Nina Ponomaryova: the first Soviet Olympic champion
Discus thrower Nina Ponomaryova competed in four Olympic Games, earning the championship title in two of them. But her main record, which will never be broken, is that she became the FIRST Olympic champion in Soviet history. For the USSR the gold medal account began with Ponomaryova’s victory at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, in which this country’s team took part for the first time since 1912.
The Games, where Cold War tension prevailed, began with a sensational victory of Soviet women discus throwers. On July 20, 1952, 23-year-old Nina Ponomaryova set a new Olympic record at 51.42 meters, thus earning the first Olympic gold medal in the history of the USSR. Gold and silver medals in the event were won by Nina’s team-mates. “Soviet athletes occupied the podium,” local newspapers wrote.
“We were trailblazers,” Nina Ponomaryova says, recalling her Olympic debut. “At first we only had a vague idea about the Olympic Games. We knew very little about them, as they were not popularized in the Soviet Union at that time. But as soon as we saw a crowded 100-thousand-seat stadium, we realized that we were to take part in a grandiose event. My team-mates, Nina Dumbadze and Yelizaveta Bagryantseva, were experienced athletes, while I was just a beginner, so my Olympic record was like a bolt from the blue! I was very nervous. Indeed, we were under tremendous pressure all the time. Only after I felt a heavy golden circle in my hand I did realize what happened. I was the first Soviet Olympic Champion, the first record-holder of the 15th Olympiad… Tears were biting my eyes. How happy I was!”
The first postwar years, when Nina Ponomaryova began her sports career, were very hard for people in this country, and athletes were no exception. One day Nina, who at that time competed for the Spartak Sports Society, fainted during a workout – because of undernourishment. Her coach addressed the Soviet Army Club headed by Vasily Stalin, asking to raise her salary. The request was fulfilled, so, as Nina said, in a way, she owed her career to Joseph Stalin’s son.
When Ponomaryova, a hitherto unknown discus thrower, became an Olympic Champion in 1952, the Western media nicknamed her “the iron lady”. The journalists couldn’t understand how such a young girl, who just three years ago was a mere saleswoman, could achieve that much in sports. Many said she was an athlete by the Grace of God, others called her a ‘phenomenal girl’. Nina Ponomaryova usually replied that she was an ordinary person, the only difference being that she grew up during the Second World War, when men left for the frontlines, and women and teenagers, like herself, had to do all the hard physical work. Hence, her physical fitness, which enabled her to set new records with amazing easiness. To compete for her meant to win, and win she did! Shortly before she gave birth to a son, Nina won the competitions timed to the World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow in 1957. Her son Alexander was just two months old when Ponomaryova competed at the Soviet championships and won again!
A photo taken in the early 1950s, depicts Nina Ponomaryova, an attractive girl in the full bloom of youth. Hard to believe that this Russian beauty was a ‘camp’ child, born in one of Stalin’s Gulags, where she lived until the age of six. Nina’s parents were released in 1935, and the family moved to a Cossack village near Yessentuki, in southern Russia, where the girl finished school and began working at a local shop. Once 19-year-old Nina, whose thoughts and aspirations were far away from sports, was asked to take part in an amateur track-and-field tournament. She finished third, and a year later won a grenade throwing competition. Before she was included in the discus throwing team, Ponomaryova also tried her hand at javelin hurling and shot putting, and not without success.
“In 1948 I became Russia’s champion in shot putting,” Nina Ponomaryova recalls. “I was given a ribbon with an inscription: “Russia’s Champion” with the emblem of the Russian Federation. That was my most memorable award. As a champion, I had to take a lap of honor around the stadium, with the entire audience greeting me with applause. It was the greatest reward one can hope for.”
Ponomaryova, who’s long been dubbed an Olympic legend, competed in many veterans tournaments. In 1994 she won the gold at the European veterans championships in Greece – at the age of 65. In 2007, she became a winner of the “Slava”, or “Glory”, Russian national sports award. Commenting on the event, Ponomaryova said she felt as happy as a lark, adding with her inimitable sense of humor that ‘although she was as ancient as the Olympic Games themselves, she felt young once again’.