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.
BASEBALL July 13, 2010 The NL beat the AL 3-1 in the All-Stars exhibition game. Held at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in California, the game was preceded with a short memorial honoring George Steinbrenner who had died early that morning. The AL fielded the likes of Derek Jeter (SS-Yankees), Ichiro Suzuki (OF-Mariners) and Mariano Rivera (P-Yankees), while the AL brought out David Wright (3B-Mets), Albert Pujols (1B-Cardinals) and Roy Halladay (P-Phillies).
SOCCER July 2, 2000 France defeats Italy 2-1 at the UEFA European Championship. It was their 2nd title at the quadrennial extravaganza, which has been held since 1960 to determine the continent’s best national team; Germany and Spain are tied at the top with 3 wins each. One of the most exciting finals in tournament history, France equalized a goal in the closing minute of official time to send the game into overtime and then land a ‘golden goal’ in sudden death.
TENNIS July 7, 1990 Martina Navratilova claims a record 9th Wimbledon singles title after defeating her American opponent, Zina Garrison, 6-4, 6-1. It was Navratilova’s last career grand slam singles after compiling 17 victories since her first one at Wimbledon in 1978. Considered one of the greatest female athletes in the game, the Czech-born and U.S.-naturalized tennis star was ranked No. 1 in singles for a total of 332 weeks, and No. 1 in doubles for a total 237 weeks.
BOXING July 7, 1980 Larry Holmes knocks out Scott LeDoux in the 7th round to retain his WBC Heavyweight title. It was the 35th professional and undefeated bout for the Georgia native who swung one of the fiercest left jabs in boxing history. Holmes battled the greatest heavyweights of his era and he would defeat Muhammad Ali in the 10th round just 3 months after his encounter with LeDoux. The “Easton Assassin” retired in 2002 after posting a career record of 75-69-6.