Nelli Kim at the 1980 Olympics, courtesy of Nellikim.net
I have mixed feelings about Nelli Kim. She was certainly one of the most talented competitors the Soviet Union fielded in gymnastics, and that is saying something. She harvested first place all around at the 1979 World Championships, her country's only gold medal in a somewhat disastrous competition for the Soviet women. (That competition has become a very notorious one in history, if one remembers poor Nadia Comaneci's brave performance despite a serious wrist infection, and the winning Romanian team's sickeningly unhealthy appearance in Fort Worth.)
Nelli was also a great performer and character. Her career overlapped a time of fundamental change in the sport - when the lyricism of such performers as Tourischeva was overpowered by the pyrotechnical advances of the likes of Comaneci. Nelli managed to reconcile the two qualities, and to span the gap between the two eras. I don't think she ever really received full credit for doing so. The result of the 1976 Olympic all around was far tighter than the legendary status of Comaneci suggests.
Kim showed how ultra difficult tumbling (for the time; a double pike back somersault at the end of a floor exercise was an innovation of hers) could be integral to a polished and artistic floor performance, and she was one of the first to choreograph her floor routines to orchestrated music. She had a natural flair and spontaneity that gave her work great expression. Even if the dance moves were simple she was a gymnast you simply had to watch.
I don't share the idea that Nelli is responsible for all the poor judging decisions made in women's gymnastics in the last few years since her election as President of the Women's Technical Committee, but I was rather disappointed when last year she went on the open attack and criticised the Russian system in retaliation for some rather unguarded comments made by their head coach. Perhaps Nelli's thoughts reflect concern for the Russian system as much as frustration, but you would think that a senior figure of the FIG could show a little more constraint. But a fiery and open character is one if the things that defined Nelli as a gymnast, and it seems pretty much to be part of her nature. I enjoyed reading a 1976 article about her earlier this morning, about her great talent, and how she could not be ruled. Her relationship with her young and unconventional coach, Vladimir Baidin, was rather volatile, but stood the test of time as coach and gymnast battled in the fiercely political environment of Soviet gymnastics. Nelli was far from a sure selection for any of the competitions she is today so renowned for, partly because her style of gymnastics might have been considered outdated by the time of the Moscow Olympics, but also because of her ethnicity (Tatar mother, Korean father, Kazakstan-based). Favouritism and infighting are not recent innovations in gymnastics! You can read more about this in Nelli's autobiography which is available online at her personal website.
Nelli is highly respected in her home country, and there is a Nelli Kim Academy of Gymnastics in her town of Chimkent. sports.kz has also just released a new video documentary on the great champion which is a joy to watch even if, like me, you do not understand Russian. You can find it at the link given at the bottom of this page. There are interviews with many of her friends, both of her parents speak, and also former Kazak international Yernar Yerimbetov has his say.
In an interview Nelli expresses unhappiness that the Kazak system of gymnastics has failed since her day. There is one club in the whole of Chimkent, to serve 750,000 people. She suggests a resurrection of the old Soviet style system as a remedy to this, but doesn't suggest how the funding might be found ...
Enjoy the documentary - it is worthwhile suspending the constraints of understanding for the shots of Nelli today and in the past, her family and her life. A very special gymnast, a link to gymnastics' heady past, and today a high level sports politician, Nelli is perhaps part of the final generation to have really experienced the Soviet mystery at its best, first hand, and it is fascinating to find out more.
Nelli Kim speaks about the Russian system: http://rewritingrussiangymnastics.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/nelli-kim-russian-gymnastics-has-closed.html
Nelli's personal website : http://nelliekim.net/Gallery.html
Stanislav Tokarev writes about Nelli in 1976 : http://www.gymn-forum.net/Articles/Misc-Kim.html
Interview with Nelli today : http://sports.kz/news/nelli-kim-ochen-jal-chto-myi-poteryali-traditsii-jenskoy-gimnastiki-v-kazahstane
The documentary : Our Nelli Kim : http://sports.kz/news/nasha-kimanelli-dokumentalnyiy-film