The Soviet Sports Machine- Faded Glory
The bygone Soviet era of the 1950’s & 60’s produced the most successful Olympian in modern history, that is until Michael Phelps touched the swimming pool wall at the 2012 London games to win his 19th medal.
For 48 years, gymnast Larisa Semyonovna Latynina led the world as the most decorated athlete of the quadrennial events, racking up a total of 18 gold, silver and bronze accolades in her illustrious career.
In the course of three Olympiads- 1956, 1960, 1964- she emerged as either the highest or second highest medalist of the tournaments.
Born in 1934 in the Ukraine, Latynina was trained, disciplined and shaped by the USSR’s indomitable sports machine that also manufactured Lev Yashin, the greatest soccer goalkeeper of the 20th Century, if not of all time.
From 1994-2010, the World Cup recognition for best goalie was even bestowed as the “Yashin Award” before being rebranded the “Golden Glove”.
Until Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” started fragmenting in the early 1990’s, the communist motherland topped the medals count at each Olympics either in aggregate as a nation, or through an individual.
But with satellite republics going their own way, the former USSR was also stripped of some of its best contenders.
Gymnast Vitaly Scherbo, the winningest Olympian at the 1992 Barcelona games, typified the Soviet athlete caught in a changing political landscape. He first represented the USSR, then the Unified Team, then Belarus.
Alexei Nemov, elite medalist in both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, is regarded as the last of the Soviets and the first of the Russians- stern old school discipline giving way to personality and individualism.
The new millennium was not sympathetic to Russia’s former athletic achievements. Starting 2004 in Athens and through 2016 in Rio, Russia took second, third or fourth place in country medals. Individual athletes barely even made the charts at the summer Olympics.
However, this period coincided with the arrival of Vladimir Putin as Moscow's strongman, a former KGB and nostalgic cold warrior who also happens to be an avid sportsman.
His personal involvement in managing the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi was not just a goodwill exhibition to showcase Russia to the world, but an opportunistic moment to restore the country’s faded glory, at any cost.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Russia’s leading performance in Sochi was fueled by the biggest known doping scandal in sports history.
BASKETBALL November 28, 2009 The Los Angeles Lakers defeat the Golden State Warriors 130-97 at Golden State. The Lakers would wrap up the season with a 57-25 record and go on to defend their title at the NBA Championship by overtaking the Boston Celtics 4-3. Kobe Bryant, star player on the Lakers roster, played all 7 games, averaging 28.6 ppg and taking home the MVP award.
BOXING November 20, 1999 Junior middleweight fighter Stephan Johnson fights Paul Vaden in Atlantic City for a $10,000 purse. Johnson is knocked out with two punches in the 10th round and falls immediately into a coma. Despite hospital efforts, he never recovers and dies less than three weeks later on December 7th. The 154-pounder who lived and trained in New York City turned pro in 1987.
FOOTBALL November 26, 1989 The Saskatchewan Roughriders defeat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 43-40 to win the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup. Finishing only 9-9 for the season, the Roughriders were underdogs going into the 77th annual Grey Cup championship. With the game tied at 40-40 and only 9 seconds left in the 4th quarter, they clinched the title with a 26-yard field goal.
BASEBALL November 19, 1979 Nolan Ryan signs a record 4-year, $4.5 Million contract with the Houston Astros. The gifted pitcher who hurled consistent throws at 100 mph and above remained a force on the mound into his 40’s. Ryan started off with the NY Mets where he won the World Series in 1969 before moving on to the Angels, Astros and Rangers. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.