In the penultimate chapter of his autobiography, Boris Shakhlin takes us from the 1958 World Championships in Moscow to the 1966 World Championships in Dortmund. Along the way, he gives us a glimpse into his tactics as a competitor — ways that he and his teammates tried to throw their competitors off their game. He also shares little tidbits of information. For example, did you know that Soviet athletes received one cake for each gold medal that they won?
Here’s a translation of the fourth chapter of Shakhlin’s book.
ON THE BIG STAGE
That’s How Victory Came
After the XVIth Olympic Games, we said goodbye in a solemn atmosphere to our veteran, our unsurpassed gymnast Viktor Ivanovich Chukarin, who was leaving to work as a coach. He was in his thirty-sixth year and had stopped taking part in competitions. Our Motherland recognized his outstanding achievements in sports by giving him the highest award — the Order of Lenin.
In 1957, Chukarin brought onto the stage of the IIIrd Friendly Games the junior national team of the USSR, of which I was a member as well. They took place in Moscow under the program of the Global Festival of Youth and Students. Viktor Ivanovich Chukarin, the coach, was also awarded a gold medal for the victory our gymnasts won in the team competition; it was his fortieth gold medal won on the gymnastics stage.
In 1957, the coaches of the national team took a close look at young gymnasts. The next, XIVth World Championship was to take place in 1958 in Moscow; everyone understood quite well that we could by no means lose at home, in our capital city. At the same time, we knew that our main opponent was the Japanese team. At the XVIth Olympic Games, the gymnasts from the Land of the Rising Sun confidently outran the rather strong teams of all the European countries, where gymnastics had been very popular for centuries. We realized that they would try to prepare for the World Championship in Moscow even better to put up a fight against us for team superiority.
Meanwhile, a change of generations, which was logical for any kind of sports, was taking place in our national team: the experienced veterans were leaving the stage to be replaced by the youth. After a thorough examination, Valentin Muratov, who was the 1954 All-Around World Champion, Yuri Titov, Albert Azaryan, Pavel Stolbov, Valentin Lipatov, and I were included in the national team.
We understood that it was somewhat easier to perform at home, in your homeland, so to speak. After all, it would be “our” spectators who would prevail on the grandstands and who would wish us a victory and support us with their applause. However, we knew perfectly well that the opponents would not give us the upper hand without a fight and that we would have to work very hard before the championship to win victory. Under the guidance of our coaches, we tried to achieve a high level of readiness that would allow us to confidently enter a difficult sporting challenge and win, as had been done by our predecessors!
The XIVth World Championship in artistic gymnastics in Moscow was held in the summer, like the previous one in Rome. That’s why its opening ceremony took place in the large sports arena of the Central Stadium named by V.I. Lenin. All the teams marched in a solemn parade, and then the football pitch was filled with the capital city’s young gymnasts who showed their skill in the mass demonstration exercises. The following morning, we, men, were the first to enter the spacious hall of the Palace of Sports to enter a struggle.
As recently as the day before yesterday, we had our final training here, and the hall seemed huge, even uncomfortable to us: there were no spectators on the grandstands, and only a few journalists were quietly watching us. The grandstands were now clamoring excitedly, as always before the start of a grand gymnastics spectacle. The hall itself had changed beyond recognition and was dressed up. It had been decorated festively: over the center of the stage, a huge rosette had been hung with the flags of all the states whose envoys had come over to participate in the World Championship. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony was solemnly played, and the first shift of participants, including our team, came onto the stage.
And here are our main competitors — the national team of Japan. It is headed by Ono Takashi. We are looking at him and thinking about what might be hidden behind his smile, what novelties he has prepared for this championship, and what weapon he hopes to use to defeat those who will lay claim to the title of World All-Around Champion. There is no doubt that Ono Takashi aims for the title of the strongest because he is very, very strong in all-around competitions in the first place. However, there is no time for reflection, it is time to start a warm-up and enter the struggle…
In our national team, Valentin Muratov, the team’s most experienced gymnast, was always the first to come to almost all the apparatus. Even before the competition, we knew that, unfortunately, Valentin could not defend his title of World All-Around Champion. Before the championship, he got a little sick and could not get in the best shape. Yet, the coaches and all of us believed in Muratov. Primarily, we believed in his composure, confidence, and concentration in performing every exercise. Those qualities of Valentin were supposed to mobilize us to achieve the highest results.
Let me tell you at once that, in this respect, the tactical plan conceived by the heads of our national team worked out perfectly. Valentin Muratov really was a role model for the youth; after his performances, Lipatov, Stolbov, Titov, Azaryan, and I approached the apparatus more confidently.
