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Interview: Stella Zakharova (UKR)
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Stella Zakharova signs autographs at her annual competition, the Zakharova Cup.

Olympic champion Stella Zakharova tells IG her side of the conflict with the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation that has embroiled her annual tournament.

Zakharova, a world championship, World Cup and Olympic gold medalist, received a letter in November that the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation would not sanction the eighth edition of the international Stella Zakharova Cup, scheduled for February 2009.

In the 2008 letter (see box), the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation stated its executive committee had decided to ask the International Gymnastics Federation to include on its international calendar — instead of the Zakharova Cup — a competition held in honor of the late Boris Shakhlin. (There is no limit to the number of international competitions a nation may hold each year.)

After Zakharova complained to the press, the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation responded with a public letter asking her to drop her conflict with the federation. The letter accused her of running an "aggressive" campaign against the federation, and was signed by Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation President Viktor Korzh, as well as multiple champions in artistic and rhythmic gymnastics and trampoline, including Igor Korobchinsky, Valery Goncharov, Oksana Omelianchik, Irina Krasnyanskaya, Anna Bessonova and Yuri Nikitin. Rhythmic gymnastics coaches Irina and Albina Deryugina also signed the letter.

Zakharova, a native of Odessa, was a member of the gold medal-winning Soviet team at the 1980 Olympic Games and 1981 World Championships. Her individual all-around titles included the 1979 American Cup, the 1979 and 1980 Moscow News, and the 1979 and 1980 World Cup. She also won silver medals on vault at both the 1979 and 1981 World Championships.

Zakharova retired in 1982 and married Dynamo Kiev soccer star Viktor Khlus. They moved to Sweden in 1987, where Khlus played and coached. They have a son, Oleg, born in 1983, and a daughter, Kristina, born in 1999.

In 1997, the family moved back to Kiev, where Khlus is now manager of the Arsenal soccer club. In 2002 Zakharova established the Zakharova Cup, which has attracted gymnasts from top nations including China, the U.S. and Russia to Kiev. She founded a charity fund, "Sport and Children," and also organized shows, "Star Parties with Stella Zakharova," to raise money for orphanages and pediatric cancer.

In 2004, Zakharova was elected president of the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation by a one-vote margin of victory over incumbent Igor Korobchinsky. Korobchinsky, the 1989 world all-around champion and 1992 Olympic gold medalist, brought a lawsuit against Zakharova, accusing her of corrupting the election.

In this IG Online interview, Zakharova talks to IG about the 2004 election, her Zakharova Cup, and the controversy that has split the Ukrainian gymnastics community.

Letters to Stella Zakharova

Zakharova provided IG with translations of letters she received from the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation regarding its support of her annual tournament. It was the second letter in 2008 that kicked off a public war between Zakharova and the federation.

Excepts from 2006 letter from UGF
Attention: Stella Khlus (Zakharova), President of the International Welfare Fund "Sport and Children"

Dear Mrs. Stella!
The executive committee of the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation in all ways supports any initiatives directed at the development, extension and popularization of gymnastics disciplines in Ukraine and in the world. Such approach is dictated by the FIG Statute, Law for Physical Culture and Sport, sports policy of its international gymnastics organizations, of which the UGF is a member.

In accordance with this very approach, being answerable to the state and the society for the development of all six gymnastics disciplines both in Kiev and in the regions of Ukraine, during the meeting of the UGF on May 15, 2006, a unanimous decision was made to support "name tournaments" on the condition that it is guaranteed that their payment is covered by sponsor money.

According to the aforementioned, the executive committee confirms its full readiness to support your honorable efforts to popularize artistic gymnastics - in organization and holding of the VI International Tournament of Artistic Gymnastics "Stella Zakharova Cup" and to plead with the FIG Board concerning the inclusion of your tournament in its international event calendar, only on the condition that it will be financed from its own sources.

President Viktor Korzh

2008 letter from UGF
Attention: Stella Khlus (Zakharova), President of the International Welfare Fund "Sport and Children"

Dear Mrs. Stella!

During the meeting of the executive committee of the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation, that took place on Oct. 27, 2008, your request was considered concerning the plea to the International Gymnastics Federation to include the Stella Zakharova Cup in its international event calendar.

At the same time, the executive committee of the UGF received the plea of the technical committees in men's and women's artistic gymnastics, athletes and coaches concerning the organization of the international tournament in memory of Boris Shakhlin.

The executive committee decided to: organize the international tournament in memory of B. Shakhlin and request the FIG include this tournament in its international event calendar.

Taking into consideration the limited budget and sources of financing for international sports events, the executive committee decided to refrain from requesting the FIG include in its calendar the "Stella Zakharova Cup."

