Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, the most decorated Olympian of all time, will cheer American swimmer Michael Phelps in his bid to break her record at the London Games.
“I wouldn't be bitter if he did,” Latynina, now a sprightly 77, said. “As they say, records are made to be broken. He is a great champion and a very nice young man. If anything, I can only wish him well because I'm a huge admirer of his talent. I just enjoy watching him swim.”
Latynina’s eyes lit up as she proudly recalled her own triumphs.
“I remember just about everything. Each was a unique experience in itself, each one had its own things to remember,” said Latynina, who competed in Melbourne (1956), Rome (1960) and Tokyo (1964), winning a record 18 medals, nine of them gold.
Phelps, who has 16 medals, 14 of them gold, from his two previous Games, is likely to better Latynina's medal haul in London, where he is due to compete in seven events.
Latynina, who met the American for the first time at a sponsors’ event in New York this year, was certain he would overtake her.
“I have no doubt about it. He already has 16 and should win at least three more in London,” said the Russian.
“If you talk about great athletes, I can't wait to see this guy (Usain) Bolt run in London. He is just something else, out of this world,” she said of the Jamaican sprinter.
“Or take Roger Federer for example. Aside from great results one can only marvel at his grace, dignity and style on the tennis court. He is just a great example of a great athlete."
Asked to name the greatest athlete, Latynina paused for a few seconds, taking a deep breath. “If you want to know the greatest of all time the first thing you look for is how many medals they have won,” she said.
“Of course, some would not agree because many athletes just have one chance (in each Olympics) to win a medal — in boxing or wrestling for example. So medal count itself does not give a true meaning of who is the greatest but it gives you a good indication.
“For example, (Soviet figure skater) Irina Rodnina has competed at three Olympics and she has three golds. But I also took part in three Olympics and brought home gold medals from each one. It's hard to judge.”