Right from the start, the Japanese gymnasts demonstrated a very high level of skill in the compulsory program. There was a moment when, having performed their exercises on the rings well, they even overtook us.
After the performance of the compulsory program, we were a trifle ahead of our main competitors. In order to win, we had to show off our truly high skill level in the optional program. And we managed to do it; each of the Soviet sportsmen scored high on a particular apparatus, and all of it added to the overall result. Azaryan, as always, performed excellently on rings, Stolbov — on high bar, Lipatov — on vault, and Titov and I tried our best in the all-around.
The title of World All-Around Champion was competed for in parallel with the team competition. Our situation here was much better. The Japanese had put up quite a strong team in which almost all the participants were roughly equal in skill level. Yet, among them, only Ono Takashi could really lay claim to the title of World All-Around Champion. Our team had at least four such candidates.
Yuri Titov and I performed in the most stable manner. I was able to become the leader. However, Ono Takashi did not give up; he was second, but Yuri Titov was close and did not let him relax. He firmly held on to third place, was a little behind Ono, and was about to overtake him at any moment. As a result, Ono Takashi could not take risks in his fight with me: if he performed any exercise unsuccessfully, he would let Titov move ahead. Clearly, it is very difficult to fight for the best all-around total in such a situation. Ono would not give up though and fought bravely to the very end.
We completed our performance earlier than the Japanese gymnasts; they were next to come to the apparatuses — to replace us. My friends and I did all we could — we scored quite a high sum of points as a team; my result in the all-around total was also rather high — 116.05 points; Yura Titov was a little behind me. What would be our final places — both the team and personal places would be known an hour later, when the Japanese gymnasts finished their performance.
One of the coaches told me confidentially:
— Well, Borya, well done, congratulations; you are an all-around champion…
— You shouldn’t be in such a hurry, — I answered with a smile. — Let’s wait a little. The fight is not over yet; you never know what may happen.
— Come on, Borya, it’s all behind now, — my interlocutor said confidently. — Take a look: to be equal with you, Ono has to score 29.8 points in the last three events!?
— Let’s wait and see whether he does or not, — I smiled.
I understood perfectly well that my interlocutor’s calculations could be trusted, they were unmistakable. I also understood that it is practically impossible to score 29.8 points out of a possible 30 at a world championship. To do that, you needed to get one “ten” and two 9.9s! Such scores are exceptionally rare at world championships. Yet, I always treated my opponents with great respect, so I wouldn’t accept the congratulations on the victory; Ono Takashi was still performing, and hence retained at least the slightest chance of success.
[Note: In 1950, Hans Eugster did score a 10 at the World Championships.]
While the Japanese were warming up, we took a shower, changed, and returned to the hall — to see how our main opponents were completing their performance.
The destiny of the gold medal of the world all-around champion was decided very quickly. Already on the first apparatus, Takashi Ono got 9.7, lost 0.3 points, and he could no longer catch up with me. We are keeping the title of World All-Around Champion, which was won for our country by Viktor Chukarin and Valentin Muratov four years ago! An hour later, the whole of our team received congratulations. The national gymnastics team of the USSR became the strongest in the world once again! And we were infinitely happy to have been able to win this high victory in Moscow, which was so dear to each of us!
The XIVth World Championship brought a novelty to artistic gymnastics — the day of the event finals. Two years before that, at the XVIth Olympic Games in Melbourne, winners who performed on the individual apparatuses were determined sort of automatically: the scores for the compulsory and optional programs were added together, and the one who had the highest total score became the champion. Now, the six best sportsmen were found in each event in the first two days, and they competed for the medals by performing optional routines that were more complicated.
And here we are on the stage for the third time. The first gold medal is competed for on floor exercise. Takemoto Masao, a 38-year-old veteran of the Japanese team, was the best in this event.
The second final was on pommel horse. Two years ago in Melbourne, I won an Olympic gold medal on this apparatus, and now, of course, I want to win one at the World Championship as well. I manage to win the hard fight. Pavel Stolbov and Miroslav Cerar, a young Yugoslavian gymnast, perform very well. At the World Championship in Moscow, the Yugoslavian gymnast declared his outstanding skill in full voice for the first time and then reaffirmed it at numerous major competitions.
Albert Azaryan had no equal on rings. The climax of his routine was the so-called “side cross.” In those days, he was the only one in the world who could perform this most complicated element; besides, he could do it to both sides — to the right and to the left.
Albert scored 9.95 points! It is not often that judges are so generous.
[Note: This meant that two judges had given Azaryan a 10.0 because there were four judges at the time with the high and low scores being dropped.]
The next event is vault. And the Soviet Anthem can be heard under the arches of the Palace of Sports again! To its sound, a gold medal is awarded to my fellow countryman Yuri Titov — the first individual World Champion medal in his life.
