Published: June 1, 2004 By

[1] “Smile! Otherwise, the spectator will see how hard you’re working, and the illusion will be lost”
– (coach Renald Knysh to Olga Korbut).

[2] Soviet women gymnasts enjoyed world dominance in their sport from 1952 until the collapse of the Soviet Union almost 40 years later. But the celebration of this success hides another aspect of their efforts, which constituted a form of labor. This labor was used on behalf of the state in pursuit of political, ideological and economic outcomes. The accomplishments of elite female gymnastics workers were harnessed for a range of purposes, including establishment of a particular norm for Soviet womanhood, provision of cultural gloss and distortion for domestic failings within the USSR, and service as a mechanism of foreign policy. Several factors provided the foundations for the sport to be able to serve these multi-purposes. Most notable among these were developments in relation to the role of sport in Soviet society and the triumph of an exploitive approach to women.

[3] The role played by Soviet women gymnasts affirms the strength of the relationships that can exist between culture and politics. Ann Chisholm has identified an ideology directing areas of national identity associated with the 1996 US Olympic women’s gymnastics team. Interestingly, the nature of the relationship between sport and state apparatuses in the Soviet Union allowed a more complex and entrenched set of ideologies as well as somewhat more blatant uses by the state.

[4] In different cultures and during different historical periods women have had varying relationships with labor, resulting from patriarchal attitudes towards women and problematic distribution of power along class, gendered and other lines. The labor of sportswomen does not escape this, especially where the state is heavily involved in sport, as it was throughout the Eastern Bloc (Magdalinski). This paper, while by no means a definitive account of the extent to which female gymnasts’ labor was utilised under the Soviet regime between 1952 and 1991, sets out an argument that the close relationship between the state and sport, together with unresolved contradictions in relation to the role of women in Soviet society, led to a situation which, on the one hand, strongly facilitated exploitation of female gymnasts by the state and, on the other hand, made only weak allowance for any challenge short of withdrawal from elite gymnastics at its highest level.

[5] I further argue that the seeds for the exploitation of female Soviet gymnasts’ labor were sown in the period from 1917 to 1951 when, in the early period particularly, several struggles took place. First, there was the struggle over the nature of sport and the role it should play in the new Soviet society. Parallel with that struggle were conflicting notions about women and the role they should play. Should the Soviets prioritise their emancipation or initially utilise women’s labor in the hope that women would eventually benefit from the vastly different society envisaged? They opted to put the oppression of women on the backburner, presumably to be addressed at some future stage of socialism if need be.

[6] Internationally, meanwhile, gymnastics itself, as a sport with roots in notional equations between strong bodies and strong national defence, was undergoing changes to solidify its image as a rationalised competitive sport rather than a somewhat tenuous adjunct to national defence. This was women’s chance to establish a role for themselves within gymnastics but that was no easy task, with competing ideas about whether women had a right to participate in sport and whether they should do so for reasons beyond matters of reproductive health, which was a major ground for claims for women’s participation in sport (Lenskyj).

[7] Strands from these significant struggles came together to help give form to women’s gymnastics in the Soviet Union and in the development of a new Soviet “sports worker” which emerged from the Soviet Union’s inclusion in the Olympic Games from 1952. Against this backdrop, I will argue that elite female gymnasts performed labor for the Soviet regime that fell across three main categories. First, they were role models for domestic inspiration within the USSR; secondly, their images were used abroad as ambassadors of exemplary Soviet citizenry and sometimes as signals of Soviet foreign policy; and thirdly, they were later a resource by which much needed hard currency could be attained.

[8] Perhaps most interesting in the mix of these duties is the way in which female Soviet gymnasts had to embody contradictions and somehow resolve them. If the Soviet state was torn between utopian rhetoric and pragmatic rivalry with the West, it was on the gymnastic apparatus that this tussle climaxed, with female gymnasts unwittingly reconciling conflicting notions of traditional and modern; industrial and artistic; delicacy and strength; female “incapacity” and Soviet accomplishment in spite of such incapacity.

Sport: Leisure or Labor?

[9] Soviet women’s gymnastic labor needs to be seen within a theoretical framework which acknowledges the existence of labor beyond the formal workplace, the demarcation of labor, and the unspoken code of values which maintains both of these fairly rigidly. This is true of not only the Soviet Union, although that country developed its own peculiarities in relation to women, labor and justification for gendered inequalities in relation to burdens and opportunities.

[10] Anne Oakley has argued that many women’s rights were eroded by the emergence of a new commercialistic society, which overturned pre-existing doctrines about sex roles (10-11). Upheavals in the power of the Church, which fostered new opinions on women, marriage and the home, aggravated this erosion, as did the subsequent Puritanism. While sex discrimination had certainly existed before then, in Europe the discrimination worsened and most small benefits enjoyed by, say, women artisans, disappeared from the 16th Century. Industrialization tended to entrench views of sex roles and sharply delineate the boundaries between men’s and women’s work, almost invariably to women’s disadvantage. Cynthia Cockburn has demonstrated how work cultures have played a strong part in buttressing the gendered demarcation in the workplace.

[11] Women’s work does not end in the workplace, of course. Women perform the bulk of work undertaken in the domestic sphere and both this and many paid jobs include a great deal of invisible work such as nurturing, listening, problem-solving and conciliation. Marilyn Waring has pointed out that the world economy has been built around an assessment of micro economies where much of women’s labor is ignored. Shona Thompson has shown that the same pattern is evident in the production of sport, where women expend huge amounts of invisible labor in sustaining sport, mainly for the benefit of men. However, women’s labor as production of sport itself needs to be taken into account, as this also has a degree of invisibility about it, especially when seen as play, as is the case in women’s gymnastics where the performers are expected to conceal their hard work (Haug).

