In the third chapter of My Gymnastics, Boris Shakhlin recalls his move to Kyiv, as well as his participation in the 1954 World Championships, the 1955 Cup of Europe, and the 1956 Olympics. Along the way, he tells some interesting stories:
- How Yuri Titov learned to sing songs while doing pommel horse
- How Viktor Chukarin survived a concentration camp during World War II
- How the gymnasts burned their hands on high bar during the 1954 World Championships in the hot Italian sun
- How he got the nickname the Russian Bear
- How the all-around gold medal at the 1955 European Cup had a gymnast’s name pre-engraved on it (and it wasn’t his name)
- How judging started during podium training — not on the first day of competition.
CHAPTER 3: DEVELOPMENT OF SKILLS
When I arrived in Kyiv, it was not as beautiful as it is today. Khreschatyk, which had been destroyed almost completely during the war, had not yet been raised from the ruins — the central thoroughfare of the city, the Kyivites’ pride, as well as many other streets still lay in rubble. The city was still healing its wounds, still being rebuilt.
The Kyiv Institute of Physical Culture was located in the city center, in a place most associated with sport, you might say, — near the Central Stadium, the ski jumping ramp, the Palace of Physical Culture with a swimming pool, three high and spacious halls for gymnastics, sports games, and wrestling. There was everything at hand, as the saying goes. Even the street where the Institute is located is called Fizkulturna.
I was given a bed in a dormitory opposite the academic building, which was very convenient. I could get to the lectures and training sessions in no time. As for the gym, where our classes and training sessions were held, I had never seen anything of the kind: it was as high as a three-story building, light, spacious and, of course, equipped with all the apparatus necessary for the lessons.
And here I am, meeting Aleksandr Semyonovich Mishakov. To tell the truth, his name did not ring a bell at the time. A master of sports in gymnastics; there were so many of them in our country. He was to become an Honored Master of Sports and an Honored Coach of the USSR much later. He is tall, slender, fit, still participating in competitions, although he is about forty. I learn from older students that my new coach has never been particularly successful in gymnastics. His most significant achievements are prize-winning places in the championships of Ukraine and the all-Union championships of the Spartak Sport Society. And I wonder why Eduard Fyodorovich Rung recommended that I train particularly with Mishakov. And what new things could his old friend teach me?
A few Institute lessons and training sessions under his guidance, and I become convinced that I am in good hands. That’s not only because Aleksandr Semyonovich is very demanding and exacting at the lessons, which is aggravated by his external dryness and sometimes overly harsh tone of voice when he talks to us. I got acquainted with a high level of exactingness, discipline, and sternness back in Ishim; Vasiliy Alekseevich Porfiryev did not make any allowances either.
How well-versed Mishakov is in gymnastics! How well he understands the nature of complex movements! A real professor! Sometimes a gymnast struggles to master an element for a long time but nothing works out for him. In desperation, he comes up to Semyonych (as you understand, we used this name behind our coach’s back, when talking to each other) — take a look, what’s wrong here? Why can’t I learn what the others find so easy?
[Note: Semyonych is a truncated, informal version of the longer Semyonovich. The gymnasts did not use the informal form when addressing him directly.]
Aleksandr Semyonovich never spoke flatly and presumptuously: you do this and this and everything will be fine. No. First, he asked the gymnast to perform the element or connection which he could not do well. Then he would ask him questions about how he was feeling, about the point where the main force was applied, and about other things which at first glance might seem insignificant. Such a detailed conversation very often sort of opened the gymnast’s eyes to the cause of the failure. He came up to the apparatus and did everything so well that it seemed he had been able to perform the unfortunate element or combination for ages!
Sometimes the advice given by Mishakov was so ingenious that it was hard to tell right away if he was serious or it was a joke.
A rather funny thing happened once. Yuri Titov, a young friend and competitor of mine, who had just entered our Institute, in his first attempt failed a pommel horse exercise (in those days, two attempts were allowed). He stepped down from the stage looking as black as thunder; biting his lip in frustration, he sat down in his place. At that competition, Mishakov was the senior coach of our team. He looked at Titov, who was grim, smiled, and said:
— You are like Gloomy Gus! Come on, take it easy, keep your chin up! There is one more attempt left. If you want to succeed, sing to yourself and try to pick up a tune to the beat of the exercise.
It was so unexpected that Yuri even got confused. Which was clear: you are as angry as can be because of the failure, and you are advised to sing as if you have scored ten points! Titov got even sulkier and withdrew into himself completely. Suddenly, his face started to lighten up.
His second attempt was successful and he scored a high mark. He dashed to Mishakov right from the stage,
— Thank you, Aleksandr Semyonovich! I swear it helped!
