Former Soviet World Championship Gold Medalist Puts Freedom Ahead of Honor

By Shiwen Rong

A former champion gymnast from Ukraine won the World Cup at the tender age of 16, and became an Olympic champion one year later.

Stella Zakharova once lived in a totalitarian regime and now cherishes the concept of freedom she learned from the West.

“We were constrained in many ways. We did not have freedom of speech, freedom of movement. We had very strict restrictions,” she said.

Although training in the former Soviet Union allowed her to win many medals, she believed that compared with the honor she received, freedom was truly commendable.

“Then we were warned that we had no right to go to competitions and communicate with whomever we wanted, to give interviews without permission from our leaders. Officials would send certain people to travel with us, who stood behind us, and controlled every step we made.”

Even though she was just a child, it was not easy to be a professional athlete under the strict regime.

Zakharova recalled that it was forbidden to say “I can’t do it today” and, if the Soviet school fails to win a medal at the Olympics, it will be a big tragedythe same goes for Chinese athletes.

“China is a very powerful country but there is a dictatorship within their sports realm,” she said. “They are trained, and are trained in very tough circumstances. It is just like how it was done with us in the Soviet Union.”

After she moved to Sweden to live with her husband, only then did she learn that there is a completely different way to live.

“When we arrived there, we saw how people in a free democratic European country had freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of action,” Zakharova said. “Without the greed, this society made me realize that it’s possible to live in a completely different way.”

She believes that freedom can help people achieve a greater self-realization, and truly develop themselves in their careers.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, she moved back to the Ukraine with her family. She then established the Stella Zakharova Cup, an International Artistic Gymnastics Championship with the hope of bringing the lessons she has learned back to her home.