Labour of Patriotism
Female Soviet Gymnasts' Physical and Ideological
By WENDY VARNEY
 "Smile! Otherwise, the spectator will see how hard you're working,
and the illusion will be lost"
(coach Renald Knysh to Olga Korbut).
 Soviet women gymnasts enjoyed world
dominance in their sport from 1952 until the collapse of the Soviet Union
almost 40 years later. But the celebration of this success hides another aspect
of their efforts, which constituted a form of labor. This labor was used on
behalf of the state in pursuit of political, ideological and economic outcomes.
The accomplishments of elite female gymnastics workers were harnessed for
a range of purposes, including establishment of a particular norm for Soviet
womanhood, provision of cultural gloss and distortion for domestic failings
within the USSR, and service as a mechanism of foreign policy. Several factors
provided the foundations for the sport to be able to serve these multi-purposes.
Most notable among these were developments in relation to the role of sport
in Soviet society and the triumph of an exploitive approach to women.
 The role played by Soviet
women gymnasts affirms the strength of the relationships that can exist between
culture and politics. Ann Chisholm has identified an ideology directing areas
of national identity associated with the 1996 US Olympic women's gymnastics
team. Interestingly, the nature of the relationship between sport and state
apparatuses in the Soviet Union allowed a more complex and entrenched set
of ideologies as well as somewhat more blatant uses by the state.
 In different cultures and
during different historical periods women have had varying relationships with
labor, resulting from patriarchal attitudes towards women and problematic
distribution of power along class, gendered and other lines. The labor of
sportswomen does not escape this, especially where the state is heavily involved
in sport, as it was throughout the Eastern Bloc (Magdalinski). This paper,
while by no means a definitive account of the extent to which female gymnasts'
labor was utilised under the Soviet regime between 1952 and 1991, sets out
an argument that the close relationship between the state and sport, together
with unresolved contradictions in relation to the role of women in Soviet
society, led to a situation which, on the one hand, strongly facilitated exploitation
of female gymnasts by the state and, on the other hand, made only weak allowance
for any challenge short of withdrawal from elite gymnastics at its highest
 I further argue that the
seeds for the exploitation of female Soviet gymnasts' labor were sown in the
period from 1917 to 1951 when, in the early period particularly, several struggles
took place. First, there was the struggle over the nature of sport and the
role it should play in the new Soviet society. Parallel with that struggle
were conflicting notions about women and the role they should play. Should
the Soviets prioritise their emancipation or initially utilise women's labor
in the hope that women would eventually benefit from the vastly different
society envisaged? They opted to put the oppression of women on the backburner,
presumably to be addressed at some future stage of socialism if need be.
 Internationally, meanwhile,
gymnastics itself, as a sport with roots in notional equations between strong
bodies and strong national defence, was undergoing changes to solidify its
image as a rationalised competitive sport rather than a somewhat tenuous adjunct
to national defence. This was women's chance to establish a role for themselves
within gymnastics but that was no easy task, with competing ideas about whether
women had a right to participate in sport and whether they should do so for
reasons beyond matters of reproductive health, which was a major ground for
claims for women's participation in sport (Lenskyj).
 Strands from these significant
struggles came together to help give form to women's gymnastics in the Soviet
Union and in the development of a new Soviet "sports worker" which emerged
from the Soviet Union's inclusion in the Olympic Games from 1952. Against
this backdrop, I will argue that elite female gymnasts performed labor for
the Soviet regime that fell across three main categories. First, they were
role models for domestic inspiration within the USSR; secondly, their images
were used abroad as ambassadors of exemplary Soviet citizenry and sometimes
as signals of Soviet foreign policy; and thirdly, they were later a resource
by which much needed hard currency could be attained.
 Perhaps most interesting in the mix of
these duties is the way in which female Soviet gymnasts had to embody contradictions
and somehow resolve them. If the Soviet state was torn between utopian rhetoric
and pragmatic rivalry with the West, it was on the gymnastic apparatus that
this tussle climaxed, with female gymnasts unwittingly reconciling conflicting
notions of traditional and modern; industrial and artistic; delicacy and strength;
female "incapacity" and Soviet accomplishment in spite of such incapacity.
Sport: Leisure or Labor?
 Soviet women's gymnastic
labor needs to be seen within a theoretical framework which acknowledges the
existence of labor beyond the formal workplace, the demarcation of labor,
and the unspoken code of values which maintains both of these fairly rigidly.
This is true of not only the Soviet Union, although that country developed
its own peculiarities in relation to women, labor and justification for gendered
inequalities in relation to burdens and opportunities.
 Anne Oakley has argued that
many women's rights were eroded by the emergence of a new commercialistic
society, which overturned pre-existing doctrines about sex roles (10-11).
Upheavals in the power of the Church, which fostered new opinions on women,
marriage and the home, aggravated this erosion, as did the subsequent Puritanism.
While sex discrimination had certainly existed before then, in Europe the
discrimination worsened and most small benefits enjoyed by, say, women artisans,
disappeared from the 16th Century. Industrialization tended to
entrench views of sex roles and sharply delineate the boundaries between men's
and women's work, almost invariably to women's disadvantage. Cynthia Cockburn
has demonstrated how work cultures have played a strong part in buttressing
the gendered demarcation in the workplace.
 Women's work does not end
in the workplace, of course. Women perform the bulk of work undertaken in
the domestic sphere and both this and many paid jobs include a great deal
of invisible work such as nurturing, listening, problem-solving and conciliation.