[12] There has been a strong debate about whether sport constitutes work in either that there are numerous correspondences between the two categories, or that rules that apply at work are so entrenched in other forms of life that sport becomes virtually identical with labor. William Morgan criticizes both approaches for not allowing more agency, a criticism that may be less pertinent when applied to Soviet sport where opportunities for agency by participants appear to have been weak. Clearly, there are differences between the two approaches that cannot be adequately canvassed here, much as they impinge on the question of sport as labor in the Soviet Union. The basic question is whether professional sportspeople – and here I most certainly include Soviet sportspeople who were helped to retain an “amateur” status but who were unquestionably sporting people first and foremost – are involved in the production of some commodity or service in identical or very similar ways to other sorts of workers. I uphold that they are, though ironically the production of the service or commodity of sport is much more highly developed in the West, while the overseeing of the sports worker in the Soviet Union was much more akin to other workers at the level of production.

[13] This does not detract from the emphasis by some on the ideological aspects of sports work which also demand that it be viewed as labor, for the production of goods and services and the production of ideologies which uphold or legitimize the economic system are linked closely. Certainly the work ethic in particular is crucial at both levels and is evident in sporting elites, as Beder (141) points out.

[14] There may be an instinctive objection to viewing the frequently coquettish behaviour of gymnasts as labor. Often it looks like art, sometimes like frivolity, but seldom like labor. I can only point to the heavy training, significant injury toll, burnout and a range of social ramifications from the burden on gymnasts to suggest that this is a very serious business indeed, despite the masking smiles. Many of the workplace factors for gymnasts closely resemble the detrimental workplace factors for many other female workers, particularly in relation to overuse injuries, harassment, arduous workloads, dangerous work practices and undemocratic work relationships (Ryan).

[15] Such problems are magnified when we remember that many elite gymnasts and those training to be elite gymnasts are children. Accordingly, Peter Donnelly has extended the argument that not only do sportspeople engage in genuine labor but that the circumstances under which children perform much of this labor are in breach of codes which apply to other workplaces but not yet sport. While acknowledging that the oppression involved is usually far less than is the case of, say, bonded child laborers in some Third World countries, Donnelly nonetheless suggests a number of similarities, as well as ways in which child sporting elites fall through the net provided for children workers in other fields. These include long working hours, bullying and undue work pressures. Again, there may have been more aggravations in the case of Soviet gymnasts. The Soviet Union was renowned for finding and identifying gymnastic talent at an early age and in starting the young gymnasts in intensive programs to maximise their potential while they were still physically and socially malleable. More recently this is also true of many gymnastics programs in the West.

[16] However, Soviet gymnasts were arguably more at risk due to the centralized nature of their sporting organizations and the state’s capacity to make strong and seemingly coherent demands on its citizens in relation to the destiny of its young. Most such demands went unchallenged in a climate where the family was seen as less private and more public than was the case in capitalist industrialized countries and where people had learned the seeming futility of resisting. The prioritizing of public over private was the reverse of attitudes in the West where the celebration of individualism has often brought its own problems to sporting issues, particularly with regard to diminished community responsibility, a reverence for rivalry and a condonation of greed. Ironically, from time to time the USSR also had to deal with aspects of these issues, since the West set the cultural standards for much of the globe and not just capitalism, in the post-WWII period. More generally, as James Riordan points out, whereas sport in liberal capitalist society is viewed essentially as a concern of individuals, under Marxist ideology sport is “part of the social superstructure and therefore strongly influenced by the prevailing relations of production” (57). The Soviet emphasis on private sacrifice for the public good brought specific problems, especially under and following Stalinism.

[17] Added to this was the problem of the “extras” that are taken for granted with respect to female labor. Arlie Hochschild has shown in her sociological study of airline attendants that women, in some occupations at least, are expected to give of themselves in ways that are beyond normal service. They are expected to smile and show extraordinary levels of care and cheerfulness that may be in direct contrast to how they are feeling in a work environment that is often onerous and demanding. This is applicable to female gymnasts whose displays are designed to conceal the level of difficulty and long monotonous training that has honed those skills. Jan Wright notes that this is in stark contrast to the male gymnasts’ performances, in which “there is no expectation that they should give of themselves, reveal their feelings, win an audience” (61).

[18] Thus gender, age, relations between the state and the individual and much else were heavily implicated in the nature of the labor of Soviet female gymnasts. Before discussing the implications of these interconnecting factors in the period 1952 to 1991, it is essential to understand the distinctive role that the state played in sport in the Soviet Union, as well as its attitudes towards women and, lastly, the shifts that were occurring concurrently in women’s gymnastics.

Revolutionary Struggles, Reactionary Outcomes

[19] The nature of women’s gymnastics in the Soviet Union after 1952 was a hybrid arising from several factors that allowed female gymnasts to be exploited, if not in new ways, then at least in new arenas.

