LONDON — Larisa Latynina won 18 Olympic medals in gymnastics for the former Soviet Union, but she attended swimming Tuesday night. Michael Phelps was racing. He was trying to beat everyone in the pool and Latynina’s record as well. And when the moment came, she knew exactly what a great champion should do. She put on her lipstick.
For nearly half a century, no one approached the number of Olympic medals that Latynina won from 1956 to 1964. She was the first superstar in gymnastics at a time when womanly grace prevailed over teenage acrobatics. But Phelps tied her record Tuesday with a silver medal in the 200-meter butterfly and surpassed it with gold by swimming the anchor leg of the 4x200 freestyle relay.
Latynina joked in recent weeks that it was time for a man to be able to do what a woman had done long ago. And that it was too bad Phelps was not Russian.
“Forty-eight years is almost enough time to hold a record,” Latynina, who is 77, said earlier Tuesday by phone.
Later, she attended the swimming competition with her daughter, Tatyana. They wore matching blue shirts with RUSSIA across the front and white slacks, laughing when told that she still appeared fit enough to compete.
Latynina had hoped to congratulate Phelps and present him with his record-setting medal. But her daughter and others said that Olympic rules did not allow it. It seemed a shame, a grand moment to celebrate the most prolific Olympic champions squandered by red tape.
But Latynina remained gracious, fanning herself in the hot upper reaches of the Aquatics Centre. “Phelps deserves the record,” she said through an interpreter. “He is such a talented sportsman.”
Then Latynina smiled.
“Among women, I’m sure I will stay No. 1 for a long time,” she said.
This year in New York, Latynina did meet Phelps and presented him with a medal she had won in a Soviet-American dual meet in 1962. She found him “very simple, smiley, lovely to talk to.” They discussed training and, Latynina said, Phelps acknowledged that he had wearied of swimming and was ready to retire after the London Games.
“I think a person should go for sport only as long as they get pleasure from it,” Latynina said. “As soon as they stop enjoying it, they should stop.”
As she neared the loss of her record, Latynina actually gained broader attention than when she set it. Olympic television was in its infancy in her era, the Cold War raged and the Soviet Union was a closed society. It took Olga Korbut and her defiant smiles at the 1972 Munich Games to counter the grim stereotype of athletes behind the Iron Curtain.
“She kind of got lost in history,” Paul Ziert, the publisher of International Gymnast magazine, said of Latynina. When the Soviet Union broke up, “we had forgotten about her.”