— You bet, — smiled Mishakov. — Remember it for the future…
Yuri told me later:
— The advice was really unusual. I didn’t even notice how I started singing a tune to myself. Then, all of a sudden, I caught myself thinking that it did correspond to the rhythm of my swings and circles! So, I used it in my second attempt. And it all worked out very well! Semyonych must have used this technique many times…
I quickly started to make progress at the Institute. We worked hard, which was essential for the ultimate learning of the master of sports program. As for the other things, my life had not changed much. Like back in Sverdlovsk, in Kyiv, I ran to the lecture rooms in the morning, and in the evening I trained a group of young gymnasts in one of the sports societies. Now, of course, I could explain much more to my trainees. Anyway, I had to show quite a bit, too; so, I did not give up my peculiar additional training sessions.
In the opinion of Aleksandr Semyonovich, in my previous classes, I had managed to develop rather well the qualities that are necessary for a gymnast. However, I was still lacking in strength, which had a negative effect on my mastering complex elements, especially exercises on the rings. So, Mishakov prepared a special program for me so that I could develop my strength.
The more I got to know my new mentor and the more I trained with him, the more I wanted to find out why he, such a knowledgeable and experienced instructor, had not been able to prepare himself to achieve high results in the all-Union arena. Or is it possible in gymnastics to successfully prepare others without being able to prepare your own self? Semyonych looked very good for gymnastics: he was slender, light, and quite strong for his weight. As it turned out, it was the Great Patriotic War [i.e. the Eastern Front of World War II] and his talent as a teacher that prevented Mishakov from becoming a great sportsman.
The Institute of Physical Culture, of which I was a student now, had been located in Kharkiv. It was there that the sportsman Aleksandr Mishakov entered the Institute in 1933; he came from Zhdanov, a coastal city in Donetsk region (an interesting coincidence: around the same time, Viktor Chukarin, one of our most outstanding gymnasts, was starting his sports path in Zhdanov). In those days, almost all sportsmen trained and took part in competitions in several kinds of sport at the same time and gave no preference to one particular sport, as the case is today. Mishakov also did handball and artistic gymnastics simultaneously. Gymnastics definitely was not a priority because he first became a master of sports in handball.
At that time, there were few experienced coaches and even fewer teachers in our institutes of physical culture. Mishakov’s talent as a teacher was noticed at an early stage. When he had started his final year, he was offered to train students who were in their junior years. So, Mishakov was a student and teacher at the Institute of Physical Culture at the same time: he conducted practical classes, trained first-year students, and practiced by himself to the best of his ability.
By that time, Aleksandr Semyonovich had already given his preference to artistic gymnastics; it was in gymnastics that he fulfilled the standard of the master of sports, just as in handball a few years before. He got a triple portion of congratulations on that memorable day: two of his first students became masters of sports at the same competition! Since that time, there had been no big or small competitions in which Mishakov would participate alone, without his alumni. He trained both men and women, so he always had to give a good deal of attention to his trainees at competitions, even more than to himself. Throughout his life, Mishakov raised about 70 masters of sport! Not every coach can boast such figures!
And then the Great Patriotic War broke out. The years which would have been best for improving his skills and in which Mishakov might well have become a great master of gymnastics were spent far from a gym — in one of the partisan units that operated in Ukraine. He was known in the unit under the nickname Asmi (it’s easy to see that it is made up of the first letters of his given name, patronymic, and surname). By the autumn of 1943, the partisan unit in which Mishakov fought had come close to Kyiv, where it joined forces with the regular units of the Soviet Army. Aleksandr Semyonovich was wounded when fighting for the liberation of the capital of Ukraine.
When he had recovered from his wound and was discharged from the hospital, he learned that his combat life was over. A decision was made to establish an institute of physical culture in Kyiv, and Aleksandr Semyonovich, as one of the most experienced teachers, was offered to head the gymnastics department.
It appeared that now Mishakov would only be a teacher and coach. He had already turned 31, and at this age, many sportsmen stop actively participating in competitions; Aleksandr Semyonovich, however, resumed his training, started to compete for the Kyiv team on a regular basis, and was included in the national team of Ukraine on many occasions. Other war veterans competed next to him on the gymnastics stage: the 1936 all-around champion of the country, Honored Master of Sports Mikhail Dmitrievich Dmitriyev, the 1939-1940 all-around champion of the country Adzhat Muratovich Ibadulayev. They did not stop actively participating in competitions until younger talented gymnasts, who, for the most part, had been raised by them, replaced them on the teams of Kyiv and Ukraine.
I learned many interesting things about Aleksandr Semyonovich from my friends. All of this made me respect him even more, and I began to have even more faith in my new mentor.
Under his guidance, we, young gymnasts, mastered new elements, learned and honed to perfection the compulsory and optional programs of masters of sports. Yet, Aleksandr Semyonovich went beyond that. Given his immense experience, he taught us the art of performance at competitions, taught us to always fight to the end, ignore individual failures, and avoid getting upset about them. And to rely primarily on ourselves and on our own skills. This is how he taught me.