The group of six contenders changes, and we go to parallel bars. At the previous World Championship, Viktor Ivanovich Chukarin was the strongest in this event. I know that he is in the hall now, sitting opposite the parallel bars; I would really like to make a kind of gift to our former captain — keep “his” gold medal in our country. Fortunately, I manage to overcome the excitement and tune in for an optimal performance, which brought such a desired victory particularly on the parallel bars.
Just like that, going from one apparatus to another, we came up to the last of them — high bar. Performance on high bar always ends the competition for awards in individual events. Probably because routines on the high bar are very spectacular and are gladly watched by the spectators; this is like a final chord in the demonstration of gymnasts’ skill. And this is where the most exciting things happened at the Moscow World Championship, which I would like to tell young gymnasts as a cautionary tale.
The leader in the high bar final was the light and graceful Pavel Stolbov. He had the highest preliminary score — 9.8 points and we thought he was just unreachable: all Pasha has to do is perform the exercise at his usual level — and he becomes a gold medalist. He was followed by Ono Takashi, me, Yuri Titov, Takemoto Masao, and Albert Azaryan was the last among the six finalists.
Albert had practically no chance for success and, apparently, that was why he didn’t feel like performing on high bar. Or maybe he simply felt tired; after all, we had been competing for three days. Anyway, the night before, Albert asked the coaches of the national team for permission to perform on rings only and refrain from the high bar final. My friend did not receive such permission. Looking at Albert’s sad face, Aleksandr Semyonovich Mishakov joked:
— You may still become a champion. Most importantly, perform the routine in a cheerful way. You know, the high bar is always like a bird — now it’s in your hand, and the next moment it has fluttered away.
His words almost became prophetic.
Azaryan started the high bar final. He performed calmly and confidently. The score he got was rather high; he stepped down from the podium and sat next to me. Nothing else depended on him. At that moment, something unspeakable began to happen.
Takemoto Masao performed right after Albert. He made several noticeable errors and… let Azaryan take fifth place. Then, the same problem befell Yuri Titov as well — and Albert moved to fourth place. I saw Azaryan trying hard to restrain himself and not to laugh: if it keeps going like this, then the prophecy made by Aleksandr Semyonovich may well come true and he might even become a world champion!..
At that moment, Pavel Stolbov, the leader of the final, was called to the high bar. Pasha was very nervous; even his pale face showed how badly he wanted to win. He did not withstand the enormous nervous strain — suddenly lost speed in the middle of the exercise, lay on the high bar, and dropped out of the fight for the championship. What an unfortunate failure!
That’s how Azaryan became at least a bronze medalist! He understood that the coaches, who prevented him from refusing to perform on the high bar, were right. You should always fight to the end! And then, good performance of a routine may earn you a place you never expected at the start!
After Stolbov’s failure, almost everyone thought that the gold medal would go to Ono Takashi. His preliminary score was a little higher than mine; besides, Ono is a recognized high bar expert and winner of the XVIth Olympic Games on this apparatus, but…
By that time, seven of the eight gold medals had already been claimed at the championship; by men, of course. And only one of them had gone to the Japanese team, specifically to Takemoto Masao for floor exercises. The Soviet sportsmen had won the rest of them. Ono had his last chance of not only winning a gold medal for himself but also securing the highest award, the second one, for his team. This pushed the excitement of the Japanese team leader to the brink.
Ono performed the very first move in the routine, an ordinary swing, with an error, and his hastiness in correcting that error led to a complete flop. Frankly speaking, I had never seen such “miracles” happening during one competition, let alone on just one apparatus! After all, it was not beginners, but the most experienced gymnastics masters in the world! Suddenly, it turned out that even they could not always get a grip on themselves or cope with their own nerves.
I was the last to perform on the high bar by the will of the lot. Clearly, I took into account the failures of my friends and opponents and did my best to perform the routine calmly, at my own level. The judges gave me 9.8 points, which made me a gold medalist. Albert Azaryan found himself standing on the “silver” step of the podium, his eyes full of joy and bewilderment.
– So what happened?
You may have heard the expression “you cannot jump over your head.” I don’t know about other sports, but it is always true in gymnastics. A gymnast can and must strive to perform an exercise with a score he is ready for. No matter how hard you may try, it is impossible to perform a routine better than your degree of readiness allows you. Yet, you can perform an exercise worse, especially if you are too nervous: nervousness always keeps you from controlling your actions reliably during a routine. This explains the high-bar scores in the final.
Azaryan thought he had no hope for success, so he performed calmly, did the exercise at his level of readiness, and since the level was high, he got a good score. Takemoto and Titov suffered ordinary failures to which no one is immune — a few minor errors resulted in a decreased score. Stolbov and Ono strove to win at all costs! This led to excessive nervousness, and, in such a state, they could not reliably control their actions and thus lost.
