Soviet-Era Documentary Features Mukhina, Filatova

[There is nothing particularly disturbing to watch in this video as far as falls or injury, but the kind of training it depicts provides a sobering reminder of the danger and occasional tragedy of the sport, especially when coaching ignores athlete safety] Years ago I found a fascinating late-1970s Soviet gymnastics documentary (link below), which seems intended to show the very hard work required for a gymnast to achieve world class excellence — to deconstruct the facile television glamor of gymnastics by showing the grueling training the athletes endure — but also to glorify the coaches who supposedly deserve credit for all of the success their hard-working gymnasts achieve. It also displays clearly staged images of some phony, privileged lifestyle the girls lived, but it is quite obvious that this is not the normal daily life of the gymnasts (during the lavish meal served to the athletes, it is evident most of them have never seen such a sumptuous feast, it’s all put on for the camera).

A version of the documentary with English subtitles can be found here: [Link good asAof 3/2/2021] 

Among those shown is Maria Filatova, but the film very prominently features the tragically-fated Yelena Mukhina. Mukhina can be seen repeatedly trying to master the Korbut Flip on the bars. Soon after she would, and then some, adding a full twist in competition before the move was forever banned by the FIG. Later, after her tragic training accident just prior to the 1980 Olympic Games, her coach Mikhail Klemenko reportedly fled the country and never coached gymnastics again. Mukhina, paralyzed from the neck down, died in 2006 in almost total obscurity. I have to say, I wince many times at falls of the girls shown in the film as they learn advanced moves on bars, often headed to very awkward off-camera landings that one would never see nowadays in any decent gym without a spotter right there to prevent injury. A different time and place, I guess).

When I first watched this documentary it was without any subtitles, so there were no words to put the images into finer context. But once I saw the Youtube version (linked to here) with English subtitles all the way through, the translated dialogue makes it even more disturbing, and chilling to watch, when you know what befell Mukhina not long after. Because it ends with Mukhina’s stunning 1978 World Championship title, it is cast as a triumph and a vindication of the methods of gymnastics coaches of the time. In retrospect, however, it is mostly chilling and depressing. The extensive footage of coach Klemenko lecturing and browbeating Mukhina about not being motivated enough and not wanting to practice difficult new moves repeatedly is bad enough, but she looks positively miserable in almost every scene, rarely smiling, very obviously exhausted and in pain. Less than a year later, she broke a leg in competition, and when Klemenko rushed her back into training before it was fully healed, she required surgery on the leg again. Due to the fast approaching 1980 Olympic Games, she was again forced back into training before she was fully healed. But worst of all, most tragically of all, Klemenko insisted she learn a dangerous new skill on floor exercise— the Thomas salto — one never before performed in women’s competition, one which Mukhina complained was too difficult and too dangerous. In her depleted state, a mistake practicing that very move (which required taking off on her still-healing leg) left her permanently paralyzed from the neck down. Soviet officials kept the extent of her injury secret during the Moscow Games, wanting to put the best face on their hosting the event (she described with bitterness receiving letters for years afterwards asking if she would return to competition). While Klimenko wasn’t actually present in the gym the day of her accident, it is without question his insistence that she master this new skill, despite her lingering injuries, that led to the tragedy (the skill was subsequently banned from the women’s Code of Points as too dangerous). She was still healing from serious injury, and was in no condition to train a risky new skill. The kind of pressure she was put under is evident in her own words, from a 1998 interview: “They removed the cast and I was walking crookedly. They took an X-ray and it turned out that the bones had separated. I was on the operating table right after lunch. My coach came the next day and said that I wasn’t conscientious and that I could train in a cast…” Thankfully, such reckless and brutal training is mostly a thing of the past.

Another thing that shocked me was that the coaches had someone (can’t tell for sure whether it’s Mukhina) working on a Korbut Flip (with full twist) in the opposite direction (toward the low bar), into an immediate belly whip! That can’t be healthy on the internal organs, or safe if the move is missed (failing to regrasp cleanly), and I cringe to think what would happen to a gymnast ricocheting off the low bar at the hips and down toward the mat). Luckily, such a move is impossible today because 1) the Korbut Flip on bars is illegal, and 2) the bars are way too far apart these days for even Jolly Russian Giant Svetlana Khorkina to do a belly whip under any circumstances, much less coming out of a backwards somersalt.

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