Marilyn Waring has pointed out that the world economy has been built around
an assessment of micro economies where much of women's labor is ignored. Shona
Thompson has shown that the same pattern is evident in the production of sport,
where women expend huge amounts of invisible labor in sustaining sport, mainly
for the benefit of men. However, women's labor as production of sport itself
needs to be taken into account, as this also has a degree of invisibility
about it, especially when seen as play, as is the case in women's gymnastics
where the performers are expected to conceal their hard work (Haug).
 There has been a strong
debate about whether sport constitutes work in either that there are numerous
correspondences between the two categories, or that rules that apply at work
are so entrenched in other forms of life that sport becomes virtually identical
with labor. William Morgan criticizes both approaches for not allowing more
agency, a criticism that may be less pertinent when applied to Soviet sport
where opportunities for agency by participants appear to have been weak. Clearly,
there are differences between the two approaches that cannot be adequately
canvassed here, much as they impinge on the question of sport as labor in
the Soviet Union. The basic question is whether professional sportspeople
– and here I most certainly include Soviet sportspeople who were helped to
retain an "amateur" status but who were unquestionably sporting people first
and foremost – are involved in the production of some commodity or service
in identical or very similar ways to other sorts of workers. I uphold that
they are, though ironically the production of the service or commodity of
sport is much more highly developed in the West, while the overseeing of the
sports worker in the Soviet Union was much more akin to other workers at the
level of production.
 This does not detract from
the emphasis by some on the ideological aspects of sports work which also
demand that it be viewed as labor, for the production of goods and services
and the production of ideologies which uphold or legitimize the economic system
are linked closely. Certainly the work ethic in particular is crucial at both
levels and is evident in sporting elites, as Beder (141) points out.
 There may be an instinctive
objection to viewing the frequently coquettish behaviour of gymnasts as labor.
Often it looks like art, sometimes like frivolity, but seldom like labor.
I can only point to the heavy training, significant injury toll, burnout and
a range of social ramifications from the burden on gymnasts to suggest that
this is a very serious business indeed, despite the masking smiles. Many of
the workplace factors for gymnasts closely resemble the detrimental workplace
factors for many other female workers, particularly in relation to overuse
injuries, harassment, arduous workloads, dangerous work practices and undemocratic
work relationships (Ryan).
 Such problems are magnified
when we remember that many elite gymnasts and those training to be elite gymnasts
are children. Accordingly, Peter Donnelly has extended the argument that not
only do sportspeople engage in genuine labor but that the circumstances under
which children perform much of this labor are in breach of codes which apply
to other workplaces but not yet sport. While acknowledging that the oppression
involved is usually far less than is the case of, say, bonded child laborers
in some Third World countries, Donnelly nonetheless suggests a number of similarities,
as well as ways in which child sporting elites fall through the net provided
for children workers in other fields. These include long working hours, bullying
and undue work pressures. Again, there may have been more aggravations in
the case of Soviet gymnasts. The Soviet Union was renowned for finding and
identifying gymnastic talent at an early age and in starting the young gymnasts
in intensive programs to maximise their potential while they were still physically
and socially malleable. More recently this is also true of many gymnastics
programs in the West.
 However, Soviet gymnasts
were arguably more at risk due to the centralized nature of their sporting
organizations and the state's capacity to make strong and seemingly coherent
demands on its citizens in relation to the destiny of its young. Most such
demands went unchallenged in a climate where the family was seen as less private
and more public than was the case in capitalist industrialized countries and
where people had learned the seeming futility of resisting. The prioritizing
of public over private was the reverse of attitudes in the West where the
celebration of individualism has often brought its own problems to sporting
issues, particularly with regard to diminished community responsibility, a
reverence for rivalry and a condonation of greed. Ironically, from time to
time the USSR also had to deal with aspects of these issues, since the West
set the cultural standards for much of the globe and not just capitalism,
in the post-WWII period. More generally, as James Riordan points out, whereas
sport in liberal capitalist society is viewed essentially as a concern of
individuals, under Marxist ideology sport is "part of the social superstructure
and therefore strongly influenced by the prevailing relations of production"
(57). The Soviet emphasis on private sacrifice for the public good brought
specific problems, especially under and following Stalinism.
 Added to this was the problem
of the "extras" that are taken for granted with respect to female labor. Arlie
Hochschild has shown in her sociological study of airline attendants that
women, in some occupations at least, are expected to give of themselves in
ways that are beyond normal service. They are expected to smile and show extraordinary
levels of care and cheerfulness that may be in direct contrast to how they
are feeling in a work environment that is often onerous and demanding. This
is applicable to female gymnasts whose displays are designed to conceal the
level of difficulty and long monotonous training that has honed those skills.
Jan Wright notes that this is in stark contrast to the male gymnasts' performances,
in which "there is no expectation that they should give of themselves, reveal
their feelings, win an audience" (61).
 Thus gender, age, relations
between the state and the individual and much else were heavily implicated
in the nature of the labor of Soviet female gymnasts. Before discussing the
implications of these interconnecting factors in the period 1952 to 1991,
it is essential to understand the distinctive role that the state played in
sport in the Soviet Union, as well as its attitudes towards women and, lastly,
the shifts that were occurring concurrently in women's gymnastics.
Revolutionary Struggles, Reactionary Outcomes
 The nature of women's gymnastics
in the Soviet Union after 1952 was a hybrid arising from several factors that
allowed female gymnasts to be exploited, if not in new ways, then at least
in new arenas.