The Toughest Competition
Before a sportsman says goodbye to active performances, it seems to him that the most important, the most essential test is still to come, it is waiting for him.
But then the sporting career is over, and you can look back at what you have done and accurately determine when you’ve had the hardest time. Today, I can say that the toughest and most responsible thing for me was my performance at the XVII Olympic Games. I had to mobilize not only all my skills, but all my experience as well, which I had gained over the eighteen years of my gymnastics career because the team badly needed my victory.
Even before the XVIIth Olympic Games, we knew that the Japanese gymnasts were preparing to fight us on all fronts in the most decisive way: in the team competition, the all-around, and the individual events. For many years, they had thoroughly studied our training system and filmed the routines performed by Soviet gymnasts in order to defeat us with our own weapons.
And so the decisive battle began.
We were right in our assumptions: the Japanese brought an excellently trained team to Rome. They start outperforming us from the very first event of the compulsory program, and after each apparatus, the gap becomes larger and larger. We are losing both as a team and in the fight for the title of All-Around Champion of the XVIIth Olympic Games.
Upon completion of the compulsory program, our old acquaintance, Ono Takashi, is confidently ahead of the others. I am 0.25 points behind him, and Yuri Titov is in third place, even farther behind. Given such a gap, it is hard to expect to win. And we would hate so much to relinquish the title of All-Around Champion won at the XVth and XVIth Olympic Games by Viktor Chukarin! Yet, we will keep fighting, no matter how hard it may be. In gymnastics, he who can fight and definitely fights to the end wins!
We had one day to rest: women were competing in the compulsory program. Their performance was just wonderful; it was enviable! Our female gymnasts are confidently leading as a team, and there are four Soviet sportswomen leading in the fight for the all-around championship at the same time! There is no doubt that the gold medal of all-around champion will be definitely awarded to one of our female gymnasts!
And here we are on the stage again. How will things work out for us in the optional program? In the morning, we perform in three events. There is no change in the team competition: we are unable to fight back and narrow the gap. And how about the title of all-around champion? I am hopefully looking at Aleksandr Semyonovich, who is smiling sadly:
— Everything is fine — you are losing by 0.3 points to Ono…
You don’t say so! Frankly speaking — I didn’t expect that… Not only was I unable to close the gap, but, on the contrary, it had increased by another 0.05 points! I know that no one believes in my victory any longer: neither the spectators nor the gymnasts. Unless Aleksandr Semyonovich is still hoping for a miracle. Only a miracle. There are only three events left before the end of the competition.
And still, my coach and I do not find our task completely unachievable. As always, we will fight to the end. Especially because there is still a chance to win.
Mishakov and I had always tried to study the potential opponents as best as we could, and learn as much as possible about them. To defeat those who are your equal in skill, you need to know the most important thing about them — their strengths and weaknesses. And not only in terms of technical training and physical fitness. They are not the decisive ones because any of the gymnasts may prepare in different ways for a particular competition and approach it in better or worse shape. It is important to know the opponents’ mental qualities and habits — they always remain unchanged.
We know, for instance, that gymnast X would get very upset if for some reason he left his magnesium behind and no one offered him some in a friendly way. Gymnast Y would get even more upset if someone suddenly crossed his way just before he walked toward the apparatus. These are just funny little things. We know a more important thing about Ono.
It is always difficult for any gymnast to set himself up for the highest level of performance when he already knows the final result of his main opponent. Especially if this result is high enough to bring victory. The previous meetings with Ono Takashi showed that he usually got very nervous in such situations, so we decided to take advantage of that.
During the evening part of the performance, our team will go to the apparatus before the Japanese team, and this should help me a lot. If I manage to get the highest scores for myself, then I will make the leader’s performance much more complicated: Ono will know my scores, and he may even watch my performance. He will understand that he will have to make every effort to achieve the final victory, and this may be unsettling to him.
Only this option is now acceptable for me, that is, to do the three final events as accurately as possible and get the highest possible score in each of them. It means that, first of all, I myself must fight for every tenth and even hundredth of a point until I come up to the very last apparatus. Now everything will depend on who will be more nervous — my main opponent or me.
I discussed all of that with Aleksandr Semyonovich back in the Olympic Village. In the evening, I went to the competition with the firm intention of doing what I had planned as best as possible.
