Surveillance photo of Grigoryev taken by NKVD, the Soviet secret police, 1978
Lake Placid ‘80
Gold, Women’s Rhythmic Gymnastics
“Women OUT!” screamed the irate American, braving the Lake Placid winter to protest what he saw as the degradation of his favorite sport.
“Zeez beetches are ruinink zee game!” shouted a Russian man nearby, puffs of cold air streaming from his mouth with every word.
All total, more than 5,000 men (and even a handful of women) gathered on that cold upstate New York morning to scream obscenities at the target of their hatred. Some had threatened violence. But when Irina Grigoryev emerged from the team bus, walking alone, she held her head high as invective and abuse were hurled from all directions. She’d received the latest of many death threats that morning, in the form of a letter vowing to “rape and kill” any woman who performed rhythmic gymnastics in the Olympic Games, starting with her.
But Grigoryev reached the door of the Olympic Center on Main Street without harm. Physical harm, anyway; various derogatory signs had been held up, including a giant tifo with the words “The Cunt of St. Petersburg” spelled out in block letters (and translated into Cyrillic for her benefit). She was also hit by an orange peel and mocked viciously by the local police who were meant to be guarding her. Later, this harrowing walk became known as “St. Irina’s Passage.” She became a hero in her native Soviet Union for her bravery, and a champion for women’s rights across the world.
It all started 25 years earlier, when Grigoryev was a seven-year-old St. Petersburg girl already one year into the rigorous Soviet youth training academy for traditional gymnastics. She excelled on the uneven parallel bars and the vault, but her coaches bemoaned her lack of motivation. Then, one day in January 1955, when a visit by Soviet premier Georgy Malenkov forced several athletic clubs to share arena space, Grigoryev witnessed rhythmic gymnastics for the first time in her life. She was entranced by the vision before her: lithe, elegant men dancing gracefully across the stage, swirling ribbons around their immaculate bodies, tossing balls and batons lightly into the air before catching them in stride, and slipping with deft fluidity through spinning hoops. It was as if they danced for God- a concept that was banned in the Soviet Union.
She couldn’t stop staring, but was quickly snapped out of her revelry when her gruff coach, Igor Laryanov, noticed her interest. “Don’t even sink about eet,” he snapped, using the academy’s traditional broken English. “I am warnink you, do not dare to dream such dreams! Thees ees a sport for zee men, and you are a leetle girl. Nassing more. Nassing more!”
Grigoryev cried herself to sleep that night, and several nights to follow, but she couldn’t stop imagining the glorious sport she was being denied. She began to learn its history, and how it had been an exclusively male sport since its invention by the Hussars in 1794. One morning, in desperation, she wept in Laryanov’s office, detailing the agony she’d undergone, and how she couldn’t survive without rhythmic gymnastics. The coach stared at her a long time before sighing deeply. “Maybe you are zee one,” he said. He then went on to tell some long story about how he had been denied something similar as a child and vowed to never let his students undergo the same fate and blah blah blah, it doesn’t really matter. Then he told her that her life was about to become very difficult, and she should only proceed if she truly loved the sport. Irina nodded once, and Laryanov agreed to support her on the journey.
But the uber-masculine world of rhythmic gymnastics was not so progressive. Everywhere Grigoryev went, she was called names like “fucking stupid bitch” and “dirty dyke whore” by male gymnasts. Once, in a Siberian event, she was even attacked by ribbon-wielding men who hoped to drive her from the arena. She escaped from that assault totally unharmed, but continued to face discrimination across the country, and later the world. Even the media was against her; Soviet television commissioned a propaganda series called “The Cunt of St. Petersburg” (a likely inspiration behind the sign) advocating her immediate banishment from the sport.
But Laryanov’s influence was strong, and he kept her safe. The two of them petitioned the IOC for 15 years, and the Olympic ruling body finally agreed to try women’s rhythmic gymnastics in the Olympics. As a concession to the male-dominated hierarchy, they held the first event at the Winter Games in Lake Placid, separate from the men’s competition at the Summer Games. But the tactic couldn’t dim the hostility; the situation was so volatile in New York that no other women would brave the potential violence to compete. Only Irina made the famous walk to the stadium, and she entered alone.
In the locker room at the Olympic Center, male rhythmic gymnasts had posted hundreds pictures of violent pornographic acts on the wall in an attempt to dissuade Grigoryev. She nearly broke down when confronted with the images, but with the help of Laryanov, she steeled her nerves and performed. It was a daring and melancholic routine, involving ribbons and a ball, set to the tune of The Beatles hit “Yesterday.” The brave performance was a symbol of Grigoryev’s heartbreaking path to the Olympic Games, though the mostly male crowd never attempted to grasp the subtlety.
When she finished, a cascade of boos drowned out all applause, and she left the arena to find a group of zealots waiting to abuse her outside. As she made her way to the waiting bus, a man approached with a gun. “Sic Semper Femalus!” he shouted, breaking past the police. “No!” screamed Laryanov, leaping in front of his student. The bullet him in the chest, killing him instantly, and the assassin was shot where he stood.
Two days later, Grigoryev stood by herself atop the podium at the medal ceremony, weeping with the full weight of everything that happened. “Was it worth it?” she asked herself. But across the world, something remarkable was happening; girls everywhere were taking up rhythmic gymnastics, entranced, as Irina had been, by the grace and beauty of the sport. As the popularity grew, the male establishment was unable to adjust, and soon found its membership ranks all but depleted. After 1984, when male and female rhythmic gymnasts co-existed uneasily at the Los Angeles games, the men’s event disappeared from the Olympics. But the women’s game continued to grow, and the banner was carried by the grateful daughters of St. Irina.