On her way to our editorial office Liliya Podkopayeva was very nervous. The reason was rather banal but also quite important for every woman. She was convinced she did not look her best (despite everyone’s assurances to the contrary and the photo is graphic evidence) and was horrified by the prospect of posing for the staff photographer’s camera. In our conference room we tried to distract the Olympic champion by small talk which almost immediately became shop talk and proved the best remedy.
You have won 45 gold medals in top league competitions, you are an all-round Olympic, world, and European champion in the gymnastics. Are there any more worlds left for you to conquer in sports?
Podkopayeva: When I became an Olympic champion, my cherished dream came true. It was also a dream cherished by all those that had helped with my athletic career. And that career made no sense after Atlanta. After the greatest possible accomplishment in a certain field one ought to try something else and see if one can be as good there.
Didn’t you feel like continuing in some other sports capacity?
Podkopayeva: When you start going to school you study everything from A to Z. It’s the same with sports. As you grow older taking up anything professionally becomes difficult and even risky. Besides, at this stage you think more of the future. With women it’s children; with men it’s something else. I love gymnastics and will do my best to help others in this sport, I’ll conduct master classes, organize schools, and attract donors’ attention.
As you wept on the winner’s platform in Atlanta, perhaps every woman in Ukraine wept with you for joy...
Podkopayeva: I hope the men did, too.
Do you remember how you felt?
Podkopayeva: Above all, pride. I felt proud I’d made the US President and his family rise from their seats in the audience [as the Ukrainian anthem was played]. I also felt proud that my efforts and those of the people who helped me had come to fruition. Olympic gold is every athlete’s most cherished dream, but as you reach the summit you’re totally exhausted, you hurt all over, and you just break down and cry. I dedicated the gold medal to my grandmother Evelina who had passed away precisely a month before the Games. She had encouraged me to take up gymnastics that would become my life.
I was happy to see Ukraine come in first, and that it was the best country in the world. I felt that way later, living and working in the United States. When it came time to return I wept for joy. Home, sweet home! Once in Israel (our team was there to compete in an international tournament), I saw Jews landing in Jerusalem and kissing the ground. I felt that way when I returned to Ukraine.
Did you feel triumphant?
Podkopayeva: Yes, because Atlanta was a serious trial for Ukraine, and we proved our worth. We lived in the Olympic Village, and there were many other champions and prize winners. When we returned to Ukraine there were few champions among us, and we were welcomed. People would come up to me in the street to express their thanks and how they appreciated what I’d done for our country. Many said they’d stayed up till two in the morning so they could share the victory with me and that they’d cried. For me this people’s gratitude is the main thing.
Serhiy Bubka’s Pole Stars Tournament must have inspired you to start the Golden Lily in Donetsk. Did he help you with arrangements, technical, or tactical aspects?
Podkopayeva: I first visited him to ask his advice: Should I undertake the project? Serhiy liked the idea and we decided to make it a sports show, but not as an ultimate goal, because the project should help set up new gymnastic schools and restore the tradition. We’ve taken the first steps after last year’s Golden Lily. A gymnastic school will shortly open in Mariupol and we hope we’ll buy the equipment and make the repairs before September 1. Our task is to get children off the street. If some sport or another becomes the talk of the town, people tend to take it up and keep a healthy lifestyle.
Children start in gymnastics at five or six, and this sport develops all the muscle groups, so whether they continue in this sport or take up another one — or quit and become scientists or journalists — they will have a very healthy basis.
We often hear now — and with reason — that our sports are in a critical condition. Tournaments cost a lot of money. Who did you expect to help and how much help did you get?
Podkopayeva: Of course, we expected help from the state and partners. The Golden Lily took place thanks to philanthropists, and they’re now helping us with schools. In Mariupol, it’s Volodymyr Boiko and the Ilyich Combine. It’s people who know what life is like and they believe that our tournament is a good and useful thing.
We had problems organizing the Golden Lily and I am glad that Viktor Yanukovych is the honorary chairman of the organizing committee. With his help we started things going. Of course, we suffer from lack of funds, but it’s standard practice in Ukraine, in phase one anyway. The main thing is that the event did not pass unnoticed. In fact, there were 8,000 eager spectators for 4,000 seats in the audience.
From the outset we didn’t plan to stage only gymnastics; we wanted it to be a spectacle, so that people could see all its beauty. After the Atlanta Olympics we went on a tour of America where I saw that every gymnastic event could be staged to the accompaniment of music and using costumes. It thrilled the audience. So back in Ukraine we wanted to do something like that and surprise our public.
You admitted in an interview that you had discovered the computer and Internet for yourself only in the West in 1993.
Podkopayeva: My real experience dates from 1996 when I was shown a laptop and I didn’t know what it was. Just as I didn’t know the other meaning of mouse or that you could send a message via Internet and it would reach the addressee instantly. I was shocked to discover all that and couldn’t figure it out for a long time. I learned to use a PC in 1997.
Computers were not your only discovery, were they?
Podkopayeva: As for the Americans, I can’t blame them for anything. Actually, no one has a right to pass judgment on anyone. I spent a year in the United States and realized that life was very comfortable there. People could get an education, a job, and be paid for it. Yet it was all monotonous. Another advantage was that I improved my English and tasted adult life. When I quit professional gymnastics in 1997 after a leg injury, I decided to do only exhibition exercises. After big-time sports I realized I didn’t know a lot of things about everyday life, I wasn’t even sure of my manners. They say that a clever person learns from others’ mistakes. Not in my case. I had to learn from my own — and also from other peoples’ clever advice.