[20] Early revolutionaries had high hopes for both the role of sport and the emancipation of women in the new Soviet society. Both Marx and Lenin had looked to manufacturer, social reformer and philanthropist Robert Owen’s example of combining physical education and productive labor (Riordan, 62). It was thought that physical education could build character and nation simultaneously, but this was bound to be interpreted at any time in terms of what the national interest was understood to be. With these initial goals in sight, the Soviet government was keen to encourage sport. It harbored visions of a healthy and enthusiastic people, fit for work and whatever other services their country required of them, but also mentally stimulated to take part in the intellectual challenges ahead, of which there were plenty. As early as December 1917 the new Education Committee recommended that all schools introduce gymnastics games, swimming and excursions (Riordan, 76). Military sports clubs were formed at factories, railway depots and mines all over the country, with the workplace seen as a crucial key to sport and exercise for the proletariat, in contrast to the elitism of the previous sporting clubs that had regulated membership along class lines (Riordan, 71). Yet there was a constant state of flux about the purpose of sport and which sports would form the important physical and cultural foundations for the new society.

[21] Given the complex inheritance of Soviet sports, this flux should not be surprising. According to Riordan (66), the pattern of physical culture that emerged “clearly reflected ideas and models deriving from a variety of sources,” which he identifies as including a heritage of institutions from tsarist Russia, as well as a set of educational and broader philosophies deriving in part from Western philosophers but also from Russian thinkers. Foremost among these had been Pyotr Lesgaft, acknowledged as the founder of the scientific system of physical education in the Soviet Union. Lesgaft advocated a pedagogical approach to physical education, recommending a system of exercises for both school and the home. As a teacher of anatomy, Lesgaft took a particularly scientific view of the body and of methods of keeping it fit, which later meshed well with Soviet claims of scientific superiority. Importantly for our exploration of female Soviet gymnasts and the work they performed, Lesgaft was an early proponent of sport for women and regarded it as a means towards their social emancipation (Riordan, 49-53).

[22] Lesgaft had introduced a Prussian style of gymnastics into the army in 1874 and in 1896 established gymnastics courses for civilians. These were fairly closely tied to military goals and somewhat different from the later forms of gymnastics to emerge. Nonetheless, Lesgaft came to favor a “free” style of gymnastics that can be seen as a precursor to “artistic gymnastics” which forms the basis of the “Olympic gymnastics.” He thought this freer form encouraged development of will power and initiative and would lead ultimately to good moral judgement, attractive qualities for revolutionaries seeking not only a new society but better developed and balanced citizens (Riordan, 51). The Soviet newspaper Izvestia lauded gymnastics and sport as ways to “develop feelings of responsible collective action and a spirit of mutual assistance as well as strength and skill” (Riordan, 77). However, ideals quickly became compromised by the exigencies of the difficulties faced by the new Soviet government that was besieged from the start (McCauley, 28-30). There were pressures to formulate sports policies in relation to the immediate rather than long-term goals.

[23] The role of competition in sport was one problematic area, with some socialist leaders decrying it as characteristic of capitalism and individualism, while others thought that this was more than offset by its potential to encourage increased popular involvement in sport. Mass participation in sport was assumed to be beneficial so long as there was nothing intrinsically “bourgeois” about the sport. Gymnastics tended to be among the favored sports, no doubt due to its adaptability to mass displays and its ability to be performed in a co-operative sense. That modern gymnastics had been invented with the specific purpose of getting young men in the best possible physical condition and spirits for possible military encounters may also have been attractive to a young, besieged nation (Hoberman, 100-101). To coincide with the Second Congress of the Third International, around 18,000 people took part in a mass gymnastics and sports display at Moscow’s new Red Stadium in 1920. This was one of many such displays that were to become characteristic of Soviet popular mobilization for the next 20 years (Riordan, 131).

[24] Under Stalin a number of significant shifts took place. His regime was characterized by harsh repression, crushing of dissent and single-minded pursuit of goals, even in the face of their obvious futility (Ward). This had worsened by the 1930s, with widespread purges of all institutions. Sports institutions were not spared. Co-operation in sport gave way to a new respect for competition. Such competitiveness, once scorned, took on a larger and virtually unquestioned profile and was to match competitiveness at the level of factories and collective farms, into which peasants had been forced, often with tragic consequences. Industrialization was ferociously pursued by methods that privileged speed over concensus, and sport had its own part to play in this process, being used for the purposes of training better workers and adding visual validation to the cult of Stalin, celebrated in parades at every opportunity. Uniform ranking systems were introduced for individual sports to provide a hierarchy of sporting achievement. Rankings were established for gymnastics in 1934 and the following year more elaborate rankings came into force (Riordan, 131).

[25] From 1937 the Master of Sport title could be awarded to athletes achieving certain goals. Such awards brought an increment in the recipient’s salary. Special treatment of elite sportsmen and sportswomen was extended to include sums of money, priority in respect to flats and scarce commodities, linking sport more closely with political goals and setting the foundations for what would be an extremely tight relationship between sport and state for the remainder of the Soviet Union’s existence. It also elevated sportspeople to hero status in a hierarchy of heroes that buttressed Stalin as the ultimate hero (Edelman, 78). Robert Service (247) claims that the creation and celebration of such popular heroes and their sporting successes helped create social diversions and contributed to Stalin getting away with his bloody mass purges.

[26] Gymnastics found a niche under Stalin, the sport being given the imprimatur of the state. Officials saw, in gymnastics, opportunities for enhancement of fitness, public inspiration by virtue of the sport’s aesthetic values and the opportunity to “draw athletes into the orbit of a culture which was a novelty to the vast majority of them,” thus providing a pool from which more elites could be drawn (Riordan, 137). After 1933 regular gymnastics championships were conducted and by 1940 gymnastics ranked fourth among sports in terms of participation (Riordan, 112 and 137).

