Yelena Mukhina:
Grown-up Games

Ogonyok magazine
Conducted by Oksana Polonskaya
Translated by Beth Squires


Behind me is an enormous gym bathed in white light, as in an operating room. Thousands of people are in the stands. Everyone is looking at the platform, where a little girl with tousled bangs is soaring through the air. The deathly white light of the floodlights produces practically no shadows. Yet what is happening behind me is shadows. Black and white images of people who have long gone their separate ways to great and small destinies. Behind me is a reinforced concrete wall, on the wall is pink flowered wallpaper, and on the wallpaper is a large photograph of an enormous gym, thousands of people in the stands, and a girl with tousled bangs is flying, flying, and it seems that she will never be able to land. She sits in front of me in a wheelchair, her hands resting on its arms, her hair neatly combed, and she is even slightly made up. She is Elena Mukhina.

Petrovsko-Razumovsky Way. A labyrinth of old Moscow courtyards... And in the very heart of this labyrinth of countless buildings, addresses written as fractions on the walls, puddles, fences, and curves there is an apartment building. A castle, a fortress, where in a two-room apartment a fate is imprisoned, a fate which many would like to forget and not bring up again, having stricken it from the official history of Soviet sports as if nothing ever happened. The leaders of the industry that produces champions have hidden from people not only the tragedy of a young girl, but much more - the conscience and shame of our sports, supposedly "the most humane in the world."

...In the entire eight years that have passed since the fateful injury suffered by Mukhina at the training camp in Minsk only two weeks before the start of the Moscow Olympics, the newspaper "Sovetsky Sport" has mentioned her twice - the first time in a brief report that Elena Mukhina had suffered an injury and in all probability would not be able to participate in the Olympic competitions, and the second time when the president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, awarded her an Olympic Order in 1982.

There are things that cannot be learned quickly. Sometimes it takes a whole lifetime to grasp simple and clear truths. The eight years that have passed since that tragic day that split Lena's life into past and present, memories and immobility, youth and maturity are enough time to draw a lesson from what happened. And today it is finally time to talk about the inhumanity of top-level competitive sports. This is not a pleasant topic. For long years we have tried to sidestep it or, as a last resort, the officials in charge of top-level sports have offhandedly uttered some edifying words, thinking to themselves that there was no need to delve deeply into it.

... Lena's grandmother, Anna Ivanovna, the girl's only and most solid support in life, opened the door to me. On top of all the misfortunes that have fallen upon her, Lena is an orphan. When she was five years old there was a fire in the building and her mother burned to death. Lena wasn't home at the time, but by the time she came back everything had already been cleaned up and all traces of the recent disaster had practically been eradicated. Only her mother was never there anymore.

Lena was sitting in her wheelchair. "Come in." Her voice was quiet, so you had to listen attentively. It was femininely pleasant and soft.

She had refused for a long time before agreeing to our meeting. She agreed only when we had established that the article wouldn't be about her, but about sports.

"I was waiting for the fame to pass. I didn't need it anymore. Letters? Yes, people wrote letters. But they were stupid for the most part. They kept asking when I would return to competition. And I wanted only one thing: to be left alone. Of course, those people weren't to blame for the fact that they were being deceived - after all, it was obvious right away that I would never return to a normal life, let alone to sports. Yes, they were being deceived. The fans had been trained to believe in athletes' heroism - athletes with fractures return to the soccer field and those with concussions return to the ice rink. Why? For what purpose? In order to report that 'the task of the Homeland has been completed'?"

For what purpose?

"Two things are necessary in order for a country to become fascinated with bullfighting," Hemingway wrote. "First, the bulls have to be bred in that country, and second, its people have to be interested in death."

Any comparison or parallel is relative, as everyone knows. But still, these words from the book Death in the Afternoon disturbed me and led my thoughts around in circles. Are the bulls athletes? Is sport a bullfight? Death? What nonsense! Bred in that country...

But then in the impassable thicket of logical intricacies, the parallel I was seeking crackled like a dry twig in my hands. "The prestige of the nation is a flight to the moon and an Olympic medal," said another American, US President John F. Kennedy. Aptly said. And for our country, athletic successes and victories have always meant somewhat more than even simply the prestige of the nation. They embodied (and embody) the correctness of the political path we have chosen, the advantages of the system, and they are becoming a symbol of superiority. Hence the demand for victory - at any price. As for risk, well... We've always placed a high value on risk, and a human life was worth little in comparison with the prestige of the nation; we've been taught to believe this since childhood.