 Early revolutionaries had
high hopes for both the role of sport and the emancipation of women in the
new Soviet society. Both Marx and Lenin had looked to manufacturer, social
reformer and philanthropist Robert Owen's example of combining physical education
and productive labor (Riordan, 62). It was thought that physical education
could build character and nation simultaneously, but this was bound to be
interpreted at any time in terms of what the national interest was understood
to be. With these initial goals in sight, the Soviet government was keen to
encourage sport. It harbored visions of a healthy and enthusiastic people,
fit for work and whatever other services their country required of them, but
also mentally stimulated to take part in the intellectual challenges ahead,
of which there were plenty. As early as December 1917 the new Education Committee
recommended that all schools introduce gymnastics games, swimming and excursions
(Riordan, 76). Military sports clubs were formed at factories, railway depots
and mines all over the country, with the workplace seen as a crucial key to
sport and exercise for the proletariat, in contrast to the elitism of the
previous sporting clubs that had regulated membership along class lines (Riordan,
71). Yet there was a constant state of flux about the purpose of sport and
which sports would form the important physical and cultural foundations for
the new society.
 Given the complex inheritance of
Soviet sports, this flux should not be surprising. According to Riordan (66),
the pattern of physical culture that emerged "clearly reflected ideas and
models deriving from a variety of sources," which he identifies as including
a heritage of institutions from tsarist Russia, as well as a set of educational
and broader philosophies deriving in part from Western philosophers but also
from Russian thinkers. Foremost among these had been Pyotr Lesgaft, acknowledged
as the founder of the scientific system of physical education in the Soviet
Union. Lesgaft advocated a pedagogical approach to physical education, recommending
a system of exercises for both school and the home. As a teacher of anatomy,
Lesgaft took a particularly scientific view of the body and of methods of
keeping it fit, which later meshed well with Soviet claims of scientific superiority.
Importantly for our exploration of female Soviet gymnasts and the work they
performed, Lesgaft was an early proponent of sport for women and regarded
it as a means towards their social emancipation (Riordan, 49-53).
 Lesgaft had introduced a
Prussian style of gymnastics into the army in 1874 and in 1896 established
gymnastics courses for civilians. These were fairly closely tied to military
goals and somewhat different from the later forms of gymnastics to emerge.
Nonetheless, Lesgaft came to favor a "free" style of gymnastics that can be
seen as a precursor to "artistic gymnastics" which forms the basis of the
"Olympic gymnastics." He thought this freer form encouraged development of
will power and initiative and would lead ultimately to good moral judgement,
attractive qualities for revolutionaries seeking not only a new society but
better developed and balanced citizens (Riordan, 51). The Soviet newspaper
Izvestia lauded gymnastics and sport as ways to "develop feelings of
responsible collective action and a spirit of mutual assistance as well as
strength and skill" (Riordan, 77). However, ideals quickly became compromised
by the exigencies of the difficulties faced by the new Soviet government that
was besieged from the start (McCauley, 28-30). There were pressures to formulate
sports policies in relation to the immediate rather than long-term goals.
 The role of competition
in sport was one problematic area, with some socialist leaders decrying it
as characteristic of capitalism and individualism, while others thought that
this was more than offset by its potential to encourage increased popular
involvement in sport. Mass participation in sport was assumed to be beneficial
so long as there was nothing intrinsically "bourgeois" about the sport. Gymnastics
tended to be among the favored sports, no doubt due to its adaptability to
mass displays and its ability to be performed in a co-operative sense. That
modern gymnastics had been invented with the specific purpose of getting young
men in the best possible physical condition and spirits for possible military
encounters may also have been attractive to a young, besieged nation (Hoberman,
100-101). To coincide with the Second Congress of the Third International,
around 18,000 people took part in a mass gymnastics and sports display at
Moscow's new Red Stadium in 1920. This was one of many such displays that
were to become characteristic of Soviet popular mobilization for the next
20 years (Riordan, 131).
 Under Stalin a number of
significant shifts took place. His regime was characterized by harsh repression,
crushing of dissent and single-minded pursuit of goals, even in the face of
their obvious futility (Ward). This had worsened by the 1930s, with widespread
purges of all institutions. Sports institutions were not spared. Co-operation
in sport gave way to a new respect for competition. Such competitiveness,
once scorned, took on a larger and virtually unquestioned profile and was
to match competitiveness at the level of factories and collective farms, into
which peasants had been forced, often with tragic consequences. Industrialization
was ferociously pursued by methods that privileged speed over concensus, and
sport had its own part to play in this process, being used for the purposes
of training better workers and adding visual validation to the cult of Stalin,
celebrated in parades at every opportunity. Uniform ranking systems were introduced
for individual sports to provide a hierarchy of sporting achievement. Rankings
were established for gymnastics in 1934 and the following year more elaborate
rankings came into force (Riordan, 131).
 From 1937 the Master of
Sport title could be awarded to athletes achieving certain goals. Such awards
brought an increment in the recipient's salary. Special treatment of elite
sportsmen and sportswomen was extended to include sums of money, priority
in respect to flats and scarce commodities, linking sport more closely with
political goals and setting the foundations for what would be an extremely
tight relationship between sport and state for the remainder of the Soviet
Union's existence. It also elevated sportspeople to hero status in a hierarchy
of heroes that buttressed Stalin as the ultimate hero (Edelman, 78). Robert
Service (247) claims that the creation and celebration of such popular heroes
and their sporting successes helped create social diversions and contributed
to Stalin getting away with his bloody mass purges.
 Gymnastics found a niche
under Stalin, the sport being given the imprimatur of the state. Officials
saw, in gymnastics, opportunities for enhancement of fitness, public inspiration
by virtue of the sport's aesthetic values and the opportunity to "draw athletes
into the orbit of a culture which was a novelty to the vast majority of them,"
thus providing a pool from which more elites could be drawn (Riordan, 137).
After 1933 regular gymnastics championships were conducted and by 1940 gymnastics
ranked fourth among sports in terms of participation (Riordan, 112 and 137).