[27] By this time gymnasts had already been put into service for political purposes. Initially Stalin had hoped to form an alliance with Western powers but, when that proved futile, the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in August 1939, in the hope of keeping Russia out of any impending war. Soviet gymnasts, as well as other Soviet sportsmen and women, competed widely with their German sports counterparts in both Russia and Germany, as a method of reinforcing the newly established friendship with Germany and as a reminder to Hitler that the pact should be honored and Russia should not be invaded (Riordan, 360-61). In a short time sport had gone from a politically liberating lynchpin of socialism to a pragmatic mechanism for appeasing Fascism.

[28] Ideals about the emancipation of women had similarly been jettisoned for a more exploitative approach, Moses claiming they were politically both mobilized and marginalized (31). Women had played an important part in the 1917 Revolution and there had been debate among them about what priority should be given to changing women’s lot (Edmondson). Even while disagreeing about the order of change, many of these women had high expectations of drastically overturning the exploitation of women that had been such a feature of tsarist Russia. Soon after the revolution, the Bolsheviks put a number of measures in place to ameliorate hardships that particularly fell on women. Divorce and abortion became available on demand, communal kitchens and factory cafeterias were established to ease domestic burdens and wives were urged not to render automatic obedience to their husbands (Service, 143). Nonetheless, feminist considerations were not a major element in the revolutionary program, the overriding view being that the socio-economic reconstruction of society would enhance the lot of all oppressed people, including women, and that they would not generally need special attention.

[29] As it turned out, exploitation of women was much too strongly entrenched to be overcome without deep resolve to address it at multiple levels. Particularly in peasant society, the status of women was extremely low. By 1921 Lenin realized this and advocated specific measures to advance the interests of women. But, with the series of crises faced by the Soviet government in its early days, it was all too easy to defer women’s emancipation in favor of realizing their capacity to contribute formally to the economy.

[30] Although acceptance of women in the workforce was hailed as one of the triumphs of the move towards socialism and women held many elected positions in trade unions, the jobs that women were able to attain were largely concentrated in “physically arduous work injurious to health [and] a high level of work-related illnesses” (Koval, vii). At times it seemed that, rather than being accepted as “men’s equal,” they were viewed as lesser beings who could, by the sublimation of their own needs to the new society, rise above their limitations. Certainly there were tensions between the ideological claims that Soviet society wanted to address the burdens suffered by women and the instrumental approach taken by the state but, as Stalin replaced Lenin, the likelihood of the tensions being resolved lessened with the quashing of discussion and debate and eventually the move into terror, where few dared to even whisper criticisms, let alone vent outright opposition.

[31] With the expansion of industry came increased demands for labor, leading to an influx of women into paid employment. They entered non-traditional areas of work such as heavy industry and construction work, not so much because the state was deploying anti-discrimination measures but because it was eager to mobilize under-utilized labor resources. Alarmingly, even while encouraging women to move into the workforce, Stalin vigorously reasserted the traditional role of women as primary carers for the family, thereby compounding their workloads in both spheres. If the Bolsheviks had at least given lip service to a bright new world where there were more choices in relationships between men and women and more expectations for men to share home burdens, Stalin brought a retreat to the dark, albeit now industrialized world. Abortions were outlawed, childbirth encouraged, childless couples penalized, homosexuality persecuted and the family put on a pedestal as the bulwark of society, even while so many families lost members to the purges (Mamanova). Women had to sustain and service these families, of course. Often they faced not just a double-workload but extra workloads specific to Soviet society. For any chance of progression in careers, they were expected to be active Party members and women also did much of the waiting on the notoriously long queues that gobbled into their precious time.

[32] Elite female gymnasts, in comparison with other women in Soviet society, came to lead somewhat privileged lives and escaped at least some of the burdens forced on the average woman there. Yet there were a number of features of the average Soviet woman’s life which were replicated in the gymnasts’ experiences or which are relevant in other ways. The rhetoric used by the Soviet Union to suggest that women there had indeed been liberated had to somehow be evident in elite sportswomen who were used as ambassadors for their country. Whatever the case during training and in other parts of the gymnasts’ lives, on the international stage women had to appear to be liberated and the essence of their light movements appeared very liberated indeed, paradoxical though that often was.

[33] The contradictions raised by the Stalin era resulted in an image of the Soviet woman – at least as depicted through Soviet women’s magazines – as “confident but modest, ambitious yet self-sacrificial, heroic yet vulnerable, strong yet weak” (Attwood, 170-71). Most of those contradictory features were evident in the performances, particularly on the floor, of Soviet female gymnasts.

[34] Above all else, the history of women in the Soviet Union showed clearly that the state was willing to use and exploit women for its own purposes. This is essential to the story of its female gymnasts.

[35] Meanwhile, at the international level, women’s gymnastics was attempting to establish itself as a serious part of the broader sport. Generally, the trend was to push for women’s gymnastics to be accepted on terms very different from men’s gymnastics. Hence there was the development of different apparatus, different expectations of the gymnasts and a different rationale for participation in the sport (Varney). Both the balance beam and the uneven bars had been developed specifically for women and with a view towards poise, grace and co-ordination, all characteristics that were thought to enhance femininity. Acceptance of women’s gymnastics in its own right tended to be on terms that carried gendered assumptions. Would this serve the Soviet state’s purposes? How would Soviet women gymnasts operate within this sport at an international level?

