Zimyatov grew up in Rumyantsevo, a tiny village 70km from Moscow, where skiing was a popular pastime. He took up the sport as a child and was talent-spotted at the famed Spartak Sports Society by coach Alexei Kholostova, who developed his skill on the snow. He later trained with the USSR Armed Forces, and in 1978, all the many hours spent on the slopes began to pay off.
Then aged 22, Zimyatov won a silver medal at the World Championships in Lahti, Finland. But the lanky newcomer’s achievement was put down to a fluke, as he had only placed fourth in the relay and fifth in the 15km.
Despite winning medals in the 1978 and 1979 Soviet Championships, little was expected of him when, still a student, he arrived at Lake Placid with the Russian squad. He was to prove the doubters wrong in spectacular style.
First he won the now discontinued 30km race in 1:27:02.80. Then he collected a second win as part of the Soviet 4x10km relay team.
Next came the 50m marathon – as physically challenging an event as you’ll find in the Olympic Games, and a competition that the Soviet Union had yet to win. Over this distance, Zimyatov faced an even greater challenge in the form of Juha Mieto. The Finnish ski legend had lost out to Thomas Wassberg of Sweden in the 30km by just 0.01s – the narrowest winning margin in Olympic history. He was primed for the 50km as it was his last chance of the Games to win a gold medal. An epic battle ensued.
At the halfway point, with the field dominated by Soviet skiers, Zimyatov lay in second place behind his countryman Aleksandr Zavyalov. He took over from his struggling comrade at 42km and made his move – gliding into a commanding 90 second lead. Meanwhile, the desperate Mieto had powered from eighth place to third and was gaining on the Russian.
But in the final 5km, Zimyatov pushed further ahead, and took his third gold medal in 10 days by a clear three minutes, having skied more than 100km.
His achievements – testaments to his staggering physical stamina and mental toughness – made him the first man in the sport to win three gold medals at a single Olympic Winter Games.
Zimyatov was an instant national hero. But he went to ground after the 1980 Games. Between Lake Placid and the next edition of the Winter Games in Sarajevo he didn’t win a single major competition.
However, as 1984 dawned and the Games in Bosnia drew closer, he suddenly resurfaced – and won a series of races including the 30km competition in the USSR Cup. The mystery man was back with a vengeance, and selected for that year’s Olympic squad. Zimyatov successfully defended his 30km title on the Igman plateau amid his favoured blustery conditions, to become a four-time Olympic champion
After his sporting career, Zimyatov worked as a cross-country skiing coach, guiding the 2002 Russian Olympic team to two gold medals, one silver and a bronze.