The first event for our team is pommel horse. Four years ago, this particular apparatus earned me the first gold medal in Melbourne and, by the way, brought my first victory over Ono. This is a pleasant memory. Now, however, I am not thinking of keeping the title of Olympic Champion in this event. My task is more difficult: to get a score that will be high enough to help make a difference in the main struggle for the all-around championship. I try to be as focused as possible and, from the first movement, to get into the necessary rhythm of numerous circles, swings, scissors, and to perform them as well as I can and as I am accustomed to. Finally, it’s over. What will the judges say? 9.75 points. A very good score!
Our team’s next apparatus is the rings. It is on them that, according to our strategic plan, I am supposed to deal a decisive blow to Ono Takashi.
Like all the gymnasts, Ono knows that I have never been particularly good at ring exercises before. Therefore, if now I get a high score, I will literally dumbfound the leader. All the more so because Ono will see my performance: the Japanese have already arrived, and immediately after our performance on rings they will come out on stage. He could hardly resist the temptation to watch my performance on the rings. So, it will be good to give him a surprise.
Now it all depends on one thing — will I be able to get a good result? Perhaps I will. During the national team’s previous “practice run” before the departure to Rome, I managed to get 9.8 points on rings. I wish I could repeat the routine and get such a high score now! I try to recollect in detail, down to every little thing, how I performed the exercise then.
And here I am on the rings. From the first movement, I can happily feel that the exercise is going accurately, smoothly, and clearly, without a hitch, so to speak. I perform the dismount just as well and land cleanly. Here is the score at last. Wow! I have managed to surprise not only Ono but myself as well! I get the desired 9.8! For me, it is like a “ten” for someone else. It is not difficult to imagine how my opponent’s face grew long. If anything, Ono did not expect such a surprise from me, particularly on rings! It was the first time I had been given 9.8 on rings at an international competition! And it is so nice to realize that it happened at the right time!
The first conclusion of the final performance can already be made. After the two apparatuses, I lost 0.45 points. This is not much at all. And even though the Japanese gymnasts are going to come out on stage only now, it is safe to assume that I have been able to win back from Ono some bits of the three-tenth of a point that separated us before the evening performance. This is where the thing that my coach and I have been working so hard to get will start — our duel with Ono will flare up with renewed force! And it remains to be seen who wins in the end…
So, the Japanese gymnasts come out on stage, and there is a short break in the performance of the Soviet team. Our main opponents will now perform the floor exercises and then go on to the rings. And we will return to the stage to complete our performance with the vaults. All will be decided at this time: for us, the vault will be the last event, and for the Japanese gymnasts, the ring performance will be the penultimate one.
We retreat to the changing room — there is a break and we can have a rest. I am not going to watch Ono’s performance on floor exercise; I don’t need it at all. Aleksandr Semyonovich stays near the stage with his invariable notepad — he will see everything, write down everything, and then tell me all about it. I need to have as good a rest as possible, keep the fighting spirit, and I must not cool down before the vaults.
In the changing room, Yuri Titov and I start suffering. It is incredibly hot in Rome, our throats become itchy due to the dryness, and we get unbearably thirsty. However, we must not drink: water relaxes the muscles, so we have to be patient. Our friends break this rule. There is only one event left before the finish — the vault; two attempts are allowed in it, and one of them may turn out to be successful, even if you “treat yourself” to some water. The team fight is practically over, too: we lose significantly to the Japanese; you cannot win back in one event what you have lost in the previous eleven ones. We will not be the first, and will not become the third either — the other teams are quite far behind. So, the sportsmen can have some water.
Yet, Yuri and I can’t! We still continue our fight, and it is too early for us to relax; we must come out fully armed to vault. It is incredibly stuffy in the small changing room, but Titov and I put on woolen sweat suits — we need to keep the “working heat” of the warmed-up muscles as much as possible. We sit down with our backs to everyone. And the water being poured into the glasses gurgles so seductively behind us! Just one gulp! No, we can’t have any! We need to be patient, it is not long now.
Aleksandr Semyonovich comes in. One event has flashed by very quickly, and we have to return to the stage. The coach’s face is impenetrable; however, I feel that our tactical plan has worked out well and paid off. Later, right after the competition, Mishakov would show me his records and we would laugh merrily. We did manage to throw Ono off balance and make him feel worried and nervous. He was nervous indeed! Already in the first event of the evening program, when performing the floor exercises, Ono scored 9.55 points. That is to say, he lost the 0.45 points which I failed to score on two apparatuses. It meant I could still compete for a gold medal in the all-around!
And here we are on the stage again. Our team starts to perform on vault, and the Japanese gymnasts, on the pommel horse. In our teams, Ono and I are the last to perform in the event. I have time to see Ono’s performance. I did not see the score though — it is my turn to perform the vault. The best of my two scores is 9.75 again.