Cultural Cold Warriors

[36] Three crucial factors coincided to determine the answers to these questions. The Soviet Union made its debut at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, the same Olympic Games where women gymnasts for the first time competed at an individual level as well as at team level. The Soviet women gymnasts performed impressively, winning three of the five available individual gold medals, as well as the gold medal for best team.

[37] Around the same time there was a heightening of Cold War tensions. The terminology used of the Russian women gymnasts suggested that they were Cold Warriors in their own right. For instance, one Soviet publication claimed “The Soviet school of gymnastics once again reasserted its world supremacy” (Golubev, 12). And, if such wins were factors in the Cold War battle and the struggle to be superior in all areas, including sport, then the gymnasts themselves can be seen as the foot soldiers and their coaches as generals: “…our girls, spurred by the heat of competition, turned in better and better performances” (Golubev, 12). Soviet coaches were said to be working closely with scientists in the areas of physiology, biomechanics and the designing of special instruments and provision of training aids “for the many million strong army of athletes…” (Sobolev et. al., 55).

[38] Foot soldiers the gymnasts might have been, but the emphasis on femininity reflected the Soviet government’s desire to compete against the West in just such terms. While Soviet women had once been urged to renounce cosmetics, trinkets and other trappings of femininity, carefully made-up Soviet gymnasts now sported bouffant hair-dos and were acclaimed for their grace and attractiveness. Among the most successful Soviet gymnasts of the 1950s was Polina Astakhova who was described as “…the epitome of grace” with “large sad eyes and a perennial knot of golden hair” and as “gentle by nature.” Quick to stress that this impression was shared by the media, the Soviet publication Soviet Gymnastics Stars pointed out that reporters called Astakhova the “most feminine gymnast in the world” (Golubev, 58). This was a challenge to the femininity of women of the West who, in very different circumstances from those of their Soviet counterparts, had been taken out of the workforce after the Second World War and ensconced in the domestic sphere, which, in Western eyes, was the most appropriate place for women.

[39] Thus both the Eastern and Western blocs were claiming femininity for their women but via very different routes. In the West the propriety of the domestic sphere for women was a crucial factor in the new consumer revolution that aimed to sell them not only new fashions, household goods and electrical appliances but all manner of goods for their husbands and children (Ewen). Soviet women, meanwhile, were busy in industry, holding down jobs. Their place in the economy had been deemed to be in the paid workforce, especially with so many men having been lost in the war. But the residue of Stalin’s propagation of womanhood and motherhood necessitated that Soviet women compete with their Western sisters in the “femininity stakes” and the gymnastics stage was thought to be a fitting place for such a competition to take place.

[40] Extraordinarily, the very “feminine” style of gymnastics that was emerging was still not feminine enough for some. During the 1950s, sections of Deutscher Turnerbund (Association of German Gymnasts) expressed deep concern at the direction in which Russian gymnasts were guiding international women’s gymnastics. The German gymnastics officials’ complaints centred on a blurring of boundaries between women’s and men’s exercises. They claimed that women’s gymnastics should be fluid, should appear as playful, regardless of how much exertion was involved, and should emphasize differences in the movements of women from those of men (Haug, 177-78). In 1954 German gymnasts stated their unwillingness to participate further in international women’s competitions, which they claimed included “too much acrobatics and ballet,” the two factors for which Russian gymnasts were particularly renowned (Berlioux, 10). However, by 1960, even with its acrobatic and balletic influence, the Russian women’s gymnastics style was so flowing, appeared to be accomplished with such ease and was so expressive of traditional femininity that the German gymnasts could no longer find disfavor with it (Haug, 182). The Russian gymnasts’ preference for balletic expressiveness had also been aided when the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) finally accepted the proposal, previously denied, that women’s floor exercises be accompanied by music (Berlioux, 10).

[41] Foremost among these fluid and expressive gymnasts who married the high levels of demonstrative femininity demanded by the Germans with the classic style was Larissa Latynina who won the overall title at both the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. She was described as “the incontestable queen of gymnastics. Charming graceful, sure of herself, she crowned the performances of the Soviet women gymnasts in the championship series; her compositions sounded like a harmonious major chord” (Suponev, 20). Certainly she incorporated what the German gymnastics officials had wanted: “…with unbelievable ease she carries out the most difficult gymnastic exercises” (Subolev, 84). Other accolades smacked more of descriptions of the battlefield than the gymnastics arena: “Confident of her own powers, she cowed her rivals with the ferocity of her onslaught” (Golubev, 56). Another Soviet publication applauded that she had “frequently defended her country’s colors in international contests” (Solubev, 84).

[42] Latynina’s role straddled the tasks of worker and management. Even while being “seemingly frail” (Solubev, 84), she labored fiercely for goals set by higher authorities and set the standards for future gymnastics workers whom she later oversaw in a supervisory role. She both epitomized and enforced the classical gymnastic style to which she and her contemporary Soviet gymnasts had so largely contributed. After she retired she took on a major coaching role with the Soviet women’s team and was forthright in her opposition to challenges from more athletic and less traditionally balletic gymnasts of the ensuing generation. It was claimed that she was largely responsible for keeping off the 1976 Olympics team both Natalia Shaposhnikova and Elena Davidova, two gymnasts who were seen to be part of the “new school” (Brokhin). Latynina lamented that “the appearance of such young people means the vanishing of femininity, lyricism and expressiveness…” (quoted in Suponev, 28). Olga Korbut claimed Latynina “was not just another coach; she was the highest officer of the National Team. Her authority in the world of Soviet gymnastics was considered unimpeachable” (35). Certainly, she was held in high esteem by authorities, being elected to the Kiev City Soviet and receiving the Order of Lenin, one of the Soviet Union’s highest awards.