 By this time gymnasts had
already been put into service for political purposes. Initially Stalin had
hoped to form an alliance with Western powers but, when that proved futile,
the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in August 1939, in the hope
of keeping Russia out of any impending war. Soviet gymnasts, as well as other
Soviet sportsmen and women, competed widely with their German sports counterparts
in both Russia and Germany, as a method of reinforcing the newly established
friendship with Germany and as a reminder to Hitler that the pact should be
honored and Russia should not be invaded (Riordan, 360-61). In a short time
sport had gone from a politically liberating lynchpin of socialism to a pragmatic
mechanism for appeasing Fascism.
 Ideals about the emancipation
of women had similarly been jettisoned for a more exploitative approach, Moses
claiming they were politically both mobilized and marginalized (31). Women
had played an important part in the 1917 Revolution and there had been debate
among them about what priority should be given to changing women's lot (Edmondson).
Even while disagreeing about the order of change, many of these women had
high expectations of drastically overturning the exploitation of women that
had been such a feature of tsarist Russia. Soon after the revolution, the
Bolsheviks put a number of measures in place to ameliorate hardships that
particularly fell on women. Divorce and abortion became available on demand,
communal kitchens and factory cafeterias were established to ease domestic
burdens and wives were urged not to render automatic obedience to their husbands
(Service, 143). Nonetheless, feminist considerations were not a major element
in the revolutionary program, the overriding view being that the socio-economic
reconstruction of society would enhance the lot of all oppressed people, including
women, and that they would not generally need special attention.
 As it turned out, exploitation
of women was much too strongly entrenched to be overcome without deep resolve
to address it at multiple levels. Particularly in peasant society, the status
of women was extremely low. By 1921 Lenin realized this and advocated specific
measures to advance the interests of women. But, with the series of crises
faced by the Soviet government in its early days, it was all too easy to defer
women's emancipation in favor of realizing their capacity to contribute formally
to the economy.
 Although acceptance of women
in the workforce was hailed as one of the triumphs of the move towards socialism
and women held many elected positions in trade unions, the jobs that women
were able to attain were largely concentrated in "physically arduous work
injurious to health [and] a high level of work-related illnesses" (Koval,
vii). At times it seemed that, rather than being accepted as "men's equal,"
they were viewed as lesser beings who could, by the sublimation of their own
needs to the new society, rise above their limitations. Certainly there were
tensions between the ideological claims that Soviet society wanted to address
the burdens suffered by women and the instrumental approach taken by the state
but, as Stalin replaced Lenin, the likelihood of the tensions being resolved
lessened with the quashing of discussion and debate and eventually the move
into terror, where few dared to even whisper criticisms, let alone vent outright
 With the expansion of industry
came increased demands for labor, leading to an influx of women into paid
employment. They entered non-traditional areas of work such as heavy industry
and construction work, not so much because the state was deploying anti-discrimination
measures but because it was eager to mobilize under-utilized labor resources.
Alarmingly, even while encouraging women to move into the workforce, Stalin
vigorously reasserted the traditional role of women as primary carers for
the family, thereby compounding their workloads in both spheres. If the Bolsheviks
had at least given lip service to a bright new world where there were more
choices in relationships between men and women and more expectations for men
to share home burdens, Stalin brought a retreat to the dark, albeit now industrialized
world. Abortions were outlawed, childbirth encouraged, childless couples penalized,
homosexuality persecuted and the family put on a pedestal as the bulwark of
society, even while so many families lost members to the purges (Mamanova).
Women had to sustain and service these families, of course. Often they faced
not just a double-workload but extra workloads specific to Soviet society.
For any chance of progression in careers, they were expected to be active
Party members and women also did much of the waiting on the notoriously long
queues that gobbled into their precious time.
 Elite female gymnasts, in
comparison with other women in Soviet society, came to lead somewhat privileged
lives and escaped at least some of the burdens forced on the average woman
there. Yet there were a number of features of the average Soviet woman's life
which were replicated in the gymnasts' experiences or which are relevant in
other ways. The rhetoric used by the Soviet Union to suggest that women there
had indeed been liberated had to somehow be evident in elite sportswomen who
were used as ambassadors for their country. Whatever the case during training
and in other parts of the gymnasts' lives, on the international stage women
had to appear to be liberated and the essence of their light movements appeared
very liberated indeed, paradoxical though that often was.
 The contradictions raised
by the Stalin era resulted in an image of the Soviet woman – at least as depicted
through Soviet women's magazines – as "confident but modest, ambitious yet
self-sacrificial, heroic yet vulnerable, strong yet weak" (Attwood, 170-71).
Most of those contradictory features were evident in the performances, particularly
on the floor, of Soviet female gymnasts.
 Above all else, the history
of women in the Soviet Union showed clearly that the state was willing to
use and exploit women for its own purposes. This is essential to the story
of its female gymnasts.
 Meanwhile, at the international
level, women's gymnastics was attempting to establish itself as a serious
part of the broader sport. Generally, the trend was to push for women's gymnastics
to be accepted on terms very different from men's gymnastics. Hence there
was the development of different apparatus, different expectations of the
gymnasts and a different rationale for participation in the sport (Varney).
Both the balance beam and the uneven bars had been developed specifically
for women and with a view towards poise, grace and co-ordination, all characteristics
that were thought to enhance femininity. Acceptance of women's gymnastics
in its own right tended to be on terms that carried gendered assumptions.
Would this serve the Soviet state's purposes? How would Soviet women gymnasts
operate within this sport at an international level?