So, that’s it; I have finished and I can’t help myself anymore. Only the opponent can “help” me now; he is still to perform on rings. I look questioningly at Semyonych, who previously entered Ono’s score in the notepad and is now entering mine. I lost 0.7 points in the last three events. Ono has performed in two events so far, but has already lost five hundredths more. Anything may happen. The more so because I have a very high all-around total score — 115.95 points! Aleksandr Semyonovich sighs and utters philosophically:
— We will wait and hope…
Everything is clear with hope, but where should I wait? In the changing room? Or should I go and take a shower, which would be so pleasant at this time? No. I elbow Titov and point with my eyes to the Japanese gymnasts’ bench. We sit down next to our opponents. They may find such an unceremonious invasion of their “sovereign territory” unpleasant. Yet, on our part, this is just another peculiar tactical trick: let Ono get ready for the last appearance and perform under our watchful eye. Let our presence remind him once again that the struggle is going on.
Finally, it is really over — the judges show Ono’s last score. Aleksandr Semyonovich enters it in his notepad and “Hooray!” comes from his lips. We have won! Ono Takashi has the second-highest total score — 115.90. The five-hundredths of a point makes me the All-Around Champion of the XVIIth Olympic Games! I have been awarded the title Viktor Chukarin had won twice in a row! Yuri Titov was in third place…
The passions of the team fight have subsided, and the all-around gold medal won. The Japanese gymnasts have won the team competition and we have the gold medal for All-Around Champion (for the third Olympics in a row). Yet, it is too early to rest. Ahead is the day of the event finals. Every award in them — be it a gold, silver, or bronze medal — is very dear to our Olympic national team.
The Soviet Olympians performed exceptionally well in Rome. We, gymnasts, wanted to support the overall winning impulse as much as we could, and on the day of the finals, we set ourselves up to fight for every medal, regardless of its color.
However, the first gold award in the finals was not ours. It was won by Japanese gymnast Aihara Nobuyuki, who performed on floor exercise best of all. I was meant to be the next to climb onto the top step of the podium. I was not alone though. Finnish sportsman Erkki Ekman performed on pommel horse well; we had the same total points, and the organizers of the competition had to be generous and award two gold medals at a time.
Albert Azaryan confidently became the strongest on rings, like in all the previous years. I had a little joy of my own. I performed the optional routine quite well again (remember the 9.8 points?). I was awarded a silver medal. That was my first medal won on the rings at an international competition! After that, I won another gold medal — for parallel bars.
So, two steps before the final finish, we had twice as many gold medals won as the Japanese gymnasts did: they had two medals, and we had four. Yet, the opponents will not give in. Ono Takashi performs the vault excellently. Again, two gold medals have to be awarded: Ono and I have the same score, and we climb the podium together. Having received the award, Takashi jokes that he would like to have stood on the top step together with me the day before yesterday, when we were being awarded for the best all-around total score; it would have been much more pleasant for him.
There is the last apparatus left — the high bar. According to preliminary estimates, the Japanese gymnasts have the advantage here. By the time I was called to the apparatus, Ono Takashi had already become the leader; Takemoto Masao was in second place. I started the exercise well; yet, an unfortunate incident prevented me from completing it at the highest level.
No sooner had I gotten into the right rhythm than there was a slight cracking sound, and I could barely hold on to the high bar. A leather hand grip broke — one that we necessarily put on our palms when performing on the high bar to avoid ripping off calluses on our palms. Aleksandr Semyonovich was standing nearby spotting me from falling; having heard the sound, he understood what had happened and there came a vigorous command from below:
— Stop it!..
How could I not finish the last exercise and refuse to perform at the very finish and, by doing so, spoil the impression of everything that was done before! Of course, it was a bit risky because there were several complex elements and connections left to be performed. At any second, the ripped hand grip could have twisted on the palm and I would have fallen off the high bar. I had to act extremely carefully, which definitely affected the performance. Ultimately, the score was not so bad, and I was awarded a bronze medal…
In the evening, there was a really sweet feast at the location of our Olympic delegation. According to an old tradition of our national Olympic team, each gold medalist is awarded a cake. That evening, there were especially many cakes because the women had competed in the finals on the same day as us. Two cakes were given to Larisa Latynina for her victory in the all-around and floor exercise; Lina Astakhova (for bars), Rita Nikolayeva (for vault), and Albert Azaryan (for rings) got one each, and I received four cakes. We were in a wonderful mood and generously treated all our friends and, of course, our coaches in the first place, who had prepared us for the tough fight so well.
From the Left Flank to the Right
The XVth World Championship was coming up; it was to be held in Prague. It was obvious from everything that I had not had enough time to prepare for it just as well as I did for my previous performances. Yuriy Titov outran me at the national championship, and I joined the national team as number two.
