2021 Belarusian protests

Sergei Martynov: His career was rather interesting as he was technically Olympic teammates with Elena Shushunova, and won a gold medal in the same Olympics as Gabby Douglas. He also has a daughter by the name of Maria Martynova who made her Olympic debut at the 2021 Olympics.

2 thoughts on “Is Oksana Chusovitina the Last Soviet Athlete?

  1. Fascinating article!
    Chusovitina should get extra credit for continuing the Soviet legacy while competing in gymnastics. Pistol shooting is def. a skill but athletes can be of any age for this really, not so much for gymnastics.

    Like

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