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Stella Zakharova, a former world and Olympic champion in gymnastics, finds her place in life
Stella Zakharova achieved a lot in her prime as a gymnast — she won championships, she won the World Cup, she won the Olympics in 1980. Achievements of her later life are no less impressive.
She was born in Odesa on July 12 1963, and became an Olympic champion at seventeen. It is a great achievement indeed. But a gymnast’s career in big-time sport does not last too long. In 1987 she moved to Sweden to live there with her husband, Viktor Khlus, a soccer player. In 1997 she returned to Ukraine and headed the National Gymnastics Federation for some time. She founded an international charity fund, Sport i dity (Sport and Children), and an international tournament, Kubok olimpiyskoyi chempionky Stelly Zakharovoyi (Cup of the Olympic Champion Stella Zakharova), which is held annually, and a gymnastics school that she runs herself. In November 2007 Ms Zakharova organized, for the second time, a show, Zirkovi vechory zi Stelloyu Zakharovoyu (Star Parties with Stella Zakharova). The show was a resounding success. Part of the proceeds has been given to charity.
Ms Zakharova was interviewed by Yevhen BUDKO, Mizhnarodny Turyzm senior editor.
Ms Zakharova, were you satisfied with the latest Zirkovi vechory show?
Basically yes, but there is always a lot that I want to improve. I always regard whatever I do with a critical eye. Judging by the reaction of those who took part in the show, this year’s Zirkovi vechory was a considerable step forward compared to the show held last year. We have already developed new ideas for the next show too. There are a lot of concerts and all kinds of shows held in Kyiv and you have to produce something that would distinguish your show from the rest, something bright and attractive, something meaningful, something that will be truly appreciated by the participants and by the audience. The main characteristic feature of our Zirkovi vechory shows is a combination of sport and art, and the main idea is to pay tribute to those people who achieved a lot in the past and by their achievements made Ukraine better known in the world. There are “stars” that shine only for a short time and then fade away, but the people I invite for Zirkovi vechory shows established themselves as permanent stars in the firmament of achievements, be it in sports or in other spheres of human endeavor. People of today should know the achievements of people of the past and respect them. Among the people we invite are film and theater directors, actors and actresses, artists and athletes, many of those who were well known in the past but whose names are hardly remembered now.
Do the local authorities or state support in any way your Zirkovi vechory shows?
Not really, we have to rely mostly on ourselves and on sponsors who help us. Some people express an opinion that the shows are organized solely for the purpose of promoting the image of Stella Zakharova. It could not be further from the truth and I am pained when I hear such opinions. There are even some people who want to undermine our activities or destroy us. But by this I do not mean that all the officials are bad. We do get some help from the state budget. Progressively-minded people understand that our society needs shows like ours. Besides, we use the proceeds from the shows to help orphanages, children suffering from cancer, and support sports for children.
How do the rich and beau monde people react to your shows?
It’s not really for me to judge. I want to promote beauty and good. I don’t care for pop shows of poor quality and worse taste which, unfortunately, are so popular today. I was born in the Soviet Union, and lived for some time under the soviet regime, but I also lived in a western country and learned a lot about democracy and its institutions. I want to do all I can to make life in Ukraine a little better.
As far as the beau monde people, as you’ve put it, are concerned, their reaction to our shows, as far as I know, has been positive. But I also know that some of the pop stars or well-known public figures were dismissive of our shows — they do not care for anything which does not directly promote their fame. But when our proposals are turned down, we never turn to these people again with any propositions. We have enough people we want to remind the public of.
Take, for example, the sculptor Valentyn Znoba. He’s extremely talented and a very nice person too. I thought that the general public should know about him much more. We invited him to take part in our show but he died some time before the show was to be held. I was very upset… We invited several soccer players, really famous in the past but now almost forgotten — Biba, Troshkin, Rybakov. They have a lot in them that they could pass on to the younger generations of today. People like them achieved a lot in their time but later they did not find their place in life and we should support them in some way.
What helped you find your place in life?