Before the start of the world championship, as we were testing the apparatuses, I even thought: has Ono Takashi’s time finally come? Among all of the championship participants, he is one of the most experienced and, as always, is well-prepared for the performances. Ono will finally realize his long-standing dream and win the title of overall world champion. Unless…
Unless, of course, some young gymnast stands in his way. This could be done by our Yuriy Titov and Viktor Lisitskiy; Franco Menichelli, an Italian, and Miroslav Cerar, a Yugoslavian, were in good shape. The Japanese team has also got a new talented all-around gymnast, Endo Yukio. However, Yuri Titov performed best of all; it was he who won the all-around world championship.
Yuri and I are two times fellow countrymen, so to speak. He also comes from Siberia (from Omsk) and he started his successful gymnastics career in Kyiv. His sporting journey is interesting and informative: he has always been tremendously hard-working and believed in his own strength and in his coach. In this respect, my friend can serve as a benchmark for many of those who are now making their first steps in gymnastics.
In Kyiv, Yuri went to Secondary School No. 131, which was known throughout Ukraine. It was famous for its students’ significant sports achievements. Around thirty of those who finished School 131 became masters of sports, and even more became masters of sports candidates and holders of the 1st category. After the XVI Olympic Games, they decided to hold an Olympic glory evening and invited to it well-known athletes — only the school’s former students.
The event was visited by Honored Master of Sports Yuri Titov; eight-time champion of the USSR, Champion of Europe, rowing award winner of the XVth and XVIth Olympic Games, Honored Master of Sports Igor Yemchuk; national hammer throw champion, participant of the XVth Olympic Games, Master of Sports Georgiy Dybenko; multiple national cycling champion, participant of the XVIth Olympic Games, Master of Sports Vladimir Mitin. That’s who Secondary School 131 gave to our big sport!
As a fifth-grader, Yuri Titov tried his hand at swimming; however, Pyotr Ivanovich Semenovskiy, the physical education teacher, suggested that he do artistic gymnastics. By the way, Yura was not tall and a little stoop-shouldered. Yet, in the physical education classes, he was very agile and lively. Yura followed the teacher’s advice and, together with other boys, went to enroll in a gymnastics group at the junior sports school. There, he had to go through very unpleasant moments:
Titov still keeps an amateur photograph today that has turned yellow with the passage of time: lined up are tall, broad-shouldered guys, and the last one on the left flank is him, skinny and frail, a head shorter than the others. Yuri tried his best to grow taller and spread his shoulders. He did not succeed. One of the coaches gave him a skeptical look and said to the senior coach:
— That one on the left flank, I wouldn’t enroll him into the group: He won’t make a good gymnast, no matter how hard you may try. Besides, he spoils the overall impression of a good group.
Yuri felt everything shatter inside him — that’s the end, the verdict has been signed; under no circumstances will he be enrolled into the group! Yet, the senior coach looked at him and smiled gently:
— That’s okay, let him stay. If such a small boy was not afraid and came to join us, it means he likes gymnastics very much. — And he added, addressing the other coaches: — I will take him so he doesn’t spoil your groups. His height is fine with me; I am no giant either…
That’s how Yevgeniy Markelovich Yarokhin, a young teacher, and today an Honored Coach of the USSR, got a diligent and industrious trainee. While I, for example, had to practice with three mentors due to the fact that I moved from town to town, Yuri Titov went through his entire sports path under Yarokhin’s guidance.
Titov and Yarokhin had a hard time. Sometimes Yuri found even simple elements very difficult to master. Yet, Yevgeniy Markelovich always showed inexhaustible patience. The coach could see that the boy spared no effort to become a gymnast.
And when, at the end of the tenth year of training, Yuri finally fulfilled the Master of Sports standard, his general physical and special gymnastics level was so high that he immediately became one of the strongest in the country.
He fulfilled the Master of Sports standard in April 1956, and as early as August, he took fourth place in the all-around at the Spartakiad of the peoples of the USSR and was included in the national team for the first time. In November, he became a bronze medalist in the XVI Olympic Games, for which he was awarded the title of Honored Master of Sports. The most interesting thing is that Yuri Titov, the only one of the group whose appearance he “spoiled” on the first day of training, became not only a master, but also an outstanding master of artistic gymnastics! That’s what it means to believe in yourself and in your coach, to be patient and hard-working throughout the entire sports career!..
Yuri Titov became the main favorite at the World Championship in Zlatá Praha. [Zlatá means golden in Czech.] No one could compete on equal terms with him. His excellent athletic shape, stable performance of compulsory and optional exercises, confidence, and relentless will to win allowed him to become the fourth Soviet world all-around champion. That’s how a boy who stood on the left flank in a junior sports school’s gymnastics group, moved to the right flank of the world’s artistic gymnastics 16 years after his first training session thanks to his persistence and great diligence!