At the same time, the executive committee addresses you, Mrs. Stella, as the professional of the highest level and the patriot of Ukrainian gymnastics, to become a co-organizer of the International Tournament in memory of B. Shakhlin.

With respect,
President Viktor Korzh

Source: Stella Zakharova

IG: You moved to Sweden in 1987, and returned to Ukraine in 1997. What was gymnastics like in Soviet Ukraine in 1987, and how did you find it upon your return?

SZ: The first thing I want to say is that in the Soviet Union there was an accurate and professional approach to gymnastics. Gymnasts always received what they needed for high-level training. Each service which worked with athletes was professionally trained for their jobs as masseurs, doctors, choreographers, coaches. Athletes had everything necessary for a successful as possible preparatory process. Everyone gave them the maximum care.

To compare gymnastics in 1980 with what we have now in Ukraine is very hard. I do not wish to give comments about this, because this is the job of head coaches and senior coaching staff. I only wish to note that gymnastics in the Soviet Union was at a high level, and the results attested to this.

IG: Can you tell us about your involvement in gymnastics since your return to Ukraine? Where is the Zakharova Gymnastics School, and how many children train there?

SZ: The Stella Zakharova Club is in Kiev, and is open on the base of the Army sports club. It was opened three years ago without the aid of the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation and operated for two years. We worked thanks to the help of people and company sponsors who care about sports and the future of children. For some time we were forced to close the school because of a difficult financial situation. But since September 2008 the Stella Zakharova Club is operating again and accepts all people who are interested in doing artistic gymnastics. Every day we get many calls from people who want to sign their children up at the club.

I put out a maximum effort to popularize gymnastics, sports and a healthy way of life. At the club there are already two big groups of 20 people.

IG: Your election as president of the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation in 2004 was challenged in court by Igor Korobchinsky. Can you explain your side of what happened?

SZ: There was a congress following the [2004] Olympic Games. The congress always is prepared by representatives of the Sports Ministry. I did not see the documents concerning the preparation - representatives of rhythmic gymnastics and a part of artistic gymnastics supervised it. My actions for the preparation of the congress were the following - I went to the regional centers, communicated with representatives of gymnastics and coaches, told and showed the program which I had been developing during the previous four years. My opponent Korobchinsky did not assume that I could (with clean hands, without money and only with a worthy program) convince people to vote for me. Right after the congress, under the direction of the leaders of rhythmic gymnastics, which is no secret, a lawsuit was brought against me. This despite I reached out to cooperate with all disciplines, especially rhythmic gymnastics. I was ready to work with them, but, unfortunately, rhythmic gymnastics did not want to hear me.

For a year and a half I was dragged into court - it was a very difficult and unfair process. On my side there were many people, among them Yelena Vitrichenko, Lyudmila Turischeva and many other known gymnasts. The conflict was at a deadlock. After a year and a half I signed a memorandum from the National Olympic Committee to stop these scandals and to give the federation a chance to develop. I have made the independent decision to transcend myself for the good of sports in Ukraine. I left.

FIG President Bruno Grandi, having listened to my side, told me that I had taken a step in the right direction, which was very nice to hear. I thought that at last, we would start to work and develop gymnastics in Ukraine.

Zakharova on the cover of the May 1979 issue of International Gymnast

But, at a special conference, I, the Olympic champion of merited master of sport, was kicked out of the federation for immoral behavior. Tell me what immoral behavior there can be in the case of an Olympic champion devotes her life to sports and has brought the big contribution to gymnastics development through achievements in sport. I couldn't then and I still can't now come up with an answer to this question.

IG: Unlike past presidents of the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation like Turischeva, Korobchinsky and yourself, Viktor Korzh is an unfamiliar name in the gymnastics world. Why do you believe he was elected president, without any background or knowledge of gymnastics?

SZ: It's very difficult for me to comment on this. I too would like to ask this question to the management of our federation. I was in a shock when at a special conference Korzh was unanimously elected, and it was unclear who had backed him. At the conference there were people from totally different kinds of sports, like kickboxing, who expressed their opinion and gave an assessment of gymnastics. It was a very complex and scandalous process.

In the past, athletes and coaches, with world-famous names, have provided a very good base for the federation and would be the right people to develop everything, and to popularize gymnastics in Ukraine and the world. It is difficult to me to make comments about who Korzh is, for as I know it he was only a bicyclist (and within the Soviet Union did not reach any ranks nor titles), and that is all I know about him. For me it's not clear who proposed his nomination for president.

IG: The UGF sent you a letter stating they will support only the Shakhlin Cup with the FIG calendar and not the Zakharova Cup. The FIG has a new rule that there can only be one stage of the World Cup in each country per year; however, there can still be other international competitions. We are puzzled as to why Ukraine cannot have both the Zakharova Cup in March and the Shakhlin Cup in May. Is there a worry there is not enough private and government sponsorship for two international artistic gymnastics competitions?