"It happened on July 3, at a workout at the Minsk Palace of Sport. My coach Mikhail Klimenko had gone away for a few days and I was left with the coaches of the national team - virtually with no one. But that's not the point. The injury was still inevitable. Not necessarily that it had to happen on that day. I think they'd even have carried me off the competition floor. Because I just wasn't able to do that element. What good is it to tumble into a foam pit two times, without really understanding anything and without any coordination, and then immediately go up onto the platform? Especially since I had broken my take-off leg at a competition in 1979 and was doing the somersault badly. But the race was on - the Olympics were coming up. The doctors? What about the doctors... They aren't there to serve health, but to serve sports. I asked, 'Don't discharge me from TsITO [Central Institute of Traumatology and Orthopedics], they're dragging me from home to workouts.' They removed the cast and I was walking crookedly. They took an X-ray and it turned out that the bones had separated. I was on the operating table right after lunch. My coach came the next day and said that I wasn't conscientious and that I could train in a cast...

"I was stupid. I really wanted to justify the trust put in me and be a heroine. While I was in the cast I gained weight. I had to get rid of it. Everything was rushed again. I would come to TsSKA [Central Army Sports Club] two hours early and rush around the gym like a crazy person. The workout would just be beginning and I didn't have a drop of strength left. I was so tired then, both physically and psychologically."

When Lena fell for the last time her first thought was "Thank God, I won't be going to the Olympics."

She fell on her chin, bending like a ruler that had been pressed onto the table at one end and forcefully pulled upward at the other. The ruler broke right at the base. Her cervical vertebrae crunched. Lena felt no pain.

The pain came later, at the hospital, when the doctors kept conferring and deliberating, while the time during which it was still possible to at least attempt to restore or fix something, at least to try, slipped by in long, thick moments, minutes, hours, and days, flowing away like hot porridge. She very much wanted to die. But they wouldn't let her.

"Who pushed you?" the doctor asked at the hospital.

From the newspapers: "Lena Mukhina was crying. The pain was squeezing out the tears. Lena had struck the beam with such force that everything went dark before her eyes. It was very painful to stand on her leg. But she still had one last event - the floor exercises. She made a decision and ordered herself, 'You must work! You must give your all!' And she went out on the mat... Klimenko was terribly pleased: 'I see her as a real fighter. She has character, that she does!'"

"...Mikhail Klimenko came to women's gymnastics from men's and has firmly mastered techniques that are more complex than the women's. He is a believer in reason and logic. The way to achieve boldness is through mental conviction, through the brain to the muscles..."

"... Do you know when I get really scared? When I watch my bars routine on television..."

If humanity is divided into children and grownups, and life into childhood and maturity, then there are very many children and a whole lot of childhood in life. Only we, immersed in our own struggle and our own concerns, don't notice them... We have arranged things in such a way as to have children interfere with us as little as possible and to guess what we really are as rarely as possible. These words were said a long time ago by a pedagogue who won universal recognition. But the point is that these words have not yet lost their relevance. On the contrary, when applied to sports, they have acquired an ominous and ugly nuance. I'll permit myself to offer the following allegory: a healthy and cheerful person (nowadays it is a child with increasing frequency) gets into the brightly painted, classy, and attractive car of top-level competitive sports. The car whirls him around in circles and at first it seems enjoyable, like a fun amusement park ride, but the speed gets ever faster, the centrifugal force ever stronger, and the pressure ever greater. Then, when the car finally stops, it discharges an invalid, crippled both physically and psychologically. Physically because you can't write off the numerous dislocations, fractures, and concussions. Psychologically because after having gotten used to living amid universal attention and esteem, the person is not able to adjust to living at a lower level and so after retiring he feels totally unneeded.