No, it was not what, it was who. It was my husband, Viktor Khlus, who was a player of the Dynamo Soccer Club when we met, that helped me most in finding my place in life after I’d quit big time sport. When I was at the peak of my sport career and had won all the highest awards in the world of gymnastics one can win, my life consisted only of constant training, workouts interspersed with periods to rest to gain strength for further training and for winning more medals. I was told, “Keep winning medals, and live your personal, private life later.” But then a moment came when I could not win any more medals and I realized I did not know what to do with my life. It was like standing at the edge of an abyss. I suddenly found that “normal” life had rules and priorities quite different from those I had become used to. Transition to “normal” life proved to be very difficult for me. But thanks to the support given to me by my husband, I began searching for things to do. I became a gymnastics judge. I rose to an international level and saw gymnastics from quite a different perspective. And I found my new occupation was quite exciting!
You seem to be a person of lofty ambition. What kind of start did you get in life?
I did not have rich or influential parents. In fact, I never knew my father, and my mother did not have time to raise me, so it were my grandparents who took care of me… Granny made slippers and sold them at a flea market in Odesa to make some money. It was my grandfather who took me to the gym when I was five or six. We got up early, at about six in the morning to be at the gym at seven… My mother had moved to the city of Kishinev in Moldova, and later she took me with her to Kishinev. She put me in a boarding school that specialized in sports. It was tough but I liked it. I never missed a single workout, rain or snow or heat… I progressed in gymnastics fast and was taken to the young gymnasts’ team of the Soviet Union… So many years later, I still remember vividly that day when we, the young members of the team, were introduced to the then famous gymnasts — Olga Korbut, Lyudmyla Turyshcheva, Nelli Kim, Mariya Filatova. We were mesmerized! We saw with our eyes the great gymnasts of the day, and we wanted to achieve even more than those stars of gymnastics did.
Do you know why were you given the name of Stella at birth?
I don’t think my mother was aware what the word actually meant. She just wanted to give her daughter an unusual name, that’s all. In fact, I learned that the word “stella” is Latin and means “a star” not so long ago.
If you don’t mind personal questions — may I ask why you went to live in Sweden in 1987?
No, I don’t mind personal questions. There was nothing political in that move. My husband Viktor was invited to play for a soccer team of Goteborg. We did not plan to stay in Sweden for a long time, we thought that when we’d earn enough money to buy a good fridge, a microwave oven and other useful things, we’d go back home. Life in a western country seemed like a fairy tale compared to life in the Soviet Union. But then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. We were both of us members of the Soviet Communist Party — you could hardly make a career of any sort in the Soviet Union without joining the communist party — and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we decided to resign our membership. We went to the Soviet consulate and left our party cards there in a gesture of resignation. We felt at a loss, we did not know what our status was, citizens of which country we were. With Ukraine regaining its independence — did we automatically become Ukrainian citizens? With so much uncertainty, we decided to stay in Sweden and see what would happen. Viktor did not play soccer any longer but he found a job as a coach. We even opened our own sport company…
Why did you come back to Ukraine after ten years in Sweden?
There came a moment when we realized that we would not be able to achieve what we wanted to achieve in Sweden, our ambitious plans could hardly succeed. I felt I had a greater potential in me than working as a sports instructor at school. Frankly, I found it quite boring. I had a higher goal in mind to achieve to be satisfied with what I do in life. On one hand, life seemed to be smooth — my job did not require much strain, physical or psychological, we had enough money for many things, good holidays included, we had enough time for the family, we could just relax and enjoy life, but I was tormented by nostalgia, by a desire to do something much more active and gratifying. On one of the visits to Kyiv, I realized that Ukraine had changed a lot, that we could live decently in Ukraine. And we decided to return and live in Ukraine. The only thing that delayed somewhat our decision to return was our son. He had grown up in Sweden, he went to a Swedish school — would he be able to fit into life which was very much different from life in Sweden? But our son supported our decision and said it would be great fun.
He was not disappointed, was he?
No, not at all. He works at the Ministry of Transport of Ukraine. Incidentally, he is fluent in several languages — Ukrainian, Russian, Swedish and English.
But you have a daughter too, don’t you?
Yes, we do. I wanted to have a daughter born in Ukraine very much — my prayers were heard and eight years ago I gave birth to a girl, Khrystyna.
Do you encourage her to do sports?
Yes, I do. She often joins me in the gym, but I have no intention to encourage her to become a professional athlete. Let her do sports for physical development. I want her to become an intellectual rather than an athlete. Besides, you can’t develop properly as a gymnast these days in Kyiv — there are no gyms or facilities equipped to provide the right kind of training. Gyms are bought by the rich developers and turned into something else, and it does a great harm to the development of sports in Kyiv.