SZ: For the tournament I can answer only on behalf of my partners and the state. From year to year, we hold a tournament with such high-level guests that the mass media (Ukrainian and international) reports on it. Even in a time of strong economic crisis, we can confirm that the tournament will happen. Big companies such as Coca-Cola, Samsung and McDonald's have supported us for seven years and they consider it very prestigious to help Ukrainian sports. The state has helped us for seven years, allocating financial help. The state of Ukraine understands that for the country it is a big plus when its capital holds an international tournament bringing in foreign visitors. I wish to express huge gratitude to the state representatives for their support and understanding the value of the tournament for the country.

Stella Zakharova at the 1980 World Cup

As to the federation, it is a public body which should not interfere with affairs of the state and choose to whom the state can and can't give financing. But the president of the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation, in contrast, tries to interfere with this process and does it by every possible method, for example, by not signing a sanction. How can a reasonable person who loves sports do such a thing? It is a shame to me to hear statements from people supervising the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation that such a tournament is not necessary to Ukraine. In the world a large number of competitions take place and people are happy about it. The big companies and national federations are happy to help sports development within the countries. And what do we see in Ukraine? The federation contradicts all rules of the Olympic charter, the charter and on the end to movement, forbidding us to hold the tournament. But, the Cup disturbs only the president of the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation. I can say with confidence that behind me there are people who support me and want this tournament to happen, among them are Olympic champions, elite trainers, athletes. This Cup is not for Viktor Korzh, but for the whole world, for gymnasts, for children who can come and watch gymnastics competitions, for people which cannot live without sports.

It is very upsetting to me that our national team will not compete in the tournament, although they took part for the first five years. Well-known gymnasts like Alina Kozich, Valery Goncharov and Alexander Vorobyov have taken part in our Cup. And now this competition is suddenly unimportant for them, though each athlete understands what it means to test the podium at the Kiev Palace of Sports. I cannot understand - what happened?

It's time to use our best efforts so the federation can start to work amicably, to stop these scandals. I am confident that if there would have been no intervention by the rhythmic gymnastics leadership, we would have an amicable, united team in the federation.

IG: What is the status of the 2009 Zakharova Cup? Will you be able to hold it?

SZ: For seven years I have held this competition, and next year will be no exception. Living up to its tradition, it will pass at a high professional level. Regarding funding, we don't need to worry, but what I am concerned about are the barriers set by the federation leadership. We have to think how to stop this mess.

IG: You have said Viktor Korzh is destroying Ukrainian gymnastics. Why do you think so?

Zakharova at the 1979 USSR Display in London

SZ: My opinion is that if the president of the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation would unite all the disciplines and resolve all these conflicts and questions, and cease interfering with carrying out of the international tournaments in Ukraine, then he would be worthy of his position. But he does everything to the contrary - he only destroys things and increases the number of scandals exponentially. For a long time it would have been possible to sit down for a roundtable discussion about how to solve problems and how to lift Ukrainian gymnastics. I am ready to make any compromise for the sake of gymnastics, but now I receive only protest instead of letters to work amicably for the good of the Ukrainian and world gymnastics.

IG: The state of Ukrainian gymnastics is clearly in crisis, with weaker and weaker results each year. What do you think must be done to help the gymnasts return to their former glory? How many gymnastics clubs are in Ukraine today?

SZ: In Ukraine there are few private gymnastic clubs. It's possible to safely name my club, and also the well-known Serebryanskaya school [of 1996 Olympic rhythmic gymnastics champion Yekaterina Serebryanskaya]. The others are Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation-sponsored clubs or various youth sports schools which are financed by the state.

As a gymnast and Olympic champion, I understand that to rescue Ukrainian sports we must quickly get everybody connected with sports in line and figure out how we can get out of this situation that has developed. Roll up our sleeves and start working, to prepare for the next Olympic cycle and the big meets. We have to take advantage of every tiny possibility. We must do this for our athletes and coaches. We have to stop all conflicts.

IG: What do you think was the purpose of this recent letter from the federation, asking you to stop your "aggressive" campaign against the federation? What do you think they want from you?

SZ: I would wish to address this question once again to the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation. Nobody can distinctly, accurately, plainly answer. And to write dirt about people, without reasons, is very ugly. I cannot understand, how it's possible to speak, remorselessly, bad things about a person, especially about someone who does a lot not only for gymnastics, but also for Ukrainian sports as a whole. It is very unethical. I always try to get away from conflicts and not to make comments on other people.