"If only we started sports at age 16-18, when a person can consciously choose his path, but at age 9 or 10 we don't see anything around us except sports, in which our interest is so skillfully kindled. It seems to us that it's some kind of special world. We don't yet know how narrow that three-dimensional existence of the gym, home, and competitions is. And even though athletes get to travel and see so much, they are terribly deprived spiritually. Work, work, work. Nothing exists except work and pressure, which constantly increase, and sometimes it seems that that's it, you haven't got any more strength. But my coach once told me, 'Until you break, no one will let you go.'

"I got so used to conquering myself - I don't want to, I'm scared, musn't eat, musn't drink - that in the first years after the injury, when all I could do was lie around, it seemed weird that nothing was required of me. I so needed those feelings of having some sort of control that I began to starve myself for no reason at all. To torture myself. Out of habit..."

I often remember an episode from the life of our renowned Olympic figure skating champion Irina Rodnina. Remember when she fell out of a lift during training and hit her head on the ice and was taken to the hospital with a serious concussion, and then a few days later she competed anyway and won, our courageous little woman Rodnina. Quite a few newspaper articles were written then lauding her courage, television films were made, and even books were written. But I ask myself again and again, for what purpose was it necessary to make her go out on the ice in a semi-conscious condition? If she did it of her own free will, then who hypnotized her with the idea that "Moscow is behind us," "there's no room to retreat"? After all, it wasn't a war! Sport is a noble endeavor!

"There are such concepts as the honor of the club, the honor of the team, the honor of the national squad, the honor of the flag. They are words behind which the person isn't perceived. I'm not condemning anyone or blaming anyone for what happened to me. Not Klimenko or especially the national team coach at that time, Shaniyazov. I feel sorry for Klimenko - he's a victim of the system, a member of the clan of grownups who are 'doing their job.' Shaniyazov I simply don't respect. And the others? I was injured because everyone around me was observing neutrality and keeping silent. After all, they saw that I wasn't ready to perform that element. But they kept quiet. Nobody stopped a person who, forgetting everything, was tearing forward - go, go, go!"

One cannot say that the current changes under way in our life have not affected sports, for instance, artistic gymnastics. For example, its officials have decided that from now on it will be more pleasing to the eye and more womanly. In other words, on the platform we won't see little girls with the bodies of kindergarteners, but... This was stated most assuredly by the head of the gymnastics administration of the USSR State Sports Committee, Leonid Arkaev, at a press conference dedicated to the opening of the latest Moscow News competition. With pride he mentioned the names of female gymnasts whom we have seen performing for several years now, but who, no offense meant to them, despite their age still bear little resemblance to women. At the same press conference he went on to say that in contemporary artistic gymnastics today there is not a single athlete performing at the world level who has not been injured. True, he added that this was not for the press (what a concept: not for the press at a press conference!) We nodded our heads obediently. But I still allowed myself to cite this revelation because, first of all, that's the nature of the times, and second, because I'm sure that it won't reflect on Arkaev's career in any way. Who is interested in injuries when our school of gymnastics is in the vanguard of world sports? There's no stopping a steamroller, as they say.

The picky reader may object that in the West and abroad, athletes are subjected to the same conditions, they also have to take risks and sacrifice their health. Yes, I am forced to agree. But there is a small "but." Over there the athletes do it for the sake of incredible amounts of money, for a secure future for themselves and their families. Here we have been duping people for so long with the false notion that our sports are of an amateur nature that it was totally incomprehensible - why do they do it? So that the State Sports Committee functionaries could give proud reports...

I certainly do not mean to blame sports - a beautiful and noble invention of mankind - for all sins. Moreover, one of the main achievements of the new socioeconomic system was sports, sports of a mass nature, accessible to one and all. But gradually, like, incidentally, many other areas of our life, sports have moved from the everyday sphere to May Day parade grounds and the frames of cheery, uplifting movies. A false mass nature has been established. Inflated figures for the number of recreational athletes, a dead national fitness program which people are trying in vain to revive, run-down stadiums, a lack of any kind of athletic wear. And against this background are the brilliant victories, raised flags, and tears in the eyes of the victors.

"To the mentors who have preserved our youth..." Sports are the domain of the young. But behind them are fully grown people playing fully grown-up games. They have to change their attitude toward sports. Or they have to be changed, i.e., replaced. For the fate of Elena Mukhina is only the tip of an enormous iceberg of crippled fates. Let's think about this.

Thanks to Beth Squires for the contribution


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