The concepts of glasnost, meaning “openness and transparency,” and perestroika, meaning “reconstruction,” are most recognizable from Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1985 attempt to make the floundering Soviet Union more open to hedonistic Western conceits such as no secret trials of dissidents. The modern usage of glasnost, though, dates back at least to the mid-1960s. As Americans began burning their draft cards, brave Soviets, too, took to the streets to protest those secret trials when such an act put their lives at risk. Awareness of shared interests between the two nations’ ordinary inhabitants began to spread. It was during those years, among the most volatile in the Cold War, that a handful of small moments humanized Soviet citizens for Americans, compelling us to recalibrate our bloodlust for what Ronald Reagan would later call the Evil Empire.
One such moment came in 1972, when an irrepressible 17-year-old girl with a crooked smile, yarn-tied pigtails, and the staggering ability to touch her head with her own rear end padded onto the competition floor at the Munich Olympics.
Olga Korbut is widely credited with ushering in a new era of acrobatic difficulty in the sport of women’s gymnastics, blazing the trail for Nadia Comaneci and every great thereafter. Korbut became the “Darling of Munich” and brought worldwide acclaim to a previously niche sport. The 4-foot-11 teenager pioneered the backflip on the balance beam (and the now-banned backflip chest roll on floor—ouch), changing gymnastics forever. And off the mat, she accomplished what decades of diplomacy had failed to, warming the Cold War hearts of Western adults, as their daughters tied their own pigtails with yarn and signed up for gymnastics classes en masse.
The USSR remained the sport’s indomitable juggernaut from its pre-Korbut inception in the 1950s all the way through the fall of the Iron Curtain and the victory of the “Unified Team” in Barcelona in 1992. As a young gymnast in the late 1980s, I spackled my bedroom with posters not of Americans Brandy Johnson and Phoebe Mills, but of “the Belarusian Swan,” the mean-mugging queen of the avant-garde, Svetlana Boginskaya. At practice, our coaches didn’t tell us to emulate Mary Lou Retton, the most successful gymnast the U.S. had ever produced. We were told, over and over, to make our arm poses and leg lines look more Soviet. That was code for more precise, more graceful—the best in the world. And nobody’s enemy, regardless of what our dads thought of anyone’s government.
Now, thanks to Vladimir Putin’s current atrocities in Ukraine, the sport that helped humanize his forbears is on the brink of international collapse—a schism that could lead an entire generation to miss out on seeing the world’s best gymnasts. Everything old appears new again: There’s no McDonald’s in Moscow, and there won’t be a properly contested World Championships or Olympics for the foreseeable future. On March 5, the tenth day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the International Gymnastics Federation (or FIG) did what athletes, coaches, and fans around the world (including, for what it’s worth, this one) had been demanding for weeks: banned Russian gymnasts, judges, and coaches from international competition, indefinitely. While “indefinite” means that it is within the realm of possibility that Russia will be welcome at, say, the 2024 Paris Olympics, at present it’s hard to conceive of that happening (in any sport, honestly) without provoking worldwide outrage.
The vast majority of gymnastics watchers (including, again, myself) will tell you that this ban was a long time coming, and that Russia’s previous “soft ban” in Tokyo and Beijing, in which “the ROC” still cleaned up, was a toothless nonpunishment for Russia’s years of flagrant corruption and doping. (Little of this doping, by the way, has been documented in gymnastics—but that’s likely because there has yet to be a drug invented, that we know of, that improves gymnasts’ performance without making athletes jittery or adding bulk, both of which are deleterious to the sport.)
Some fans may also argue that it’s too late. The ban was handed down in the middle of a World Cup competition in Doha, Qatar, in which the “Russian Gymnastics Federation” was already a participant. It was at that event where parallel bars bronze medalist Ivan Kuliak disgusted most of the world when he emblazoned his singlet with the pro-Putin “Z” on the medal stand, as he smirked next to Illia Kovtun, the Ukrainian teenager who had just beaten him. And while many Russians don’t support the invasion carried out in their name (we Americans know a bit about that), Kuliak is joined in his defiance by some high-profile comrades, including seven-time Olympic medalist (and outspoken Putin supporter) Svetlana Khorkina, who posted the same “Z” on Instagram. Her caption: “a campaign for those who are not ashamed to be Russian.”
