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Melbourne 1956 - Feat
Keleti and Latynina provide gymnastics drama

The women's individual gymnastics event, which had been inaugurated only four years earlier, produced one of the biggest and most talked-about rivalries ever seen in the gymnastics arena. It was a battle between two countries whose diplomatic relations were not in the healthiest of conditions, given the Soviet Union's recent invasion of Budapest, and one between young and old as 35-year-old Agnes Keleti from Hungary attempted to overcome the 1952 Soviet domination of the women's all-around event. Standing in her way was the combined epitomy of Soviet youth and talent in the shape of 21-year-old Larissa Latynina.

Although both gymnasts had been more-or-less tied throughout the contest, like her compatriot Maria Horokhovska had in 1952, it was Latynina who eventually triumphed.

Epic battle

Soviet Larissa Latynina performs her routine on the beam during the Olympic Games in Melbourne, July 1956. Larissa Latynina won 4 gold medals in Melbourne, 3 golds in Rome 1960, 5 silvers and 4 bronzes she is one of the athletes who has won the most medals in sport's history.

Initially, Keleti started impressively, scoring well and taking two golds in two of her four individual disciplines, the assymetric bars and the balance beam. For her part, Latynina finished second in the assymetric bars and fourth in the balance beam. However, in the floor exercises, Latynina's speciality, the Soviet had to make do with sharing the gold with her rival when both finished on exactly the same points.

A significant lapse on the vault, on which Latynina finished in first place with a total of 18.733 points, lost Keleti the all-around title after she received 0.600 points less than her Soviet counterpart.

That momentary lapse of judgement on the vault was to prove costly for Keleti. As Latynina had finished 1st in the vault overall, and Keleti in 23rd place, it is perhaps easier to comprehend the significant effect a slight difference in points can make in the final scoring of gymnastics. In the end, she had overcome the Hungarian by a mere 0.300 points (74.933 against 74.633).

Yet, for Keleti, there was consolation in sight. Having already triumphed in the Helsinki Games in 1952 by winning a gold, a silver and two bronze, the Hungarian veteran picked herself up two days later to win a fourth gold medal in the team exercise with portable apparatus event - one which, since Melbourne, no longer forms part of the olympic programme.

As good as Caslavska and Szabo

Latynina was not finished collecting medals herself, and obtained a fourth title in the team combined event. Indeed, between 1956 and 1964, Latynina was to collect a total of eighteen medals, the most by any olympic athlete ever.

Only two other women were to win four gold medals in the same Olympic Games. In time, the Czech Vera Caslavska would crash on to the scene at the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Romania's Ecaterina Szabo also gave an indication of her ability in 1984, winning three golds in individual events, and a fourth gold in the team event.

For Keleti, in the meantime however, this was truly the time to bow out. At the age of 35, like so many of her compatriots from Hungary, she decided to defect, opting to eventually settle in Israel.

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Medals Tally
China
51
21
28
United States
36
38
36
Russia
23
21
28
Great Britain
19
13
15
Germany
16
10
15
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