We sort of switched roles with Yuri, and I won a bronze medal in the all-around. Young Endo Yukio took second place, and my old opponent Ono Takashi was not among the medalists. It was sad a little — the youth pushed us, veterans, back a little; the only consolation was that the title of overall world champion belonged to a Soviet gymnast again!
Sixth Olympic Medal
XVIIIth Olympics: the games were held in Tokyo, Japan.
As the saying goes, even the walls help at home — our main opponents, with the spectators’ support, performed very well. Before the last event, the fight seemed completely over: the Japanese gymnasts were confidently leading as a team, and Endo Yukio was ahead by a solid margin in the all-around. He was closely followed by Tsurumi Shuji, young Soviet gymnast Viktor Lisitskiy and me. It was absolutely unclear which of us would win a silver or a bronze medal and who would take fourth place — it all depended on our previous performances. All of a sudden, the situation escalated and the three of us got a chance of winning the all-around!
The Japanese team was finishing its performance on pommel horse. When Endo came up to the apparatus, there was silence in the hall: about a minute later, the spectators would be able to greet the all-around champion of the XVIIIth Olympic Games! Their own champion, for whose emergence they had been waiting for such a long time!
Endo started the exercise well; suddenly, he lost his rhythm, and after several movements, it happened again; before the very end of the routine, he all but sat down on the “body” of the pommel horse and performed a dismount with effort. We were looking at him and could not understand what was happening to the leader. He might have been affected by the feeling of being close to victory, and Endo could not get over his nerves and hold back his anxiety. Anyway, Endo performed the last exercise not so clearly and confidently as Viktor Chukarin had done in Melbourne, when his all-around victory fully depended on his success in the last event.
It is not hard to imagine how much excitement Endo caused his fans in the grandstands. While the judges were coming together to announce the score, there was dead silence in the hall. Everyone thought that the judges’ discussion lasted infinitely long, even though it took them just a couple of minutes to reach a consensus. Finally, they passed the “verdict” — 9.15 points. This result made Endo Yukio unreachable as to the all-around total, even if one of the three of us, his pursuers, got a “ten.”
[Coincidentally, Shakhlin did not mention any of the scoring controversy that ensued. You can read about it here.]
We turned out to be surprisingly “tight-knit guys”: Viktor Lisitsky, Tsurumi Shuji, and I scored the same number of points! Each of us was awarded a silver medal in the all-around.
So, both the team and all-around competitions brought us silver medals. There were finals in individual events left. The competition started with the victories of European gymnasts. Franco Menichelli, an Italian, became the best on floor exercise, and Miroslav Cerar, a Yugoslavian, — on pommel horse. Our guys were not so lucky: Viktor Lisitskiy shared second place with Endo on floor exercise, and Yuri Tsapenko took third place on pommel horse. Then the Japanese gymnasts had three good results: Hayata Takashi — on rings, Yamashita Hiroto — on vault, and Endo Yukio — on parallel bars. Our achievements were still rather modest: Lisitskiy was able to take second place on vault, and I won a bronze medal on rings.
There was the last apparatus left — the high bar. I had the best result in this event, and Yuri Titov had the second. We had a real chance of winning at least one gold medal. Yuri performed before me, showed a good result, and became the leader. In such situations, when your friend is already in first, it is always much easier to perform: the award already belongs to your team. Yuri’s success helped me get in the mood for a good performance — I won a gold medal, my sixth gold medal for performing in three consecutive Olympic Games…
Frankly speaking, I did not think in Tokyo that the XVIIIth Olympic Games would be the last of my sports life. Although I was 32 years old, I hoped to perform at the XIXth Olympics in Mexico City as well. I continued to exercise persistently and performed for the fourth time at the World Championship in Dortmund. It is there that the star of our new talented gymnast, Mikhail Voronin, rose. He was only 22; yet, Misha managed to outrun everybody and became the fifth Soviet gymnast to be awarded the title of world all-around champion! And I had to say goodbye to the active sports life. Two years later, I came to Mexico City, but in a new role — that of a judge at an Olympic gymnastics tournament.
[Note: Though not mentioned in his autobiography, Boris Shakhlin had a heart attack in 1967. See more in Modern Gymnast, May 1968.]
A new stage of my life was beginning and it was connected with gymnastics as before. I started working at the Kyiv Institute of Physical Culture; before long I was awarded the title of International Category Judge and was elected a member of the Technical Committee of the International Gymnastics Federation. Since then, I have been present at almost all major international competitions. I sit at the judge’s table and remember with pleasure the days when I myself approached the apparatus — they brought me so many joyful minutes!