Cultural Cold Warriors
 Three crucial factors coincided
to determine the answers to these questions. The Soviet Union made its debut
at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, the same Olympic Games where women
gymnasts for the first time competed at an individual level as well as at
team level. The Soviet women gymnasts performed impressively, winning three
of the five available individual gold medals, as well as the gold medal for
 Around the same time there
was a heightening of Cold War tensions. The terminology used of the Russian
women gymnasts suggested that they were Cold Warriors in their own right.
For instance, one Soviet publication claimed "The Soviet school of gymnastics
once again reasserted its world supremacy" (Golubev, 12). And, if such wins
were factors in the Cold War battle and the struggle to be superior in all
areas, including sport, then the gymnasts themselves can be seen as the foot
soldiers and their coaches as generals: "…our girls, spurred by the heat of
competition, turned in better and better performances" (Golubev, 12). Soviet
coaches were said to be working closely with scientists in the areas of physiology,
biomechanics and the designing of special instruments and provision of training
aids "for the many million strong army of athletes…" (Sobolev et. al., 55).
 Foot soldiers the gymnasts
might have been, but the emphasis on femininity reflected the Soviet government's
desire to compete against the West in just such terms. While Soviet women
had once been urged to renounce cosmetics, trinkets and other trappings of
femininity, carefully made-up Soviet gymnasts now sported bouffant hair-dos
and were acclaimed for their grace and attractiveness. Among the most successful
Soviet gymnasts of the 1950s was Polina Astakhova who was described as "…the
epitome of grace" with "large sad eyes and a perennial knot of golden hair"
and as "gentle by nature." Quick to stress that this impression was shared
by the media, the Soviet publication Soviet Gymnastics Stars
pointed out that reporters called Astakhova the "most feminine gymnast in
the world" (Golubev, 58). This was a challenge to the femininity of women
of the West who, in very different circumstances from those of their Soviet
counterparts, had been taken out of the workforce after the Second World War
and ensconced in the domestic sphere, which, in Western eyes, was the most
appropriate place for women.
 Thus both the Eastern and
Western blocs were claiming femininity for their women but via very different
routes. In the West the propriety of the domestic sphere for women was a crucial
factor in the new consumer revolution that aimed to sell them not only new
fashions, household goods and electrical appliances but all manner of goods
for their husbands and children (Ewen). Soviet women, meanwhile, were busy
in industry, holding down jobs. Their place in the economy had been deemed
to be in the paid workforce, especially with so many men having been lost
in the war. But the residue of Stalin's propagation of womanhood and motherhood
necessitated that Soviet women compete with their Western sisters in the "femininity
stakes" and the gymnastics stage was thought to be a fitting place for such
a competition to take place.
 Extraordinarily, the very
"feminine" style of gymnastics that was emerging was still not feminine enough
for some. During the 1950s, sections of Deutscher Turnerbund (Association
of German Gymnasts) expressed deep concern at the direction in which Russian
gymnasts were guiding international women's gymnastics. The German gymnastics
officials' complaints centred on a blurring of boundaries between women's
and men's exercises. They claimed that women's gymnastics should be fluid,
should appear as playful, regardless of how much exertion was involved, and
should emphasize differences in the movements of women from those of men (Haug,
177-78). In 1954 German gymnasts stated their unwillingness to participate
further in international women's competitions, which they claimed included
"too much acrobatics and ballet," the two factors for which Russian gymnasts
were particularly renowned (Berlioux, 10). However, by 1960, even with its
acrobatic and balletic influence, the Russian women's gymnastics style was
so flowing, appeared to be accomplished with such ease and was so expressive
of traditional femininity that the German gymnasts could no longer find disfavor
with it (Haug, 182). The Russian gymnasts' preference for balletic expressiveness
had also been aided when the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) finally
accepted the proposal, previously denied, that women's floor exercises be
accompanied by music (Berlioux, 10).
 Foremost among these fluid
and expressive gymnasts who married the high levels of demonstrative femininity
demanded by the Germans with the classic style was Larissa Latynina who won
the overall title at both the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. She was described as
"the incontestable queen of gymnastics. Charming graceful, sure of herself,
she crowned the performances of the Soviet women gymnasts in the championship
series; her compositions sounded like a harmonious major chord" (Suponev,
20). Certainly she incorporated what the German gymnastics officials had wanted:
"…with unbelievable ease she carries out the most difficult gymnastic exercises"
(Subolev, 84). Other accolades smacked more of descriptions of the battlefield
than the gymnastics arena: "Confident of her own powers, she cowed her rivals
with the ferocity of her onslaught" (Golubev, 56). Another Soviet publication
applauded that she had "frequently defended her country's colors in international
contests" (Solubev, 84).
 Latynina's role straddled
the tasks of worker and management. Even while being "seemingly frail" (Solubev,
84), she labored fiercely for goals set by higher authorities and set the
standards for future gymnastics workers whom she later oversaw in a supervisory
role. She both epitomized and enforced the classical gymnastic style to which
she and her contemporary Soviet gymnasts had so largely contributed. After
she retired she took on a major coaching role with the Soviet women's team
and was forthright in her opposition to challenges from more athletic and
less traditionally balletic gymnasts of the ensuing generation. It was claimed
that she was largely responsible for keeping off the 1976 Olympics team both
Natalia Shaposhnikova and Elena Davidova, two gymnasts who were seen to be
part of the "new school" (Brokhin). Latynina lamented that "the appearance
of such young people means the vanishing of femininity, lyricism and expressiveness…"
(quoted in Suponev, 28). Olga Korbut claimed Latynina "was not just another
coach; she was the highest officer of the National Team. Her authority in
the world of Soviet gymnastics was considered unimpeachable" (35). Certainly,
she was held in high esteem by authorities, being elected to the Kiev City
Soviet and receiving the Order of Lenin, one of the Soviet Union's highest
 Not that the influence and
drive of Soviet gymnastics can be credited wholly to a personality. A series
of structures and policies injected huge impetus into the development of the
sport along particular lines. As Riordan emphasizes, as sport in the Soviet
Union was centrally controlled and fully integrated in the political system,
it could be "wielded for manifestly functional purposes" (379). International
acclaim translated into currency at home, as some sort of proof – not always
accepted – that Soviet life and conditions must indeed be superior. In the
opening paragraph of a book on Soviet gymnastics published for domestic consumption,
Vladimir Golubev states: "The achievements of Soviet gymnasts in the international
arena are truly remarkable. Their craftsmanship, so fine that it borders on
art, has earned them universal admiration. The leading Soviet masters of the
sport are known and loved in many countries of the world" (9).