The ban is justified. But, as with the dueling boycotts of the 1980s, it will devastate the sport that once made significant inroads toward thawing Russo-Western relations. The Russian team, by whatever name they’re allowed to call themselves, is once again the most dominant program in the world, having taken gold in Tokyo last year. Sure, it’s possible that Russia would have won silver if Simone Biles had been able to compete all four events—but it’s also very possible, given the Americans’ previously unthinkable second-place standings after qualifying, that the ROC still would have won even with Biles fully present. And this isn’t because the U.S. program—or the Chinese program, or the British program—isn’t good. It’s because a national team that includes reigning world champion Angelina Melnikova and Olympic team gold medalists Viktoria Listunova, Vladislava Urazova, and Lilia Akhaimova is just better than everyone else right now. Or, at least, they were.
As difficult as it is to empathize with the nationalistic Russian consciousness right this second, it’s worthwhile to consider how the international ban will affect these gymnasts, many of whom are still children—and to reflect on the last time an unjustified war disrupted a dominant Russian program, 40 years ago.
Prior to the 1988 Seoul Games (where tiny tank Elena Shushunova sideways-somersaulted her way to all-around gold), I had never seen the elite Soviet machine in action at the sport’s top showcase. That’s because there had yet to be a fully contested Olympics during my conscious lifetime. First, the United States led a boycott that most of the world joined of the 1980 Games in Moscow, in objection to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. This was followed by what was viewed in the West as a “counter-boycott” by the Soviets, of the orgiastic spectacle that was the 1984 Los Angeles Games. (“Rhapsody in Blue” on 84 grand pianos at the opening ceremony made my dad let out a palpable, Oh, brother.) That much smaller boycott and the L.A. Games’ success may have helped influence what happened next: Gorbachev’s 1985 glasnost/perestroika slogan and program.
The 1980 Games got almost no television coverage in the United States, and were basically an Eastern Bloc Invitational whose gymnastics medalists—including Elena Davydova and Natalia Shaposhnikova—never gained worldwide fame precisely due to their lack of airtime in the West. And the 1984 Games—well, let’s just say that if the Soviets had been within 80 vershoks of Mary Lou Retton, she wouldn’t have been on the business end of many medal podiums. These absences, and gymnasts’ susceptibility to serious injury and (until recently) the sport’s tendency to favor teenagers, meant that multiple generations of elite gymnasts missed out on competing on a fully contested world stage. In 1988, during glasnost’s alleged apex, that was supposed to end for good.
Enter, unfortunately, one Vladimir Putin. As the 1980 boycott was justified, so is the 2022 ban. But the cost to the Russian gymnasts should not be ignored.
Like Davydova and Shaposhnikova before them, the legacies of Melnikova, Listunova, Urazova, and Akhaimova (and their male counterparts) are now at risk. Again, it’s worth noting that several of these young athletes are still in their teens, and that both the women and men of Russia showcased tear-jerking camaraderie with their adversaries in Tokyo. In that moment, it seemed possible that American kids could grow up admiring Melnikova’s athleticism and grace, and aspire to emulate it. Korbut and Comanici became worldwide celebrities and legends far beyond the sport’s diehards—cultural icons and inspirations to aspiring gymnasts everywhere, especially in the West. But because of the Kremlin’s bloody expansionism, today’s young athletes, just emerging as the world’s best, seem certain to lose their opportunity to do the same.
Whether, like Kuliak, these young people personally support Putin’s atrocities—they are, for what it’s worth, fed an incessant and nonoptional diet of that propaganda—he has now set their lives on a much darker course. Gymnastics isn’t special in that regard—Putin’s war has already destroyed so much, and the devastation will surely get worse. But thinking back on my posters of a Soviet star, I still feel an enormous sense of loss, for the sport as a whole, for gymnasts in the East and the West, and for the slightly thawed world that Olga Korbut made possible, even just for a minute.