An Avenue of Olympic Glory was recently unveiled in Vitebsk, bearing plaques reminiscent of Olympic medals. Belarus’ National Olympic Committee tried to gather leading sportsmen from the past and present for the event
I hadn’t realised that so many sporting celebrities were born or trained in Vitebsk region. The opening ceremony was attended by Romuald Klim, the Tokyo 1964 Games gold hammer thrower (from Minsk) and Moscow 1980 Games gold medallist basketballer Tatiana Ivinskaya-Beloshapko. Also taking part was silver medallist wrestler (Moscow Olympics) Igor Kanygin, who works at Vitebsk’s sports school. Meanwhile, Seoul 1988 Games gold medallist boxer Vyacheslav Yanovsky now trains Russian boxers.
Among the twelve Olympic winners — whom I met at the opening ceremo-ny — was gymnast Larisa Petrik. She was the person with whom I most wanted to speak. She won two gold medals and one bronze in Mexico in 1968. Larisa began her artistic gymnastic training as a schoolgirl, under Vikenty Dmitriev, from Vitebsk. After her triumph in Mexico, she met famous Russian gymnast Victor Klimenko and they married, moving to Moscow. This was Larisa’s first return trip to the city which made her a star in over a quarter of a century. In the early 1990s, jointly with her husband, she left for Germany — where she still resides.
Larisa, how did you come to Germany?
I spent much time trying to find myself after retiring from sport. In Moscow, I graduated from the Physical Culture Institute but did not dare begin coaching — due to lack of experience. Instead, I performed in a music-hall travelling to Bulgaria and worked as a journalist — commenting on gymnastics for the Soviet TV’s 1st Channel. In 1992, during the Olympics in Barcelona, my husband was asked to coach in Germany. We imagined only spending a few years there but enjoyed ourselves so much we never left.
Was your coaching career abroad a success?
We initially worked at a sports club in Wetzlar, my husband training young female gymnasts. They studied acrobatics and I helped as a choreographer, preparing free exercises. I was also responsible for my favourite apparatus — the balance beam. We made a good team and, a year later, were asked to move to Niederwцrresbach, to work at a wonderful, newly-built sports complex equipped with modern gymnastic equipment. It was a picturesque place, with a fine forest. I’m still fond of going mushrooming; it’s been my hobby since living in Belarus. I love to fry and pickle mushrooms and my family say I do it well.
Have you raised any champions?
Some of the girls have become junior champions in Germany. Interestingly, our younger son Vladimir (his family name is Klimenko) grew up in the gym, alongside us. Initially, no one paid attention to him as a sportsman. He even trained with another coach. However, eventually, he transformed into a true fan of gymnastics and my husband began coaching him. He was the only boy in our group. He’s now 24 and is a German champion. I follow his performances with great interest and attend all his competitions. I’m his talisman, bringing him luck.
Do you follow Belarusian gymnastics and do you compare Soviet and Western European coaching schools?
Gymnastics is my passion, so I always follow it, including in Belarus. In my view, it’s a very complicated, difficult sport. Thank God, I avoided serious injury. It’s difficult to interest 5-6 year olds in sport, especially gymnastics. This is why I’m glad that Vitebsk now has its Avenue of Olympic Glory; it should inspire the new generation. They need a positive example and idols to look up to. I remember wanting to be like Larisa Latynina.
Speaking of gymnastic schools, so much has changed over the years. I used to train at a Vitebsk gym, which was heated by coal and wood stoves in winter. However, so many wonderful gymnasts appeared at that time! You’d think that safe and happy Germany — where a gym costs just 5 euros a month — should see a sporting boom. However, this is not the case. Germans don’t like their children to bear serious physical burdens. This may be why women’s artistic gymnastics is not so popular in Germany — although the GDR once boasted a wonderful gymnastic school. You might also suppose that the sport would have flourished once Western and Eastern Germany were united but this has not happened. On the contrary, everything has crumbled — probably, due to finance cuts.
However, men’s gymnastics is quite popular; Hambьchen is doing well on the team. We were good friends with his father, who was also working as a coach when we arrived in Germany.
Gymnastics is a very important part of your life. What’s your role at home? How big is your family now?
My husband, two sons and I now live in our own house in Idar-Oberstein — a small, cosy town near Frankfurt-am-Maine, about 100km from France. Precious stones used to be mined here but the mines are now closed. The town is known for its skilful craftsmen, so it’s always full of tourists. It has a very beautiful church — a true sight to behold; it’s situated near our house, cut into rock. The nearest gym is 10km away, so we travel there by car. Our older son, Victor, brought his wife to live with us two years ago (they are both ballet dancers). Now, they have a daughter, Anechka; I spend almost all my time with her.
So you are retired and a house-wife…
You are absolutely right, though in Germany they say ‘house frau’ (or a host of the house). It sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? (smiling)
Do you speak fluent German?
At home, we speak Russian and watch Russian-language TV channels. Probably, this is why we initially had problems with spoken language. As regards gymnastic terms, they are international and sound similar in many languages. So we’ve no language barrier in our profession.
What would you like to see first in Vitebsk and whom do you wish to meet?
I’m grateful to Vitebsk residents for taking me on an excursion through the city. Vitebsk has changed so much, becoming modern and beautiful. Of course, I’d like to visit the gymnastic gym at my old sports school and chat with coach Vikenty Dmitriev — who unveiled a medal dedicated to me on the Avenue of Olympic Glory. We chat on the phone from time to time and he tells me a great deal. Such conversations lack intimacy of course. It’s a pity I have so little time in Vitebsk — just two days.
by Sergey Golesnik
An idol to emulate
[b]An Avenue of Olympic Glory was recently unveiled in Vitebsk, bearing plaques reminiscent of Olympic medals. Belarus’ National Olympic Committee tried to gather leading sportsmen from the past and present for the event [/b]I hadn’t realised that so many sporting celebrities were born or trained in Vitebsk region.