 Sport also served the function
of escapism. Like other forms of cultural entertainment, sport allowed a distraction
from the drudgery which still characterised the lives of many in the Soviet
Union, and when Soviet teams won gold medals and beat teams from other nations,
it could be a much more amenable distraction. Further, gymnastics held many
lessons for what Soviet women should be in their own lives, with Soviet publications
constantly pointing to the sacrifices of the female gymnasts but also how
the sacrifices paid off.
 These publications also
went to pains to demonstrate that Soviet sporting successes resulted directly
from political processes, most particularly from the integration of sport
into the education system and the socialist distribution of resources. Referring
to the Soviet sports school system, Korbut's Soviet biographer noted, via
the heading of one chapter, that "In that school there are only winners"
 For their part, athletes
often identified the Party as an important contributor to their happiness
or success (see, for example, Zybina, 35). Through the provision of resources
and giving all due attention to Soviet athletes, Golubev asserts that "Champions
are not born, they are made" (9). In the discourse surrounding that process
of making champions, Russian nationalism also stands out as an ingredient:
"The reserves of Soviet national teams are inexhaustible. They are the countless
rivulets that feed a great river and give it life, annually reinforcing the
national team with new talent, because sport in the USSR is really and truly
for the masses" (Golubev, 9). This metaphor, posing Russian rivers and Soviet
sports schools as interchangeable, is reminiscent of Stalin's attempts to
carefully blend Russian nationalism with pride in Soviet accomplishments.
 Some of the "reinforcements"
in the early 1970s, however, were to push Soviet women's gymnastics to new
heights and simultaneously present it with its greatest challenge.
New Uses for Young Labor
 Ironically, although the
Soviet Union hailed its female gymnasts as the world's most acclaimed sportswomen,
when a Soviet gymnast emerged who most fitted that description, the Soviet
authorities were somewhat uncomfortable with both the image of the gymnast
and the trajectory in which she took women's gymnastics. That is not to say
that the Soviet state did not utilize the young gymnast in question, Olga
Korbut, but simply that it seemed less able to manage her image and contain
her stardom within the traditional parameters of Soviet sporting celebrities.
As the magazine International Gymnast exclaimed, "Tears in public?
Tantrums? Refusal to conform? No, not the Soviet woman – at least not until
Olga, that is!" (Moran, 35).
 Korbut may have been a product
of the Soviet gymnastics school but she was also a product of the age of the
globalized media, which operated in a vastly different manner from the Soviet
media and towards different goals. Korbut gained instant fame at the Munich
Olympics in 1972, which were far more widely televised than any previous Olympic
Games and this subjected her to the new forms of spectatorship (Guttman, 139).
Women's gymnastics had been a spectator sport in the USSR but generally amongst
audiences who understood the sport and had an appreciation of its techniques.
One of the appeals of Korbut's style of gymnastics was that it was instantly
gratifying at a number of levels. A worldwide audience who knew little or
nothing of gymnastics could immediately recognize the level of risk involved
in her "daredevil" version of the sport.
 Moreover, Korbut's floor
exercises eschewed the classical and balletic form in favor of a coquettish
and impish display of movements that accentuated her prepubescent body. While
her tumbling was probably no more difficult than those of her fellow gymnasts
in the Soviet team, she finished at least one of her tumbling runs by throwing
herself at the floor and, at the last moment, arching severely so as to land
on her chest, a move which triggered expectations of danger but then quickly
averted that danger. The young gymnast had a huge smile that she shared with
the audience after every routine except those in which she failed. On one
occasion in Munich when she had fallen from the apparatus, she cried inconsolably,
the tears being caught on television, thus adding to Korbut's innocent, child-like
image. This fed into the impression that the television audience somehow knew
Korbut. She offered them a miniature soapie where they shared in her accomplishments
and grieved with her in her disappointments. This was a new dimension to a
sport that people in the USA and many other countries knew little about but
could now identify with at levels outside of technical knowledge. Suddenly
women's gymnastics was not just a sport that was pleasant to watch; it was
a consumer sport and, like all successful consumer goods, consumers couldn't
get enough of it.
 The popularity of women's
gymnastics exploded dramatically, with young girls signing up in numerous
countries where gymnastics had previously had only the merest followings.
Moreover, their parents and other carers, also enamoured of this sport that
had been so piquantly promoted by the pig-tailed Korbut, were more than happy
to co-operate in this recruitment of children gymnasts. In the USA the very
knowledge that one could be a gymnastic celebrity, as Korbut had become, led
some parents to hope that their daughters would follow in her dainty footsteps.
Basically, this global embracement of women's gymnastics, and all because
of a young Soviet gymnast, was beneficial to the Soviet Union. It made the
world take notice of Soviet gymnasts and it demonstrated, once again, Soviet
supremacy, but this time that supremacy was being hailed much more loudly
and almost exclusively by the foreign media.
