For Latynina, Olympic recognition came better late than never

Thu Jul 21, 2016 9:49pm EDT
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By Pritha Sarkar and Dmitriy Rogovitskiy

LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) - When Larisa Latynina became the most decorated Olympian of all time at the 1964 Tokyo Games, having bowed her head 18 times over the course of three Games as medals were slipped around her neck, the Russian gymnast must have enjoyed all the fuss the record created.

If only.

She had shattered a record that had stood for 36 years by surpassing the 12 Olympic medals won by Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi from 1920 to 1928.

Incredibly, Latynina had no idea about her place on the summit of the Olympic totem pole for another 15 years.

"I only knew that I had set this record in 1979. A journalist from Czechoslovakia sent me a cutout from a magazine," the 81-year-old great grandmother told Reuters in an interview.

"It was written that Latynina was in first place, in second was the Finnish athlete Paavo Nurmi and in third place was the American swimmer Mark Spitz. Up until 1979 I did not even have an idea that I could be a record holder. I really was surprised by this."

Such ignorance in the 21st century, where traditional and social media hype up super-human achievements even before milestones are reached or broken, seems almost unbelievable.

But the lack of fanfare around her in 1964 means that Latynina thoroughly enjoyed all the recognition she got, albeit almost half a century belatedly, when American swimmer Michael Phelps broke her record at the 2012 London Games.   Continued...

Former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina speaks to the media as she arrives to attend the London 2012 Olympics at the O2 Arena in Greenwich, south London in this file photo dated August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Ki Price