In America, I realized I couldn’t live without Ukraine. I wanted to put myself to the test and see if I could achieve something at home. What may have also decided me was when my coaches literally got down on their knees and begged me to help with gymnastics in Ukraine. Coaches are leaving this country en masse, so the best are already abroad. I wish my coach and the Ukrainian national’s chief coach returned home and trained our children, not rivals abroad.
Athletes in big-time sports often change nationality. Have you been offered to do so? How did you respond?
Podkopayeva: There’ve been no such offers, except that in 1994 my coach was offered money to have me refuse to appear in the balance beam finals. I’ve never really wanted to vie under different national colors. Making money is one thing, but changing nationality — I’d never do that.
They did offer you money if you didn’t appear in the finals. What goes on backstage in big-time sports?
Podkopayeva: Like in any business or politics, there are politics, undercurrents, and maneuvering away from the public eye. I was shocked to learn about that offer in 1994. It was my first big-time appearance and a totally new experience. I’d surely never miss the finals for a few thousand dollars, although it was very good money at the time.
We’ve heard a lot about referee scandals recently. Take the last Winter Games and what happened in the figure skating division. You’re just starting as a referee, but you must know what’s happening in your domain.
Podkopayeva: Yes, I’m just starting and I haven’t personally come across anything like that, but I know that money change hands and juries return unfair verdicts. In 1992, I made it to the pole-vault finals at the European championships. The sports moguls said I did just great. The one after me was the Romanian Lavinia Milosovic. She had competed in Barcelona. Her vault wasn’t too good, yet she scored better than I did. I was in tears and I asked why they did it. It was unfair. I was told that I had to make my name first and then it would work for me.
They started making Liliya Podkopayeva sports clothes in the United States recently. Apart from organization, are you involved with design as well?
Podkopayeva: I am. I brought my sketches when first visiting Los Angeles. I showed them at the factory, they said the sketches looked gorgeous, but that it would cost a lot of money, especially for one starting in business. Their advice was to make something simpler. I enrolled at the Donetsk Academy of Management (Department of Management and Foreign Economic Contacts). I think this kind of training will be useful in Ukraine and abroad.
I have two US partners. If you want to know English well, you have to be born in America or at least live there since childhood. I thought my English was more or less adequate, but when I went to the States I knew better. It was a nightmare. Back home we had an English teacher and studied after seven-hour training sessions. Well, you can imagine. In America, I went to school and attended classes with the kids for three months. Actually, communicating with them was very helpful.
Education will, of course, help you with the management and establishment of international contacts. But how did you find your way to fashion design?
Podkopayeva: Before we went to Atlanta, the sponsor company suggested that we sketch our costumes. All of us girls did. Let me tell you that my bathing suit won the contest. When I put it on and appeared on stage, I heard a lot of men in the audience say, “Sexy, sexy.” Maybe I made up my mind right then. I can’t say I’m a real designer, but it works.
You travel a lot. What’s your daily schedule like?
Podkopayeva: It’s unbelievable. Getting prepared for the Golden Lily last year, I was so busy with meetings and photo sessions that I got only three hours sleep a night. After the tournament I had to attend the school’s opening ceremony, then I had to act as a referee, then I had to fly to America. I’ll spend three months working there this summer. I recently joined the Party of the Regions and that means more meetings with people. In a word, my daily schedule is hard to describe. Besides, I have been in sports for 16 years, so I have to keep myself in shape.
Many political parties welcome noted athletes into their ranks, it’s good for the image. Was your party membership a conscious decision?
Podkopayeva: It was. I’ll be glad to help the party and people with my name. And I’d be happy to know that it helps the party get some important issues across to the government. But again, it’s a new experience I still have to learn: diplomacy and eloquence. I have to go about it step by step.
How about running for the parliament?
Podkopayeva: Maybe. Time will tell. I wouldn’t mind anyway.
You seem to live a highly dynamic life, but it’s mostly business. How about pleasure?
Podkopayeva: I’m human and sometimes I just get tired. There should be time for everything, music, singing, birds, the sea, outings with friends and shish kebab. And time for business, working hard, even non-stop if you want to get results. I’m fond of reading, the theater, discotheques. Although I prefer the theater. I’m glad that reading books like Alchemist, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is getting fashionable — I don’t do it because it’s “in” but because it’s very interesting. I’m reading Dostoyevsky’s Idiot. I want to develop myself. And then I’ll have children and will teach them good things.
Would you want your children to take up sports?
Podkopayeva: Yes, at an early stage, because I know it’ll do them good. Then they’d be free to make their own choice. Many athletes say they’ll never let their kids follow in their footsteps because it’s too hard. Well, no one’s pushing them. My children will surely go in for gymnastics. Serhiy Bubka did just that. Madonna took her daughter to a gym and the Norwegian schools have gymnastics one day every week.
You said in an interview that you would love to play in a movie. What kind of movie?
Podkopayeva: I don’t think I’d look good in a drama. Rather something of the 007 series, except that I’d want to be the one with the license to kill. I’m quick and I can do stunts. My heroine would be out there to save the world. But I don’t know about Ukrainian film directors. The trouble is that we don’t seem to have a filmmaking industry here.
I think I’ll stay single for another couple of years, and then I’ll settle down. I’ll want a family and a job, most likely something to do with show business, because that seems to be my essence. I’ll try everything I’ll find interesting. I want to be moving forward.