Before the start of a competition, Aleksandr Semyonovich picked an opponent for me, who I had to compete with, without thinking of a place that I could take among all the participants. He would say: “You and your opponent are approximately equal in strength and preparation level, and each of you could score about 100 points. Yet, if you, Borya, beat Sergei but fail to score 100 points, then you have lost the competition; if you lose to Sergei but score 100.1 points, then I will kiss you.” And he always recommended never trying to use up all the strength for the performance during the first events — it is important to save it until the final part.
Most of the time we, Mishakov’s students, happened to go beyond his individual assignments. Moreover, we sometimes were able to score many more points than had been planned by Aleksandr Semyonovich. A bit later, we learned that our mentor had cheated a little — he had understated the potential number of points a bit. Mishakov wanted to ensure that the performance gave each of us a small joy of conquering ourselves in the first place: see, the coach had planned 100 points for me, and I did my best and scored an additional point!
The most important thing was that Semyonych always got what he wanted. He sincerely congratulated each of us on our success; we were ready to sing for joy, we wanted to come to the gym as soon as tomorrow, resume our training, and work even harder to achieve new success… However, you need rest after participating in competitions, and Aleksandr Semyonovich never allowed us to break this rule.
That was how I learned to compete according to the best gymnastics principle — to rely only on myself and try to always show the result you were ready for.
After a year of such purposeful training and study, I fulfilled the master of sports standard. It happened in the momentous year of 1952, when the Soviet gymnasts, together with representatives of other sports, debuted at the XVth Olympic Games in Helsinki. Our older peers won on all fronts, so to speak! They won gold medals among the female and male teams, and seven more individual gold medals! It was a real triumph for the Soviet school of gymnastics, whose best representatives demonstrated their high skills for the first time (remember that!) at the Olympic Games!
Five personal gold awards were won by gymnasts from Ukraine. Mariya Gorokhovska from Kharkiv became the female all-around champion, who also won silver medals on all four apparatus! Nina Bocharova from Kyiv won the balance beam title and a silver medal in the all-around competition. I knew her particularly well: Nina was a student at our Institute and had trained with Aleksandr Semyonovich for a long time. The wonderful Lviv gymnast Viktor Chukarin became the All-Around Champion of the XVth Olympic Games and the gold medalist on vault and pommel horse.
We had been in the same sports society called “Burevestnik” and trained together on many occasions as members of the student team and the national team of Ukraine. And now Viktor Chukarin has become the strongest: the winner of three gold and two silver Olympic medals! That’s who I wanted to be like in all respects, specifically the skill, the hard work, and the ability to participate in challenging competitions!
Baptism by Fire
All coaches, especially those training the country’s national teams, are constantly preoccupied with one thing — they want to have a strong, viable team today and as good a reserve for tomorrow. If there are several well-prepared sportsmen on the team who have been tested on many occasions in important competitions, the coaches try to include one or two more promising masters on the team. They make it possible for a young master to “test” himself and his moral will to compete in the unusual, tense atmosphere of important competitions and toughen up his character in difficult contests with the strongest. Ultimately, high fighting ability is the crucial factor that helps one of the sportsmen conquer the other even though they may be equally prepared in technical and physical terms.
In 1954, two years after the brilliant debut at the XVth Olympic Games in Helsinki, Soviet gymnasts also took part in a world championships for the first time. It was held in Rome. To compete at the world championships, the national team of the USSR was composed with a view to the future.
Our team leaders were renowned sportsmen, who had participated in the recent Olympics: Viktor Chukarin, Grant Shaginyan, Valentin Muratov, and Yevgeniy Korolkov. Their names were well known throughout the gymnastics world. Along with them, the country’s national team included young gymnasts who had no experience in participating in such competitions, namely Albert Azaryan, Ivan Vostrikov, and I. The task was clear without words: the top sportsmen were to compete for all-around superiority and for victories in individual events, and all of us together — for team superiority.
Do you remember me and my friends dreaming at the start of our path in Ishim that one day I might earn the right to compete for the national team of the USSR? My dream came true. I would soon be 22, almost ten years had been devoted to gymnastics. There was joy in my heart because the years given to my beloved sport were not wasted and because the hard training had helped me achieve a high level of skill.
I might still have a long way to go to reach the level of the leading team members; yet, my inclusion in the team meant that my first success had been recognized. It was nice to know that I was on the team with my old friends — I had been in college together with Ivan Vostrikov, and I had gotten acquainted and made friends with Albert Azaryan at the national championships. It is always much easier to face the first big test when you have faithful friends by your side.
