If there is one Olympic event in which women garner more attention than men it must be gymnastics.
If there is one Olympic event in which women garner more attention than men it must be gymnastics. Although the ancient, acrobatic sport is not followed with any fervour in other competitions, it’s a rage at the Olympics. The awe-inspiring moves of lithe girls and their beatific smiles leave an indelible image in the minds of spectators.
Larysa Latynina, Vera Caslavska, Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci all belong to the exalted category of women gymnasts whose Olympic feats continue to evoke admiration decades after they called time on their careers. The contribution of the quartet in taking gymnastics to the masses can’t be underestimated. If not for their brilliant moves on the floor, asymmetrical bars, vault and beam, gymnastics wouldn’t have become one of the sought-after sports at the Olympics.
Vera Caslavska (the Czech Republic) Although she had become a star in 1964 by winning three gold and a silver medal, what she went through before the 1968 Games elevated her to the stratosphere of fame. Caslavska’s robust opposition to the Russian occupation of the Czech Republic imperilled her participation at the Olympics in 1968. A signatory to the Manifesto of 2,000 Words, a formal document against the USSR influence, Caslavska was forced to use tree branches for training in a forest where she had gone underground before the Mexico Olympics. After she got permission to compete at the Games, there was no stopping her. She added four more gold and two silver to her kitty. The rebellious gymnast became a rock star at Mexico City and she returned the compliment by choosing Mexican Hat Dance music for her floor exercise routine.
Nadia Comaneci (Romania) The 14-year-old from Romania took the Montreal Olympics by storm as she scored the first perfect 10 in the sport. She achieved the rare feat on the uneven bars. Comaneci attained perfection six more times at Montreal on the uneven bars and the balance beam on her way to three gold medals. When a reporter asked the Romanian what was her greatest wish, she replied: “I want to go home.” Comaneci, who would forever be associated with perfect 10, won two more gold medals at Moscow four years later.
Olga Korbut (USSR) In terms of medals, Korbut wasn’t in the class of Latynina and Caslavska but the gymnast’s innocent smile and tears endeared her to fans all over the world at the 1972 Olympics. She broke the East European stereotype of stony athletes with her exuberant nature. Despite losing the all-round crown after costly mistakes on the uneven bars followed by copious tears, she made a stunning comeback to win the balance beam and floor exercise gold. Korbut became such a darling of the crowd in the Olympic village that she had to go shopping in disguise to avoid autograph hunters. Korbut annexed one more gold — in the team championship — at the next Olympics besides the beam silver.
Larysa Latynina (USSR) She had been the answer to a staple quiz question until Michael Phelps upstaged her as the most successful Olympian in 2012. Even though Latynina made her Olympic debut in 1956 at the relatively old age of 21, she instantly established her class by winning four gold medals including the coveted all-round title. Apart from retaining her all-round gold in 1960, she also went on to defend her team and floor exercise titles in 1960 as well as 1964. She is the only gymnast — male or female — to win the gold in the same event three times. In all, Latynina bagged 18 medals, half of them gold.