Remembering Vladimir Golubnichy, a true legend

The legendary Vladimir Golubnichy died on Monday, August 16 at the age of 85. There’s an outstanding tribute to his memory by Tim Erickson on the latest Victoria RWC Newsletter. It begins:

Born on 2nd June 1936, Golubnichiy medalled at four Olympic Games (2 golds, 1 silver and 1 bronze), three European championships (gold, silver and bronze) and 2 Lugano Cups (2 silvers). He bettered the 20km World Record on 3 occasions, with two of those performances ratified as official records: 1:30:02.8 (02/10/1955, Kiev) and 1:27:05.0 (23/09/1958, Simferopol).

Read it in full by subscribing to the Newsletter, which is a mine of information and analysis via Tim at tim.erickson02@gmail.com

As it is remembering Vladimir took me back to a booklet, ‘Race Walking 1971’ put together over 50 years ago by Julian Hopkins and myself with Ron Wallwork type-setting. Within its pages Julian offered a piece on Golubnichy’s career up to that date. It seems fitting to revive Julian’s article.

Top photo from L/R Reimann, Frenkel and Golubnichy.. Below early in the GLC 10 leading quartet of Nihill, Lawton, Wesch and Lightman with Sutherland close at hand

Vladimir Golubnichiy

Vladimir Golubnichiy, one of the great walkers of all time, was born at Sumy in the Ukraine on 2nd June, 1936. Volleyball and basketball first captured his attention, but in 1953 – aged 17 – he turned to walking guided by Polyakov, who still coaches him today. Outstanding results soon followed, for in the following year he covered 10 kms in 44:51.6 whilst 1955 saw Golubnichiy capture the world record for 20 kms. With a time of 90:02.8 he had become a world record holder at the precocious age, for a walker, of 19 years.

Nothing was heard of the Ukrainian in 1956 and the following season, although he took fourth in the Soviet championships, as he achieved little of great note. It was a different story in 1958 for as well as capturing the national title, Golubnichiy set a new world standard of 87:05 – a mark that remained on the books until 1969! True, he did go faster with 86:13.2 in 1959 but this mark, for some reason or other, never received ratification. Also in 1959 he made his international debut, winning easily against the U.S.A. – a victory he was to repeat in this match in 1962 and 1964.

Up to this time, Golubnichiy had proved himself to be the fastest 20 kms walker in history, but the stopwatch is not the ultimate judge of an athlete. How good a competitor was he? Was he just another Soviet walker who could record incredible times at home and yet fail to show the same pace in international competition?

The following year, 1960, was Olympic year and the Games were due to be held in Rome. Despite only finishing fifth (in 89:37!) in one of the trial races, the selectors had faith in his ability and he gained a place in the powerful U.S.S.R. team. The race was itself held on a hot, humid day which accounted indirectly for the failure of our own Ken Matthews. Setting a very brisk pace, the Briton led until just before half distance when he was overhauled by Golubnichiy. The after effects of ‘flu had weakened Matthews who later collapsed, whilst the muscular Ukrainian had built up a commanding lead by the 15 kms mark. With just 4 kms remaining he too began to suffer from the fast pace, and fading rapidly had to pull out all the stops to hold off the surprising 21 year old Australian Noel Freeman by 9.4 seconds. The winning time of 94:07.2, over 2.5 minutes outside the Olympic record, showed how slow conditions were on the day.

With not a great deal at stake, the following season was a quiet one for the Olympic champion. Never approaching top form he could place no higher than fifth in the National championships. Early in 1962, however, Golubnichiy began to show something like his best form when recording 42:47.8 for 10 kms on Leningrad’s indoor 200m track. In the big Znamenskiy Memorial meeting in July, his time for 20 kms was 89:16, whilst second place to Vedyakov in the U.S.S.R. championships earned him selection for the European Championships in Belgrade. This particular race was a big triumph for Ken Matthews who partly atoned for his disappointment in Rome by winning in 95:54.8 – the slow time a result of a hot day and a severe course. The Olympic champion never got on terms with the British star but looked set for the silver medal until overhauled nearing the finish by 21 year old Hans-Georg Reimann (East Germany), the surprise packet of the race. He did manage however to salvage the bronze by holding off his fast-finishing team-mate, Anatoliy Vedyakov.

Golubnichiy was not in his best form in 1963 although he did show that he was still a force to be reckoned with by gaining second place at the national championships in a season’s best of 92:02. In passing it might be noted that in July, during the Znamenskiy meeting, he suffered disqualification – the only one of his entire career!