 But, from the Soviet authorities'
viewpoint, there was a downside to Korbut's sudden rise to fame. It was a
fame built more in terms of Western appreciation than in terms of how the
Soviet government liked its accomplishments to be acknowledged. The Soviet
gymnasts, under challenge particularly from other gymnasts in the Eastern
bloc, had been pushed to new levels and more difficult moves to try to maintain
their superiority and Korbut's style was a result of this, with its new moves,
new dangers and an emphasis on highlighting these. This was in stark contrast
to the style that had developed under a succession of Soviet and other Eastern
 It was another gymnast,
Ludmilla Turishcheva, who was both more typical of the classic style and more
pleasing to the Soviet authorities in relation to the image that she portrayed.
Turishcheva had come onto the public stage at the Mexico Olympics but it was
not until the 1972 Olympics that she achieved worldwide fame, paradoxically
by being on the same team as Korbut and therefore being given considerable
exposure. As well as having a traditional style and being true to what Korbut
has bitterly called "glorious Soviet gymnastics" (58), Turishcheva was a member
of the Communist Youth Organization, the Komsomol, and was held in good stead
by the authorities. For instance, in 1973 she took part in a sports delegation
to the 10th World Youth Festival in Berlin, participating in a
relay "In Honour of the Peoples of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia," at the time
suffering at the hands of US's war on Vietnam. Afterwards she spoke in terms
of socialist and worker solidarity, claiming "we took part in this race to
demonstrate once again our solidarity with the working people of the whole
world, particularly young people" (Quoted in Riordan, 387-88). Turishcheva,
graceful, attractive and with a more mature figure than many other gymnasts
of the 1970s, always came across as amenable, self-sacrificing and dedicated
to Soviet sport, just the sort of sports ambassador that the Soviet authorities
liked best. It was noted that, even at the age of 16, she had "set the interests
of the team above her own" (Golubev, 14). Korbut, by contrast, was seen as
something of a loose cannon.
 The labor of both, and of
their contemporary elite gymnasts, was useful for the Soviet Union's purposes.
To an even greater extent, Soviet gymnasts were seen to represent something
special that the capitalist world could not emulate. Opening the first Canadian
national conference on women and sport, Laura Sabia used Soviet gymnasts as
an example of what women had attained in sporting terms in the USSR and needed
to attain in other countries as well, though she noted that a different set
of attitudes would need to be overcome if the West was to emulate such sporting
successes (Quoted in Riordan, 315).
 The new style of gymnastics both
challenged and intensified that which had gone before it. Adrienne Blue suggests
that the new styles and the drive for younger, lighter gymnasts was a reaction
against feminism (156-57). That may have been true in respect to some sections
of the large new audiences for the sport, but it is only part of a convergence
of complexities. The diversity of styles arose from a number of social factors
and reflected a range of femininities, among them an "androgenous femininity."
Perhaps it was the sheer diversity and the lack of ability to control the
new styles that most made the Soviet authorities uncomfortable with the direction
of women's gymnastics. For the first time, the international image of Soviet
women gymnasts was not under Soviet control but at the behest of Western media
with its penchant for celebrityhood, drama, and individualist personas.
 Not that this was wholly
to the Soviet Union's disadvantage. Time magazine claimed that Korbut
"…convinced us that human hearts beat within the bodies of robotic Soviet
athletes" (Smolowe, 46). The opportunities for international prestige that
the USSR had extracted from its female gymnasts and other sports stars were
greater than ever. Fan clubs sprang up all over the Western world and there
was a huge demand among gymnastics-hungry Westerners for every conceivable
commodity that would bring information about Korbut or identity with her and,
to a lesser extent, the other Soviet female gymnasts.
 The appearance of another
Eastern bloc child-gymnast, Romanian Nadia Comaneci, at the 1976 Montreal
Olympics further inflamed gymnastics fandom in the West. The opportunities
extended beyond general prestige for the USSR. The government was able to
use its gymnastics team for very specific political purposes. For instance,
"in 1972, as part of an intensive campaign for a détente with the USA and
as a prelude to President Nixon's visit to Moscow, the Soviet leaders sent
their leading girl gymnasts (including Olga Korbut and Ludmilla Turishcheva)
on a gymnastics display tour of America" (Riordan, 378). Sovietsky Sport
declared quite bluntly that Soviet sportspeople had an important role to play
in such missions and in the foreign policy of the Party and the Soviet government
(cited in Riordan, 379).
 Clearly, sport could be
useful for purposes of détente as well as a weapon in the Cold War. Thus,
on Korbut's tours to the West, meetings with President Nixon and with the
British Prime Minister were included in her schedule. Not all her gymnastics
tours had such specific political purposes. Often tours by Soviet gymnasts
were used as opportunities for hard currency, as were tours by figure skaters,
hockey teams and other Soviet sports stars (Edelman, 217). Korbut claims to
have been utterly exhausted by the demand of constant touring: "…it was getting
harder to endure those numerous exhibition tours. Australia, the USA, Singapore,
Great Britain, back to the USA…I was tired of performing, and very tired of
earning money for the fat big-shots on the Sports Committee" (125). While
Korbut was working hard for her government, one of the ways in which its discomfort
with her was being expressed was by paying little attention to her in the
national media. She claims that the more politically pliable Turishcheva received
most of the domestic attention and applause and when both gymnasts did come
in for mention, it followed a formula such as "Turishcheva lives to win; Korbut
to amaze" (48).