What about gymnastics? Does it have any future in Ukraine? You should know better than anyone else — you headed the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation for some time!
It’s a very painful subject. Gymnastics that used to be an excellently developed sport, one of the best in the world, is going downhill in Ukraine. It seems that gymnastics in Ukraine is being destroyed on purpose. Coaches and trainers have to leave Ukraine and go abroad to earn their living, people who would be able to do a lot for developing gymnastics in Ukraine are either dismissed or ignored. And I know the person who has done particularly much for destroying gymnastics in Ukraine — it is Viktor Korzh, Minister for Matters of Family, Youth and Sports, as his post is called. At the same time, he is president of the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation.
At the last world championship, Ukrainian gymnasts performed very poorly. Mr Korzh seemed to have put the blame on me — absolutely groundless accusation. Instead of looking for the causes of that poor performance and doing something to improve the situation, they, at the highest echelons of power, start looking for scapegoats.
Was the Cup of the Olympic Champion Stella Zakharova competition instituted to help remedy the situation?
Yes, it was part of my ongoing effort to salvage whatever can be salvaged and turn the tide and improve the situation. There are people thanks to whose efforts other sports survive and develop. Among them are Oleksandr Volkov in basketball, Turchyna in handball, to name just a few…
I invite athletes from the leading world gymnastics federations across the globe — from China to the USA. Last time 18 such federations took part, and the actual competitions are held under the UN aegis. By holding the Cup of the Olympic Champion Stella Zakharova competitions, we make Ukraine better known in the world, we make our gymnasts try harder, we develop the skills of coaches and judges, we promote sports in Ukraine.
Will Ukrainian gymnasts have a chance of winning any medals at the next Olympics to be held in Beijing?
Well, I would, of course, want our gymnasts to win medals but realistically there’s not much chance for that. The male team of Ukrainian gymnasts has not qualified for the Olympics — and it happened for the first time since Ukraine began to take part in the Olympic Games. So, only individual male gymnasts will go to the Olympics. Chinese and Brazilian athletes, traditionally strong in gymnastics, have improved their performance considerably, let alone Russian gymnasts. So, Ukrainian gymnasts will face a very tough competition. If there is no proper background for the development of a sport, one can’t hope for great results at international competitions.
Let me ask some more personal questions. Where do you go for vacations?
There’s not much time for vacations in my life — there’s so much I’d like to do and so little time for doing that. But once in a while you do have to chill out. This year we are planning to go to the Carpathians to ski in winter. It was only last year that I learnt to ski and I found I just love it! And I like the Carpathians. So, it’ll be a good combination. I like horse riding too. I go to a horse riding center in the vicinity of Kyiv every weekend. Horses seem to be better to socialize with than people…
Do you have a dacha to go to?
Yes, we do. It sits on a small plot of land but it has everything that a dacha should have — quiet, trees, green grass, and fresh air. It’s such a respite to stay at the dacha after the hustle and bustle of the city. Our dacha is close to a village, and it feels so nice to become part of the rural life once in a while.
Do the villagers know that they have an Olympic champion for a neighbor?
They do. I buy milk from an old woman and she always greets me, saying, “Here’s good milk for our champion.” And the milk is really good — a great difference from what you can buy at a supermarket.
Did you have a country house in Sweden?
We did, a small one too. I was so surprised to see our neighbors throw away the apples and plums that have fallen down from their trees and buy fruit in stores. The forest nearby was full of mushrooms and berries but we were the only ones who picked them. You lived in the Soviet Union, you lived in Sweden, and now you live in independent Ukraine.
Is there anything that you find very special in Ukraine?
Generosity is one of the great features of the Ukrainians. But for me the main Ukrainian feature is an ability to do the impossible, to find a way out of the toughest situations. One Swedish physician once told me after attending an international seminar held in Ukraine, “Your country has a great intellectual potential. We, in Sweden do not have that.”
I wish we’d find a way to realize that potential. For that we have to change a lot in our attitude to each other, to the land we live on, to our environment. It seems to me that Ukrainian people who are basically so industrious, generous and welcoming, are becoming more and more estranged and embittered. But I never lose faith.
Photos have been provided by the Sport i dity Fund
Stella signs autographs for the youngest
Stella Zakharova and the Patriarch
Stella Zakharova and Volodymyr Hryshko,
Stella Zakharova’s collections of prizes
Stella Zakharova as an MC at the Zirkovi
The latest Zirkovi vechory show