[43] Not that the influence and drive of Soviet gymnastics can be credited wholly to a personality. A series of structures and policies injected huge impetus into the development of the sport along particular lines. As Riordan emphasizes, as sport in the Soviet Union was centrally controlled and fully integrated in the political system, it could be “wielded for manifestly functional purposes” (379). International acclaim translated into currency at home, as some sort of proof – not always accepted – that Soviet life and conditions must indeed be superior. In the opening paragraph of a book on Soviet gymnastics published for domestic consumption, Vladimir Golubev states: “The achievements of Soviet gymnasts in the international arena are truly remarkable. Their craftsmanship, so fine that it borders on art, has earned them universal admiration. The leading Soviet masters of the sport are known and loved in many countries of the world” (9).

[44] Sport also served the function of escapism. Like other forms of cultural entertainment, sport allowed a distraction from the drudgery which still characterised the lives of many in the Soviet Union, and when Soviet teams won gold medals and beat teams from other nations, it could be a much more amenable distraction. Further, gymnastics held many lessons for what Soviet women should be in their own lives, with Soviet publications constantly pointing to the sacrifices of the female gymnasts but also how the sacrifices paid off.

[45] These publications also went to pains to demonstrate that Soviet sporting successes resulted directly from political processes, most particularly from the integration of sport into the education system and the socialist distribution of resources. Referring to the Soviet sports school system, Korbut’s Soviet biographer noted, via the heading of one chapter,  that “In that school there are only winners” (Suponev).

[46] For their part, athletes often identified the Party as an important contributor to their happiness or success (see, for example, Zybina, 35). Through the provision of resources and giving all due attention to Soviet athletes, Golubev asserts that “Champions are not born, they are made” (9). In the discourse surrounding that process of making champions, Russian nationalism also stands out as an ingredient: “The reserves of Soviet national teams are inexhaustible. They are the countless rivulets that feed a great river and give it life, annually reinforcing the national team with new talent, because sport in the USSR is really and truly for the masses” (Golubev, 9). This metaphor, posing Russian rivers and Soviet sports schools as interchangeable, is reminiscent of Stalin’s attempts to carefully blend Russian nationalism with pride in Soviet accomplishments.

[47] Some of the “reinforcements” in the early 1970s, however, were to push Soviet women’s gymnastics to new heights and simultaneously present it with its greatest challenge.

New Uses for Young Labor

[48] Ironically, although the Soviet Union hailed its female gymnasts as the world’s most acclaimed sportswomen, when a Soviet gymnast emerged who most fitted that description, the Soviet authorities were somewhat uncomfortable with both the image of the gymnast and the trajectory in which she took women’s gymnastics. That is not to say that the Soviet state did not utilize the young gymnast in question, Olga Korbut, but simply that it seemed less able to manage her image and contain her stardom within the traditional parameters of Soviet sporting celebrities. As the magazine International Gymnastexclaimed, “Tears in public? Tantrums? Refusal to conform? No, not the Soviet woman – at least not until Olga, that is!” (Moran, 35).

[49] Korbut may have been a product of the Soviet gymnastics school but she was also a product of the age of the globalized media, which operated in a vastly different manner from the Soviet media and towards different goals. Korbut gained instant fame at the Munich Olympics in 1972, which were far more widely televised than any previous Olympic Games and this subjected her to the new forms of spectatorship (Guttman, 139). Women’s gymnastics had been a spectator sport in the USSR but generally amongst audiences who understood the sport and had an appreciation of its techniques. One of the appeals of Korbut’s style of gymnastics was that it was instantly gratifying at a number of levels. A worldwide audience who knew little or nothing of gymnastics could immediately recognize the level of risk involved in her “daredevil” version of the sport.

[50] Moreover, Korbut’s floor exercises eschewed the classical and balletic form in favor of a coquettish and impish display of movements that accentuated her prepubescent body. While her tumbling was probably no more difficult than those of her fellow gymnasts in the Soviet team, she finished at least one of her tumbling runs by throwing herself at the floor and, at the last moment, arching severely so as to land on her chest, a move which triggered expectations of danger but then quickly averted that danger. The young gymnast had a huge smile that she shared with the audience after every routine except those in which she failed. On one occasion in Munich when she had fallen from the apparatus, she cried inconsolably, the tears being caught on television, thus adding to Korbut’s innocent, child-like image. This fed into the impression that the television audience somehow knew Korbut. She offered them a miniature soapie where they shared in her accomplishments and grieved with her in her disappointments. This was a new dimension to a sport that people in the USA and many other countries knew little about but could now identify with at levels outside of technical knowledge. Suddenly women’s gymnastics was not just a sport that was pleasant to watch; it was a consumer sport and, like all successful consumer goods, consumers couldn’t get enough of it.

[51] The popularity of women’s gymnastics exploded dramatically, with young girls signing up in numerous countries where gymnastics had previously had only the merest followings. Moreover, their parents and other carers, also enamoured of this sport that had been so piquantly promoted by the pig-tailed Korbut, were more than happy to co-operate in this recruitment of children gymnasts. In the USA the very knowledge that one could be a gymnastic celebrity, as Korbut had become, led some parents to hope that their daughters would follow in her dainty footsteps. Basically, this global embracement of women’s gymnastics, and all because of a young Soviet gymnast, was beneficial to the Soviet Union. It made the world take notice of Soviet gymnasts and it demonstrated, once again, Soviet supremacy, but this time that supremacy was being hailed much more loudly and almost exclusively by the foreign media.