 Though Korbut felt slighted to be reduced
to simply a performer of amazing feats, such feats had an enormous impact
on the future direction of gymnastics for the remainder of the century. She
had set a benchmark that a burgeoning squad of gymnasts all over the world
set out to match and to better. Surmising that, for Korbut's feats to be duplicated,
so would her body type, there was a strong tendency towards smaller, lighter,
younger female gymnasts. For instance, whereas the six gymnasts making up
the 1976 US Olympic women's team averaged seventeen-and-a-half years of age,
five foot three and a half inches in height and 106 pounds in weight, by 1992
the average US Olympian gymnast was 16 years old, stood four feet nine inches
and weighted 83 pounds (Ryan, 65). That was half the age of some of the leading
female gymnasts at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. This shift and the changes
that underpinned it marked a critical point in the "working conditions" of
female gymnasts who now strove to meet the new and difficult body and training
criteria, no doubt in a number of countries but certainly in the USSR, which
was soon producing champions such as Maria Filatova and Olga Bicherova, four
foot nine and under and looking a long way from puberty at ages of 14 and
 Indeed, the staving off
of puberty became an almost necessary condition of achieving the right body
types to perform the most complex of body movements. Particularly on the beam,
small, thin women with lower centres of gravity and a greater margin for error
due to the ratio between the size of their feet and the width of the beam,
had an advantage. This became critical as beam routines developed to include
several rows of interconnected handsprings, backflips and somersaults. On
the floor, too, smaller bodies effectively meant more room in which to complete
elaborate tumbling runs.
 Clearly there was a cost
for the gymnasts who had to maintain restrictive diets and sacrifice a great
deal else in their lives as their training work ate into all available time.
Elena Mukhina, 1978 World Champion, was among the most accomplished tumblers
of this new generation, taking on several of Korbut's signatures moves but
adding twists and other complexities to them. Prior to the 1980 Olympics in
Moscow she suffered a series of injuries, always being forced back to the
gym before her body had properly healed. She claims of her life then: "Apart
from the gym and gymnastics, nothing existed. I didn't have the right to be
ill. Problems outside sports simply didn't exist" ("Yelena Mukhina…," Ogonyok).
Shortly before the Olympics, while trying to master an extremely difficult
and dangerous tumbling sequence, Mukhina fell and broke her neck. She has
been a quadriplegic ever since. At the Moscow Olympics, the Soviet women's
team went on to take the gold medals in both the overall champion and team
events, as well as on the floor and vault. Despite being one of the best gymnasts,
Mukhina was expendable in a country that boasted a resource pool of around
700,000 gymnasts (Golubev, 9).
 To be sure, gymnastics styles
had diversified following the 1972 Olympics but, even while providing scope
for more artistic freedom, this led to more hard labour by younger gymnasts
and a parallel intensification of their ambassadorial work for the state.
 While the political nature
of Soviet sport has never been denied, aspects of it have nonetheless been
neglected or not fully understood. The case of the USSR's women gymnasts is
important as their experiences of the sport and the labor they performed as
Soviet sports workers had historical threads in earlier divergences in both
politics and philosophical frameworks in the Soviet Union. Most notable among
these were, firstly, the move towards using sport for short-term functional
purposes rather than for ideals of personal and social development, and secondly,
the relegation of women to a resource-pool.
 Under Stalinist repression,
closure of the discourse about the appropriate path for Soviet sport in favour
of elitism and political expediency was matched by similar closure of debates
about women. Women were utilized economically without ever attaining high
levels of political clout and this problem was one of many that were evident
in the development of Soviet women's gymnastics.
 Paradoxically, sportswomen
in the USSR were viewed as being far ahead of their counterparts in the West
in terms of acceptance of their participation in sport. No doubt this reflected
the level at which they were already being used in the workforce but was still
insufficient for their deeper involvement in the political side of sport.
While the masses were used as the raw material for sports, policies about
sports and their directions came from above – at some considerable cost to
 Other paradoxes included
the expectation that the gymnasts show soft and vulnerable sides in their
presentations despite being urged to be tough and enduring in their quest
to be elite sportswomen. They were the material of scientific sports progress,
often at an experimental level, but they had to portray Soviet art. They had
to lead the world in gymnastics but in accordance with what was required of
them by their national government. The contradictory demands made of Soviet
female gymnasts had as many twists as their spell-binding tumbling sequences.
 But perhaps most ironic
is that one of the objectives demanded of female gymnasts was that they conceal
the difficulty of the exercises they performed. This can be seen as a metaphor
for the overall labor performed by Soviet women gymnasts. More difficult but
seemingly exciting moves on the apparatus exacerbated the levels of training,
the risk of the work, the danger of the workplace and the age at which intensive
training had to begin, as well as the real nature of the work these gymnasts
performed which was at least as ideological as it was physical Such ideological
tasks involved provision of aesthetic and celebratory packaging around the
cult of Stalin; cultural camouflage of some of his worst excesses; physical
flexings of "peace" as a cultural contribution to the Cold War; distraction
from national problems; and ongoing evidence of Soviet supremacy.
 The era of the Soviets is
over but, due to the influence of that nation, it is likely that at least
some residue remains in the sport of women's gymnastics. The topic is deserving
of much more attention.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. I thank Therese
Taylor for commenting on an earlier draft of this paper and Marina Campbell,
Nina Konuhova, and numerous other Russian people who helped me in various
ways at Moscow State University and on the streets, in the libraries, in the
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Wendy Varney is a Principal Fellow in the Science,
Technology and Society Program at the University of Wollongong,
Australia, where she also attained her PhD. She researches areas
of sport, toys and other leisure technologies, especially as they
relate to gender, as well as working on areas of nonviolent struggle.
She has written many articles and recently co-authored with Brian
Martin a book Nonviolence Speaks: Communicating Against Repression,
published by Hampton Press, Cresskill, New Jersey, 2003.