Newcomers to the team got special attention from the old-timers and coaches. To ensure that we did not worry too much or get nervous, the experienced gymnasts acted at the final training sessions as if they were preparing for a usual competition, even though the world championships were a debut for them as well. By doing so, they wanted to instill confidence in us, young gymnasts: all is going well, and there is nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I asked Aleksandr Semyonovich, who was the senior coach of our team, how I should perform and what I should aspire to. He answered:
— Perform as if you were competing in a familiar environment. Let’s say, at a championship of Kyiv or even the Institute. Try not to be nervous, be more confident, you are well-prepared…
Later on, I learned that Larisa Latynina [Diriy at the time], a 19-year-old debutant for the women’s team, had approached Aleksandr Semyonovich with the same question and received the same answer. Larisa also trained in Kyiv with Mishakov and was in our Institute.
Of course, we, young gymnasts, were very much supported by the moral confidence of our older teammates: if the leaders are cool, then we need not worry either. Nevertheless, we could not get distracted from the coming challenge, no matter how hard we tried, — we lacked the competitive experience.
I was sharing a room with Albert Azaryan. On the eve of the competition, we laughed and got mad at the same time. All of a sudden, my teeth started aching, and the blisters on Albert’s palms became painful. We understood — this was caused by excessive anxiety. I brushed my teeth all the time, and Albert soaked his palms in warm water. We suffered like that until midnight, had some sleep, and at about eight in the morning, went to our apparatus together with the team.
The world championships in Rome were held in the open air, at the famous Stadio Olimpico, probably in order to gather more spectators on the spacious grandstands. Artistic gymnastics used to be very popular in Italy; Italian gymnasts were practically trendsetters in Europe. The championship organizers were now doing everything possible to rekindle the youth’s interest in our sport, to bring young people to the grandstands first and then to the gyms as well. You can say that they succeeded in that: soon after the XIIIth World Championships, good young gymnasts, champions of Europe, and Olympic champions in some events did appear in Italy.
I don’t know about the spectators on the grandstands, but we, the championship participants, scolded the organizers a bit. Shortly after the start of the competition, the merciless sun of Rome rose right above our heads, and we suffered from the heat and thirst even in the shade of the large parasols that had been placed on the green lawn near every apparatus. It was impossible to touch the apparatuses, especially the high bar: it seemed to be red-hot and literally burnt our hands. In such unusual circumstances we had not only to perform, let’s say, demonstration exercises but struggle hard for victory.
The struggle was exceptionally fierce, intense, and exciting, even though it was only in the individual events. As a team, we outperformed everyone at that time and won rather easily. Viktor Chukarin, the All-Around Champion of the XVth Olympic Games, became the all-around competition leader almost from the first apparatus. However, Valentin Muratov came very close to him in the optional portion of the competition. They competed with each other for the title of the world’s strongest gymnast, getting ahead of each other in turns.
And then Chukarin had an unfortunate accident: he had a finger dislocated when performing on vault! One would think he should have stopped the performance: there was also the high bar competition and it was both difficult and dangerous to perform that exercise with an injured hand. Yet, Chukarin could not leave us when the team victory was literally just two steps away! He taught us, young gymnasts, a real lesson in sports courage. Overcoming the pain, Viktor Chukarin finished his performance triumphantly and scored the same number of points as Valentin Muratov! Both of them became all-around world champions, which had never happened before! And, of course, they made the most significant contribution to the team’s success!
Our victory was total and undivided once again. Among the women’s teams, the national team of the USSR prevailed as well. Galina Shamray became the all-around world champion, and Tamara Manina — a champion on vault and floor exercise.
And what about us, the rookies on the national team?
We did what we could and what we were ready for. Our debut as part of the national team was recognized as successful. Albert Azaryan received the largest portion of congratulations: he immediately, on his first try, as sportsmen say, became the world champion on rings! I was able to win a silver medal on high bar. As you can see, the apparatus on which I had practiced even before I joined the gymnastics group, in our yard, brought me the first big award. In the all-around competition, we shared 4th and 5th places with Albert, in a friendly way.
First Time on a Pedestal
For me and for Albert Azaryan (our friend Ivan Vostrikov died in a car accident soon after the world championship), the performance at the world championship was of huge importance for our further work on improving our skills. And not only because we received an honorary award: Albert won gold on rings and I — silver on high bar. There were other, more serious reasons for that.
In the overall ranking, we demonstrated an equally high result. It was a sign of good preparation in the all-around competition, which is always highly regarded in the team. We were most pleased by the fact that we had only been outperformed by our older peers, the Soviet gymnasts — Viktor Chukarin, Valentin Muratov, and Grant Shaginyan.
We were right behind them. Each of us had our own standard of excellence. For me, it had long been Viktor Ivanovich Chukarin. Albert wanted to be like Grant Shaginyan, his fellow countryman from Yerevan. It is always useful for young gymnasts to have such leaders and look up to them.
Upon my return from Rome, I had some rest, but just enough to avoid losing the ability to practice and to stay in fighting shape. The summer was coming to an end, the autumn was closing in, and along with it — the all-Union gymnastics championship in Kharkiv. It was only natural for me to really want to prepare for it as well as possible; to prove, primarily to myself, that the success in Rome was not a coincidence, that I was ready for a successful struggle with the best gymnasts of our country and, therefore, the world.