[52] But, from the Soviet authorities’ viewpoint, there was a downside to Korbut’s sudden rise to fame. It was a fame built more in terms of Western appreciation than in terms of how the Soviet government liked its accomplishments to be acknowledged. The Soviet gymnasts, under challenge particularly from other gymnasts in the Eastern bloc, had been pushed to new levels and more difficult moves to try to maintain their superiority and Korbut’s style was a result of this, with its new moves, new dangers and an emphasis on highlighting these. This was in stark contrast to the style that had developed under a succession of Soviet and other Eastern Bloc gymnasts.

[53] It was another gymnast, Ludmilla Turishcheva, who was both more typical of the classic style and more pleasing to the Soviet authorities in relation to the image that she portrayed. Turishcheva had come onto the public stage at the Mexico Olympics but it was not until the 1972 Olympics that she achieved worldwide fame, paradoxically by being on the same team as Korbut and therefore being given considerable exposure. As well as having a traditional style and being true to what Korbut has bitterly called “glorious Soviet gymnastics” (58), Turishcheva was a member of the Communist Youth Organization, the Komsomol, and was held in good stead by the authorities. For instance, in 1973 she took part in a sports delegation to the 10th World Youth Festival in Berlin, participating in a relay “In Honour of the Peoples of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia,” at the time suffering at the hands of US’s war on Vietnam. Afterwards she spoke in terms of socialist and worker solidarity, claiming “we took part in this race to demonstrate once again our solidarity with the working people of the whole world, particularly young people” (Quoted in Riordan, 387-88). Turishcheva, graceful, attractive and with a more mature figure than many other gymnasts of the 1970s, always came across as amenable, self-sacrificing and dedicated to Soviet sport, just the sort of sports ambassador that the Soviet authorities liked best. It was noted that, even at the age of 16, she had “set the interests of the team above her own” (Golubev, 14). Korbut, by contrast, was seen as something of a loose cannon.

[54] The labor of both, and of their contemporary elite gymnasts, was useful for the Soviet Union’s purposes. To an even greater extent, Soviet gymnasts were seen to represent something special that the capitalist world could not emulate. Opening the first Canadian national conference on women and sport, Laura Sabia used Soviet gymnasts as an example of what women had attained in sporting terms in the USSR and needed to attain in other countries as well, though she noted that a different set of attitudes would need to be overcome if the West was to emulate such sporting successes (Quoted in Riordan, 315).

[55] The new style of gymnastics both challenged and intensified that which had gone before it. Adrienne Blue suggests that the new styles and the drive for younger, lighter gymnasts was a reaction against feminism (156-57). That may have been true in respect to some sections of the large new audiences for the sport, but it is only part of a convergence of complexities. The diversity of styles arose from a number of social factors and reflected a range of femininities, among them an “androgenous femininity.” Perhaps it was the sheer diversity and the lack of ability to control the new styles that most made the Soviet authorities uncomfortable with the direction of women’s gymnastics. For the first time, the international image of Soviet women gymnasts was not under Soviet control but at the behest of Western media with its penchant for celebrityhood, drama, and individualist personas.

[56] Not that this was wholly to the Soviet Union’s disadvantage. Timemagazine claimed that Korbut “…convinced us that human hearts beat within the bodies of robotic Soviet athletes” (Smolowe, 46). The opportunities for international prestige that the USSR had extracted from its female gymnasts and other sports stars were greater than ever. Fan clubs sprang up all over the Western world and there was a huge demand among gymnastics-hungry Westerners for every conceivable commodity that would bring information about Korbut or identity with her and, to a lesser extent, the other Soviet female gymnasts.

[57] The appearance of another Eastern bloc child-gymnast, Romanian Nadia Comaneci, at the 1976 Montreal Olympics further inflamed gymnastics fandom in the West. The opportunities extended beyond general prestige for the USSR. The government was able to use its gymnastics team for very specific political purposes. For instance, “in 1972, as part of an intensive campaign for a détente with the USA and as a prelude to President Nixon’s visit to Moscow, the Soviet leaders sent their leading girl gymnasts (including Olga Korbut and Ludmilla Turishcheva) on a gymnastics display tour of America” (Riordan, 378).Sovietsky Sport declared quite bluntly that Soviet sportspeople had an important role to play in such missions and in the foreign policy of the Party and the Soviet government (cited in Riordan, 379).

[58] Clearly, sport could be useful for purposes of détente as well as a weapon in the Cold War. Thus, on Korbut’s tours to the West, meetings with President Nixon and with the British Prime Minister were included in her schedule. Not all her gymnastics tours had such specific political purposes. Often tours by Soviet gymnasts were used as opportunities for hard currency, as were tours by figure skaters, hockey teams and other Soviet sports stars (Edelman, 217). Korbut claims to have been utterly exhausted by the demand of constant touring: “…it was getting harder to endure those numerous exhibition tours. Australia, the USA, Singapore, Great Britain, back to the USA…I was tired of performing, and very tired of earning money for the fat big-shots on the Sports Committee” (125). While Korbut was working hard for her government, one of the ways in which its discomfort with her was being expressed was by paying little attention to her in the national media. She claims that the more politically pliable Turishcheva received most of the domestic attention and applause and when both gymnasts did come in for mention, it followed a formula such as “Turishcheva lives to win; Korbut to amaze” (48).

