Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina is filled with a mixed sense of wonder and trepidation when she watches the gravity-defying and often treacherous routines of Simone Biles as the American set out to break her Olympic gold-medal record.
Now 86, the most decorated Olympic gymnast in history with 18 medals could not have fathomed the complexity of modern gymnasts’ routines. The sport, she said, has become more physically and psychologically grueling than it was in her day.
Had she been introduced to the sport today, Latynina wonders: “Would I have started gymnastics or not?”
“What we did is not comparable to what modern gymnasts do,” she told Reuters at her home two hours outside Moscow recently. “Looking at what gymnasts today do, I’m a little afraid.”
Like much of the world, Latynina was stunned to see Biles, a four-time Olympic champion, withdraw from events that could have seen her challenge her record of nine Olympic gold medals for a gymnast and perhaps break her record of 32 combined Olympic and world championship medals.
Biles, 24, completed one vault at the start of the women’s team final before abruptly withdrawing, citing mental health concerns. She also withdrew from the all-around, the vault and uneven bar finals.
“In our day that would have been unacceptable,” Latynina said. “I can’t imagine how that’s possible.”
Biles’ move, inconceivable in the Soviet era or even a few years ago, has brought mental health into focus at Tokyo 2020, where the U.S. gymnast has generally received an outpouring of support.
On Saturday, Simone Biles withdrew from the event finals for vault and the uneven bars. She will continue to be evaluated daily to see whether she would compete in the finals for the floor exercise and balance beam. Biles has spoken about having the “twisties”, incidents of disorientation during some of her gravity-defying skills.
Latynina did not remember the Soviet gymnastics team turning to psychologists or other formal tools to improve concentration and mental performance.
But that was a different era, when athletes may have relied on encouragement and accolades from coaches and teammates. To soothe her nerves, she would stand on her tiptoes, close her eyes and remain still.
“My coach would always say it doesn’t matter in which position you finish,” Latynina said. “The most important thing is doing what you can.”
Latynina said Soviet Olympic gymnasts competing at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics lived in military barracks with communal bathrooms, striking a sharp contrast with the hotel rooms used by the U.S. gymnastics team.
In Latynina’s era there was pressure, of course, to win medals for the Soviet Union, which used elite sports as a tool to boost its international prestige.
But Latynina said Soviet authorities’ desire for the country’s athletes to top medal tables was not perceived as coercion.
“We were trying ourselves not to let our country, our people down,” she said. “We would cry when our flag was raised and national anthem played.”