IG: The November letter accused you of hurting the image of gymnastics in Ukraine. What is your response?

I wish to ask, how I, having brought merits and medals, a tournament, and various charitable projects to our country, I am hurting the image of Ukraine? Inviting the international visitors and athletes, giving children holidays? Spending bright sports events at high international level? What exactly here is negative, that affects the image of our country?

IG: What is the history of your conflict with Irina and Albina Deryugina? Irina Deryugina, of course has her own problems, being suspended by the FIG through 2012. Why are these rhythmic gymnastics coaches involved in this situation?

Zakharova at the 1979 World Championships in Ft. Worth

SZ: I asked this question to the administrative board of federation. Irina Ivanovna Deryugina receives a lot of state financing for her rhythmic tournament, the Deryugina Cup, and nobody prevents her from working and holding the Deryugina Cup. I cannot understand why we cannot develop artistic gymnastics as a first-rate sport in our country. I invest the maximum effort, sacrifice myself, sometimes even my family life to develop sport in Ukraine and promote healthy lifestyles.

I cannot understand, why the federation has these constant conflicts. For more than 10 years there have been arguments, conflicts and proceedings. It all began with Lyudmila Turischeva, who when establishing the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation fought against the creation of separate national federations rhythmic and artistic gymnastics.

I had just returned from Sweden to Ukraine and was shocked by what was happening, when Serebryanskaya wanted to hold her competition in rhythmic gymnastics, but was not allowed. After that Yelena Vitrichenko [was not allowed], and further [Deryugina's] hand reached to Stella Zakharova. But this year Deryugina's hand survived until the FIG [sanctioned her]. I wish to explain to the whole world that I have not started this conflict. I sometimes extend my hand to stop this conflict, for reconciliation and cooperation. I even signed a memorandum (whose positions were broken by Deryugina's people a week after signing!).

I try to help gymnastics, coaches and athletes. We do business with well-known companies, delivered equipment for the national team at Koncha-Zaspa. I do not wish to start detailing everything that happened, I do not consider it correct and I do not wish to do it. But when Stella Zakharova became an inconvenience to rhythmic gymnastics, for reasons unknown to me, [Deryugina] along with Korobchinsky, my former opponent, took action against me that does not benefit the country and the sport.

I consider that I do a decent job holding the Zakharova Cup, I don't disturb anybody. International tournaments are prestigious for the nation, and the more competitions the better. For seven years, no money was given by the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation to the Zakharova Cup, though it passed under the auspices of the federation. The state allocates money and helps us, and we are extraordinarily grateful for this.

The Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation persistently repeats that in Ukraine the Zakharova Cup is not necessary, that it is superfluous, but that the other tournaments are good and prestigious. The Korobchinsky Cup, the Deryugina Cup,the Shakhlin Cup are held, but only my tournament becomes a source of conflict every year. I cannot understand the reason.

They try to get rid of my work in gymnastics, but I will not surrender. I have devoted my whole life to gymnastics. I'm very insulted and sick that we have come to such a situation, and that the president of the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation is making such statements. The most terrible for me is that he does it not by his own hands, but with public hands. On these documents there are signatures of people who cannot say "no" (for fear of losing their jobs). They put their signatures on the documents but outside of the margins, they raise their hands "for" the the Zakharova Cup. They understand that the Cup is very important for our country, federation and athletes.

Zakharova is introduced to the audience during her annual competition

I'm very hurt that I should need to talk about this situation that has been developing for many years in the federation, the world community. I want to say that I am a gymnastics person and will never do anything to the detriment of gymnastics.

IG: We did not see the name of Lilia Podkopayeva on this November "group" letter. What is your relationship with Lilia?

SZ: Lilia is a very famous and honored gymnast. The whole world knows her name. I respect her as a strong person who does a lot for Ukraine. She is very busy with charity work and with her "Golden Lilia" show. I believe that she has a opinion [on this matter], but she will not get involved in any provocations.

IG: Do you think you and the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation will be able to repair this conflict in the future?

SZ: As Mr. Korzh does not understand that we should all come to the negotiating table and decide how to resolve this conflict, we will find it difficult to develop gymnastics in Ukraine and the world.

IG: Your former teammate, Nellie Kim, is now president of the FIG Women's Technical Committee. What is your opinion of how she has done her job?

SZ: She is a very good person and the professional in her work, a famous gymnast with whom I always enjoyed competing. She possesses many positive qualities which help her with her professional career. She is always able to make a decision and find an exit from a difficult situation. I consider she to be worthy of her position and the right choice for the International Gymnastics Federation. Gymnastics is a very popular sport, for eight days of competition at the Olympic Games the arena was filled by spectators. This testifies to good, professional work of the FIG management over the past four years.

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