Aleksandr Semyonovich also set me up for it. The coach considered the performance in Rome to be a significant milestone in the development of my skill. If only because I did not waver at the world championships, performed at the level of my readiness without any breakdowns or failures. And if I was unable to rise above fourth and fifth places, it means I still was not ready for a better result. So, I had to get rid of all the shortcomings in my preparation before the national championship and try to perform even better, at a higher technical level and with fewer errors.
My optional program had stabilized by that time and I could always expect to score well for it. The compulsory program was not yet honed to perfection. I was working very hard on it under the guidance of my coach. A great master of gymnastics must perform both programs equally well.
After thorough preparation, we arrived in Kharkiv. Before the start of the competition, I asked Aleksandr Semyonovich once again how I should compete this time. He replied without any hesitation:
— It is time you tested yourself for real. And if you do want to have someone to look up to, there are many of them — Chukarin, Muratov, Azaryan. You are ready to compete with them…
The task was quite feasible for me. Mishakov took many circumstances into account. First of all, the fact that at the world championships our leading gymnasts had borne the brunt of the struggle for the team and personal victories; it was harder for them to recover their strength over such a short period of time. The young sportsmen find it a little easier to do. We had done a very good job before the national championship, I still had fresh memories of the success in Rome, and my coach hoped that this would give me strength for the tough struggle ahead.
And now the compulsory program is over. I have been able to perform it fairly well, I am among the top five, and I’m losing just a little to those who are ahead. Aleksandr Semyonovich is happy. He said that if I was a bit more confident in the optional program, then, in his opinion, good things could still happen.
I did perform my optional program much better. Certainly, I cannot recall all my scores today. It was a long time ago; moreover, I never made calculations during the competition — I could not remember my scores and did not compare them with those of my competitors. I knew that Aleksandr Semyonovich would take it all down and then tell me where and how I performed.
The last participant left the stage, and the judges calculated the final scores of all the strongest gymnasts, those who had struggled hard for the title of the country’s all-around champion. And the first name the announcer called was mine!
I could barely resist the urge to jump up to the ceiling. So, now it’s happened! I am 22, and I have won the gold medal as the all-around champion of the USSR! For ten years, I had been consistently guided to this success by Vasiliy Alekseevich Porfiryev, Eduard Fyodorovich Rung, and Aleksandr Semyonovich Mishakov. All that time, I had not only dreamed of such a great victory but had done all I could to achieve success under the supervision of the coaches. And the dream came true.
In 1955, a new major contest appeared in the vast calendar of international gymnastics competitions — the Cup of Europe. Its regulations stated that the competitions would consist of only the optional program for two days: on the first day, the cup would be competed for in the all-around program, and on the second — participants would fight for awards in individual events; two sportsmen from each country would be allowed to participate in the Cup. (Today, this competition has been renamed to the European Championship, and three participants from each country are now admitted).
It was only natural that all European countries almost immediately started to hold national cups in the same program. In our country, they [i.e. the USSR Cup] were also held in 1955 for the first time, and since then, this has been one of the most popular competitions; becoming the owner of the National Cup is a great honor for every gymnast. At that time, I won the first competition, and Albert Azaryan took second place. Therefore, we were offered to take part in the Cup of Europe. Aleksandr Semyonovich was appointed to coach our team, which was made up of two gymnasts.
We arrived at Frankfurt am Main by plane in an excellent mood: we were ready, healthy, everything was fine, and we could enter into a struggle. We were very tired after the travel; we only got to the hotel around midnight, but there was also a good thing about it: we fell asleep right away and slept like logs without thinking about the coming competition. The testing of the apparatuses was scheduled for the following morning.
At first glance, this is a mere formality. Of course, all gymnastics apparatuses meet the international standard, but each of them will definitely have a specific feature — one will be softer, another one harder, etc. Before entering a competition, gymnasts have the right to get acquainted with the gym and the podium and test the apparatuses for the contest. To cut a long story short, it looks like an ordinary training session but the conditions are new for you, and the apparatuses are unfamiliar.
However, in the morning, over breakfast, Aleksandr Semyonovich told us that if we dreamed of victory, we would have to start the fight straight away. We will test the apparatuses and the judges will meanwhile “test” us, the participants of the competition. Even today, the judges will examine the readiness of each of us and give their preliminary scores, so to speak, and many of the scores could become final tomorrow, during the competition.
Besides, there will be quite a few sports journalists in the gym, who on the opening day of the competition will write an overview of each participant’s skills in newspapers, including their predictions; this also plays an important role in assigning the places. That is why we should not only practice but try to perform the entire program at a high technical level, and make the best possible impression on the judges, the journalists, and the spectators who will be in the gym. And, most importantly, on the opponents. Today, they should see you in full glory and consider their chances of competing with you; some of them may not fall asleep out of frustration.
