All the world’s a stage for ‘diva’ Khorkina

Svetlana Khorkina’s sporting career was as dramatic as her personality after she overcame being deemed too tall for gymnastics to win two Olympic gold medals before becoming a politician, author, coach and mother.

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Khorkina is the subject of the Olympic Channel’s fifth episode in the new season of Legends Live On, which will also feature athlete Hicham El Guerrouj, who won the 1,500/5,000m double at the Olympic Games in 2004, six-time fencing champion Valentina Vezzali and Uschi Disl, winner of nine biathlon medals over five Olympic Winter Games.

Growing up in Belgorod, Russia (then Soviet Union), Khorkina was shunned by potential coaches as she was far taller and more slender than other gymnasts, but she thrived under the tutelage of Boris Vasilevich Pilkin, who used her height to an advantage and she made an instant impact at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996.

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“I immediately set the tone,” she said. “Now you have to deal with me. And you’ll have no other choice but to love me.” The 17-year-old won gold on the uneven bars – an event she would dominate for years to come – and silver in the team competition.

Khorkina was favourite for the all-around title at Sydney 2000, but disaster struck on the vault when she – and many others – fell on the dismount and although it was discovered the horse was fixed five centimetres lower than regulation, the psychological damage was done. A fall from the bars and her all-around dream was over, prompting a day-long disappearance.

However, urged on by her sister Yuliya, Khorkina returned to claim her second successive gold on the uneven bars as well as silver on the floor and in the team competition. Athens 2004 represented her last chance of all-around gold, but she was edged out by Carly Patterson, of the United States, concluding her Olympic career, one that spanned three Games and brought seven medals.

Retirement ensued, although it was no surprise when she continued to command the spotlight. She had a son in 2005, was appointed vice-president of the Russian Artistic Gymnastics Federation and brought out her autobiography “Somersaults in High Heels”, before embarking on a political career, serving in the Russian Duma from 2007-2011. In 2019 Khorkina was an ambassador for the 2019 Winter Universiade in Krasnoyarsk, Russia.