[59] Though Korbut felt slighted to be reduced to simply a performer of amazing feats, such feats had an enormous impact on the future direction of gymnastics for the remainder of the century. She had set a benchmark that a burgeoning squad of gymnasts all over the world set out to match and to better. Surmising that, for Korbut’s feats to be duplicated, so would her body type, there was a strong tendency towards smaller, lighter, younger female gymnasts. For instance, whereas the six gymnasts making up the 1976 US Olympic women’s team averaged seventeen-and-a-half years of age, five foot three and a half inches in height and 106 pounds in weight, by 1992 the average US Olympian gymnast was 16 years old, stood four feet nine inches and weighted 83 pounds (Ryan, 65). That was half the age of some of the leading female gymnasts at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. This shift and the changes that underpinned it marked a critical point in the “working conditions” of female gymnasts who now strove to meet the new and difficult body and training criteria, no doubt in a number of countries but certainly in the USSR, which was soon producing champions such as Maria Filatova and Olga Bicherova, four foot nine and under and looking a long way from puberty at ages of 14 and 15.

[60] Indeed, the staving off of puberty became an almost necessary condition of achieving the right body types to perform the most complex of body movements. Particularly on the beam, small, thin women with lower centres of gravity and a greater margin for error due to the ratio between the size of their feet and the width of the beam, had an advantage. This became critical as beam routines developed to include several rows of interconnected handsprings, backflips and somersaults. On the floor, too, smaller bodies effectively meant more room in which to complete elaborate tumbling runs.

[61] Clearly there was a cost for the gymnasts who had to maintain restrictive diets and sacrifice a great deal else in their lives as their training work ate into all available time. Elena Mukhina, 1978 World Champion, was among the most accomplished tumblers of this new generation, taking on several of Korbut’s signatures moves but adding twists and other complexities to them. Prior to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow she suffered a series of injuries, always being forced back to the gym before her body had properly healed. She claims of her life then: “Apart from the gym and gymnastics, nothing existed. I didn’t have the right to be ill. Problems outside sports simply didn’t exist” (“Yelena Mukhina…,” Ogonyok). Shortly before the Olympics, while trying to master an extremely difficult and dangerous tumbling sequence, Mukhina fell and broke her neck. She has been a quadriplegic ever since. At the Moscow Olympics, the Soviet women’s team went on to take the gold medals in both the overall champion and team events, as well as on the floor and vault. Despite being one of the best gymnasts, Mukhina was expendable in a country that boasted a resource pool of around 700,000 gymnasts (Golubev, 9).

[62] To be sure, gymnastics styles had diversified following the 1972 Olympics but, even while providing scope for more artistic freedom, this led to more hard labour by younger gymnasts and a parallel intensification of their ambassadorial work for the state.


[63] While the political nature of Soviet sport has never been denied, aspects of it have nonetheless been neglected or not fully understood. The case of the USSR’s women gymnasts is important as their experiences of the sport and the labor they performed as Soviet sports workers had historical threads in earlier divergences in both politics and philosophical frameworks in the Soviet Union. Most notable among these were, firstly, the move towards using sport for short-term functional purposes rather than for ideals of personal and social development, and secondly, the relegation of women to a resource-pool.

[64] Under Stalinist repression, closure of the discourse about the appropriate path for Soviet sport in favour of elitism and political expediency was matched by similar closure of debates about women. Women were utilized economically without ever attaining high levels of political clout and this problem was one of many that were evident in the development of Soviet women’s gymnastics.

[65] Paradoxically, sportswomen in the USSR were viewed as being far ahead of their counterparts in the West in terms of acceptance of their participation in sport. No doubt this reflected the level at which they were already being used in the workforce but was still insufficient for their deeper involvement in the political side of sport. While the masses were used as the raw material for sports, policies about sports and their directions came from above – at some considerable cost to women gymnasts.

[66] Other paradoxes included the expectation that the gymnasts show soft and vulnerable sides in their presentations despite being urged to be tough and enduring in their quest to be elite sportswomen. They were the material of scientific sports progress, often at an experimental level, but they had to portray Soviet art. They had to lead the world in gymnastics but in accordance with what was required of them by their national government. The contradictory demands made of Soviet female gymnasts had as many twists as their spell-binding tumbling sequences.

[67] But perhaps most ironic is that one of the objectives demanded of female gymnasts was that they conceal the difficulty of the exercises they performed. This can be seen as a metaphor for the overall labor performed by Soviet women gymnasts. More difficult but seemingly exciting moves on the apparatus exacerbated the levels of training, the risk of the work, the danger of the workplace and the age at which intensive training had to begin, as well as the real nature of the work these gymnasts performed which was at least as ideological as it was physical Such ideological tasks involved provision of aesthetic and celebratory packaging around the cult of Stalin; cultural camouflage of some of his worst excesses; physical flexings of “peace” as a cultural contribution to the Cold War; distraction from national problems; and ongoing evidence of Soviet supremacy.

[68] The era of the Soviets is over but, due to the influence of that nation, it is likely that at least some residue remains in the sport of women’s gymnastics. The topic is deserving of much more attention.

Acknowledgements. I thank Therese Taylor for commenting on an earlier draft of this paper and Marina Campbell, Nina Konuhova, and numerous other Russian people who helped me in various ways at Moscow State University and on the streets, in the libraries, in the gymnasia and in other institutions in Russia.

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