Albert and I took into account the suggestions given by Aleksandr Semyonovich and did our best, without sparing any effort, when testing the apparatuses. We felt that we had made a good impression on everyone and were among the apparent favorites even before the start of the Cup.
Yet, Bantz and Dickhut, the quite strong gymnasts from the Federal Republic of Germany, were considered to be the main contenders. They would definitely have the support of the grandstands since they were performing at home. They particularly believed in the success of Helmut Bantz. The belief was so strong that even before the start of the contest, his name was engraved on the gold medal for… the victory in the all-round competition!
The reason was probably that the other contenders for the Cup of the continent, including me and Azaryan, had not yet achieved much success in the all-around competition at any international contests. Helmut Bantz was the most experienced and well-known among the participants: he took part in the XVth Olympic Games and was among the prize-winners in two events. Dickhut was also quite an experienced gymnast. Yet, there was an old truth we knew well: every victory in sports, no matter how apparent it may be at first glance, has to be won.
And so the fight began. Thirty-eight gymnasts from 19 countries came onto the stage of the huge Sporthalle, which seated about ten thousand spectators. The competition became somewhat unusual. The participants were divided into two groups only, each made up of 19 people! You had to wait for about an hour until you were called to perform an exercise. I don’t know why the organizers of the competition had decided to hold it like that. The tiring and long waiting affected everyone. Besides, to avoid cooling down completely before a call, the participants had to do an additional warm-up every 10 to 15 minutes and keep their muscles warm. Probably because of that, many of the gymnasts had failed attempts and real breakdowns. Azaryan’s morning part of the competition was not quite successful either; he found himself in tenth place. I managed to take the leading position, but Bantz and Dickhut were very close behind.
In the evening, we went to the apparatuses again to finish the all-around competition struggle in the remaining three events. This is where a thing happened that our main opponents had not expected.
Albert Azaryan started to make rapid progress. After his successful performances on the parallel bars and rings, he moved from tenth to third place! Albert overtook Dickhut and came very close to Bantz. The latter could not withstand the pressure of the fight. He performed his high bar exercise rather unsuccessfully, which allowed Azaryan to overtake him and move into first place in the all-around! At that moment, I was called to the high bar.
I performed calmly and confidently. It was only because the Cup was already ours: even if I fall down now and do not finish the exercise, the honorary European trophy will be handed over to Azaryan. Those thoughts helped me perform the routine well, keep the leading position and win first place. Albert got second place. The Cup will be given to us! Albert and I dashed to congratulate Aleksandr Semyonovich: poor man, he had to worry about both of us!
We were given the honorary trophy for the victory — the golden Cup of Europe. There was a hitch with the gold medal for the best sum in the all-around competition. As I said before, there was the name of Helmut Bantz engraved on it in advance, or rather prematurely! After some confusion, the organizers of the competition found a way out of the situation: I was awarded a gold medal with the image of a gymnast… performing a circle on the pommel horse! As I also managed to win this event, today I still keep the two gold medals from the first Cup of Europe for the exercises on the pommel horse!
In that contest, I was able to win one more event — high bar. As always, Azaryan was the best on rings. Bantz also was not left without an award — he took first place on vault. A rare thing happened with the parallel bar exercises: Azaryan, Dickhut, and I shared first place! Each of us received a gold medal.
In those days, newspapers wrote a lot about us and about our convincing victory: we took first and second place, after all. However, it was not only about our skill; journalists tried to outdo each other by inventing all kinds of comparisons. For instance, I read some funny words about myself in one of the newspapers: a Russian bear came onto the stage and started to crush everyone! I still cannot understand why I fell into the category of bears. I have an ordinary figure, and I did not stand out in any way among my peers. Albert’s figure was something! In his youth, he worked as a blacksmith, as a hammerer; you can imagine what his shoulders, hands, and chest were like! Yet, my friend was not included in the category of bears. Something different was written about him. They wrote that Azaryan’s blazing finish allowed him to sort of “pick Bantz’s pocket” and literally “rip off” a silver medal!
Two days later we were back in Moscow. My friends congratulated me at the train station; I learned from them that I had been awarded the high title of Honored Master of Sports of the USSR for the victory! On the same day, I was given the badge. The then Chairman of the All-Union Committee of Physical Culture and Sports Nikolay Nikolayevich Romanov, when handing over the badge, joked cheerfully:
— I know, Boris, that it is almost impossible to get ten points in gymnastics. So I wish for you to get scores equaling the number on your badge…
I quickly turned the badge over and looked at the number. There were three nines — 999. I laughed at the wish: who of the gymnasts would refuse to get 9.99 points!?
