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Melbourne 1956 - Key Moments

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 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. It was one between young and old, when 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 epitome 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.

Larissa Latynina won four gold medals in Melbourne, three golds in Rome 1960, five silvers and four bronzes.

Epic battle

Initially, Keleti started impressively, scoring well and taking two golds in two of her four individual disciplines, the asymetric bars and the balance beam. For her part, Latynina finished second in the asymetric bars and fourth in the balance beam. However, in the floor exercises, Latynina's specialty, 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 judgment on the vault was to prove costly for Keleti as Latynina finished first in the vault, 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 program.

As good as Caslavska and Szabo

Latynina was not finished collecting medals herself, and obtained a fourth title in the team combined event. Between 1956 and 1964, Latynina collected a total of 18 medals, the most by any Olympic athlete ever.

Only two other women won four gold medals in the same Olympic Games. In time, Czech's 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, 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.

Copyright 2008 Agence France-Presse.

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