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.
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.
“I would have been surprised that in the space of 48 years, no one would be able to overtake my achievement regarding the number of Olympic medals,” said the 5-foot-3 Russian, who only took up gymnastics after her dreams of being a ballerina were dashed by the sudden closure of her ballet school.
“When the Americans realized that Phelps could win more medals than myself, there was a great deal of attention around me as well.
“Everyone used to be completely relaxed about my achievements, but in 2012 I was even invited with my husband to visit New York. There we met with Phelps and we had some photographs taken. It was nice for me that after 48 years they remembered me,” she added with a wry smile.
Olympic protocol meant fans and photographers were denied that money-shot of seeing Latynina present Phelps with the historic 19th medal even though she was one of 17,500 spectators who cheered on the American as he broke the record at the London Aquatics Center.
So why did it took so long to surpass her mark?
“This was not down to my feats but was the due to the inability of those sportsmen who competed after me,” said Latynina, one of only two women to win back-to-back Olympic all-around titles.
“I think it is great that there are people... who are able to win such a large amount of medals. However, out of the medals that Phelps won, a lot of them were team events,” she added, referring to the fact that she won 14 of her medals on her own merit.
With two children, three grand-children and three great grand-children, Latynina has little time to get bored. She recently tried her hand at being a judge on a reality TV show where Russian celebrities perform dangerous acrobatic stunts but found the process “rather tiring”.
Instead, she is happiest when pottering around the grounds of her dacha located 100 kilometers outside Moscow, where she spends her time “in the fresh air with flowers and many kinds of plants”, or when she is visiting the gymnastics school set up in her honor in Obninsk.
“In our era we did not have moves named after gymnasts,” the nine-times Olympic gold medalist said when asked about her lasting legacy in the sport.
“This trend appeared later. However, I am really honored that there is a gymnastics school in Obninsk that is named after me. Around 1,300 gymnasts train there.
“I often go to watch competitions there and get a lot of joy out of watching our youthful athletes compete,” added Latynina, who will not be in Rio due to her advancing age.
“Three boys from our school have been selected to compete for the Russian junior team. This is the first success of our school.”
Editing by Ed Osmond