The year 1956 forever became a part of the history of mass movement of physical culture and sports in our country: it was the year when the First Spartakiad of the peoples of the USSR took place! Millions of young men and women participated under its program in competitions for their physical culture teams, in their towns and villages. And all of the strongest sportsmen had one dream — to have the right to compete for the teams of their Republics in final competitions in Moscow, at the new and wonderful stadium named after V.I. Lenin in Luzhniki. It is clear that I also had this dream.
By this time, I had learned an old truth: it is hard to become a champion of the country but it is even harder to keep this high title. I first managed to win the gold medal of All-Around National Champion in 1954, and the next year I had to add the prefix “ex” to my title. Our veteran, our wonderful gymnast from Lviv Viktor Chukarin was honored with this high title for the fourth time. It is quite natural that the only thing I wanted at the Spartakiad was to get my champion title back. I probably would have been able to do that. I fought for it on an equal footing with Muratov and Chukarin until the last event. Yet, at the very end of my performance, an unfortunate incident happened.
My final event was rings. I was confidently doing the routine, performed the “cross,” which I previously found difficult to do, quite well. And at that moment one of the supporters or friends shouted:
— Good, Borya! Well done!
I wish he had kept his elation to himself! I don’t know why, but this shout made me lose control of my actions for a moment; I got distracted from the routine and, while performing the next, rather simple, element, messed up and was punished by the judges for that. An old rule was confirmed: when performing on an apparatus, never, not even for a moment, get distracted from the most important thing — constant control over your actions, over the entirety of the routine. Nevertheless, despite this failure, I managed to take third place in the all-around after Valentin Muratov and Viktor Chukarin.
Third place also made me the number three on the national team of the USSR. We started to work on the main task of the season — thorough preparation for competing at the XVIth Olympic Games. They were to take place in late November far from our Motherland, in the Australian city of Melbourne. We all wanted to repeat the golden success of the XVth Olympic Games. Of those who had won the victory in Helsinki, there were only two veterans left on our team — our captain Viktor Chukarin and Valentin Muratov. As you can see, essentially a young team was going to Melbourne.
We arrived at the city of the Olympics in advance, three weeks before the actual start of the competition. Our country and Australia are located in different hemispheres, have different climatic conditions, and are in different time zones. In order to perform well at the contest, we had to get used to the local conditions and get rid of the jet lag.
We continued to practice hard in Melbourne. The local zoo became our favorite place where we had a rest. There we could observe, almost in natural conditions, a very interesting world of animals, which can only be seen in Australia: the kangaroo, the marsupial bear koala, the wild dog Dingo…
Then the competitions began. After the compulsory program, our national team was ahead in the team competition, albeit by a very narrow margin. The best result in the all-around competition was demonstrated by the leader of the Japanese team Ono Takashi, which was a surprise to everybody. Viktor Chukarin and Yuri Titov, our team’s youngest sportsman from Kyiv, were close behind. Valentin Muratov and Helmut Bantz, whom I knew from the Cup of Europe and who was performing quite successfully, kept their chances of struggling for victory in the all-around ranking…
Here, I would like to make a small digression and tell about Viktor Chukarin, our captain, in more detail, so you could understand why he became my idol.
Viktor Ivanovich Chukarin is the most amazing and unequaled gymnast of those I have ever met on the podium. I already mentioned that he started doing gymnastics in Zhdanov, a smallish coastal town in the Donetsk region. Then he was in the Kyiv College of Physical Education and fulfilled the master of sports standard just before the war. Viktor was 19 years old then, and many specialists thought that the talented young man could replace Adzhat Ibadulayev, a two-time all-around national champion from Kyiv, who in those years was the country’s renowned master. They started to train together; the veteran shared his vast experience with the young successor and prepared him for the title of champion. However, the war made adjustments to the young gymnast’s plans and delayed the realization of his dream for a long time.
In 1941, during the heroic defense of Kyiv, Chukarin was captivated, and his long wanderings in Hitler’s concentration camps began. I could not understand just how he had managed to survive. Maybe it was his iron health strengthened by his gymnastics exercises that saved Chukarin from imminent death.
In 1945, after the victorious end of the Great Patriotic War, Viktor finally regained his long-awaited freedom. He returned to his home in Zhdanov. As early as the next year, he entered the Lviv Institute of Physical Culture to pursue higher pedagogical education and, of course, to return to active training sessions and gymnastics performances.
That was a bold move. Many specialists thought that Chukarin was never to become a great gymnast. He was 25, and it is really difficult at this age to repeatedly fulfill, after a long break (which was almost five years long!), the master of sports standard. As far as more significant achievements are concerned… They just seemed impossible.
However, the skeptics were mistaken. They knew little about Chukarin, his strong character, and his unbreakable will to win. Viktor established for himself a tough training schedule and lifestyle routine. Every day at six in the morning sharp, he already was at his first individual training session, and in the afternoon, he practiced together with other gymnasts from the Institute, in the group of Pavel Timofeyevich Sobenko, Head of the Gymnastics Department. Predisposed to obesity, Viktor did not allow himself to eat an extra slice of bread, drink an extra glass of kvass (a fermented beverage made from rye bread), or fruit juice, although you feel particularly thirsty after a training session. He steadfastly adhered to his exceptionally strict schedule, practiced a lot and persistently, and finally won!
In 1949, at the age of 28 (!), Viktor Chukarin became the all-around champion of the USSR for the first time, and then won this high title three more times; in 1952, he was the first Soviet gymnast to win the title of All-Around Champion of the XVth Olympic Games and won two more gold medals — on vault and pommel horse; in 1954, together with Valentin Muratov, he became the all-around world champion.
In Melbourne, almost all of us, gymnasts of the national team, called Chukarin “Viktor Ivanovich”; shortly before the opening of the Games here, in Melbourne, our captain had turned 35. He was a real veteran, the elder of our team both in terms of his training experience and age. And now, he had a difficult battle to fight for the title of All-Around Champion of the XVIth Olympic Games against young opponents who were full of eagerness and energy.
When performing the final events of the optional program, Titov, Muratov, and Bantz fell behind significantly and could not put up resistance to the leaders; everything was now being decided in the battle of the two leaders — Chukarin and Ono. The Japanese gymnast was ahead. And now it was time for floor exercise — our team’s final event. Before the performance, Viktor Chukarin came up to Aleksandr Semyonovich and asked him:
— What score will guarantee the victory?
— 9.65 points, — answered Mishakov without blinking an eye.
Our elder mulled it over and withdrew into himself. It was not an easy situation to think about. We needed a high score, this was the final event of the program, and Viktor Ivanovich was rather tired; floor exercise requires significant and long-lasting strain from the gymnast. Will there be enough strength to avoid an unfortunate mistake?
Chukarin was called to the podium, and we saw a focused and strong-willed fighter. Viktor Ivanovich performed the exercise rather accurately; with anxiety, we counted the insignificant errors and inaccuracies no one is immune to. The judges’ score was 9.55 points. Chukarin’s head lowered sadly and… he found himself up in the air in our arms: we tossed our captain, our two-time All-Around Champion of the Olympic Games in celebration! Visibly upset, Ono Takashi came up and congratulated his opponent on the victory. The Japanese gymnast was… 0.05 point behind!
So what happened?
Aleksandr Semyonovich, who was the senior coach of our team, knew well that Viktor Ivanovich was an experienced and strong-willed sportsman, that he could go into a difficult battle “with his visor up,” that is, knowing beforehand the score he needed to get (while many gymnasts prefer to perform “blindly”). Mishakov had deliberately overstated Chukarin’s score by one-tenth of a point, so that the gymnast could concentrate as much as possible on performing the final exercise. And, as you can see, he was right: our captain did not flinch at the crucial moment and once again proved that he was capable of winning in the most critical situations. Not many people are capable of that…
Unfortunately, for various reasons, I was not meant to fight for victory in the all-around competition at that time. My only chance to win an Olympic champion medal then was on pommel horse. To do that, I had to have a rather strenuous battle with… Ono Takashi! After the compulsory program, our scores were equal. I decided to perform the optional routine in a cheerful manner, so to speak, and ventured to include in it an ending that was rather complicated in those days, the so-called “Shaginyan’s pinwheel.” The risk paid off. I was able to overtake Ono by… 0.05 point again, which earned me a gold medal on pommel horse.
At the XVIth Olympic Games in Melbourne, our male gymnastics team performed best of all. We won the team victory. Viktor Chukarin was awarded gold medals for the all-around competition and on parallel bars. Valentin Muratov — for floor exercise and vault. Albert Azaryan — for rings. I — for pommel horse. Takashi Ono won only high bar. That was a real success for our school of gymnastics.
It was something to be happy about and proud of! Only Yuri Titov often sighed, looking at his new badge of Honored Master of Sports. I asked my fellow countryman why he was sad.
— You see what the situation is, — answered Yuri. — I had barely received my Master of Sports badge or worn it at least once when I was awarded a new title…
I will tell about the educative path of my friend in gymnastics a bit later. Now I would like to explain what happened. In 1956, a memorable year for Titov, his sport-related affairs turned out literally like in a fairy tale. In April, he fulfilled his Master of Sports standard for the first time. In late November of the same year, he was awarded the title of Honored Master of Sports of the USSR for his excellent performance at the XVIth Olympic Games. After all, Yura did a very good job: not only did he bring our team a bronze medal for third place in the all-around competition, but also the second largest sum of points after Viktor Ivanovich Chukarin; in this way, he made a significant contribution in the fight for the tough team victory. The Honored Master of Sports badge was handed over to Yuri right there, in Melbourne; yet, he still had not received his Master of Sports badge: it was awaiting its owner in Kyiv, which my friend was very sorry about. I laughed at his words and said:
— I hope you never know a greater sorrow in your life!..