He warmed up for the defence of his Olympic title in 1964 by taking second place in the Znamenskiy meeting (in a season’s best of 90:17) and capturing the Soviet title in August. But in Tokyo, he again had to be content with a bronze medal and again it was an Englishman and an East German who headed him at the tape. As is well known, Matthews scored a great victory by nearly 400 metres in an Olympic record time of 89:34, and although Golubnichiy hung on to Lindner’s early pace the East German moved clear in the second half of the race. Chasing Golubnichiy hard was none other than Noel Freeman, who failed by only 7.4 seconds to catch his man. In two 20 km races separated by four years and 8,000 miles, there was only 16.8 seconds between the Soviet walker and his Australian rival!

Despite the loss of his Olympic crown, Golubnichiy had quite a successful 1965 season. True he could manage no higher than sixth in the Znamenskiy meeting (two minutes behind winner Agapov) but he did capture the Soviet title with 90:15.6 in a track event and clock one of the fastest 30 kms on record (2:20.02). The following season he surprisingly lost his title to his old rival Vedyakov but ten days before the European Championships he showed himself to be ready with an 89:10 performance in his home town of Sumy. With Ken Matthews now retired, the championship race proved to be a repeat of the Lindner-Golubnichiy battle in Tokyo. On this occasion the result was in doubt until the closing stages, as these two great performers matched strides at the head of the field. With only a few kilometres remaining Golubnichiy received a caution and he had to ease, leaving Lindner to take the European title in the fast time of 89:25. Golubnichiy (90:06) with his best performance since his Rome victory of six summers earlier, took the silver just ahead of a rising star, fellow countryman, Nikolay Smaga.

In 1967, the U.S.S.R. entered the Lugano Cup competition for the first time and this seemed to inspire the 5’10” 172 lb sports teacher. In the giant Spartakiade meeting, as so often in domestic events, he failed to win but by finishing third in 88:54 he posted his fastest time for eight years. After an easy passage in the Lugano cup qualifying round, in which he tied for first place with his team-mates, the final at the East German spa town of Bad Saarow promised to be an outstanding battle between the Soviets and the home team – the holders of the trophy. Ron Laird (USA) and Peter Fullager split the field open with a searing pace from the gun but soon the Golubnichiy-Smaga partnership was on the scene and by half distance the American revelation was their only company. In the second half, the two Soviet walkers proved the stronger with Smaga breaking away near the finish to beat his compatriot by 20 seconds in the great time of 88:38.

And so to 1968 and the problems of walking at high altitude. In common with all other endurance event performers this must have presented a big mental and physiological challenge to Golubnichiy but, as so often in the past, he rose to the occasion in the grand manner. Throughout the season he showed fine form with second in the Znamenskiy meeting followed by a significant victory ahead of Agapov and Smaga in the national championships held 6,400 feet above sea level. Although the relative newcomer, Smaga was tipped by many to take the gold. Golubnichiy had other ideas. As expected these two dominated the race with Golubnichiy just the stronger and re-entering the stadium with a twenty yard lead. Sensational Mexican star Jose Pedraza, revelling in the thin air of the Mexican capital, shot past Smaga down the back straight and closed on his powerful red-vested rival. Was the little Mexican going to score a sensational victory? For a moment it looked possible, but then Golubnichiy drew upon his great experience and, no doubt, his last reserves to pull away coolly for a narrow victory.

Ta to Greg Smith for the link to this dramatic video

The following year did not prove to be such a happy one for the Olympic champion as he only competed in one major race. This was in the USA v. Commonwealth v. U.S.S.R. match held in Los Angeles during July. The race brought together four of the top 20 km exponents in the world at that time: Golubnichiy, Smaga, Nihill and Laird. Some observers considered that Paul Nihill might well have won the 20 km in Mexico City had he competed

in this event instead of the 50 km. So here was a chance for Nihill, who was showing outstanding form at the time, to test his speed against the world’s best. The race, contested in rather sticky conditions, turned in to an intriguing tactical battle with 10 km being reached in only 47:15! Soon after the pace picked up a little but at 15 km – passed in 70:08 – the four main contenders were still grouped together. Nihill now produced a powerful finishing burst which by 18 km had dropped all his rivals except the Olympic champion. The Russian was finally shaken off in the last kilometre as Nihill went on to win in 91:49.8 having covered the last 5 km in a scintillating 21:41! Golubnichiy’s 92:11 clocking for second was to remain his fastest for the season and his absence from the European Championships in Athens led to rumours that he had retired.

Such rumours however were ill-founded for it later transpired that Golubnichiy had been injured after the Los Angeles event. So 1970 saw Golubnichiy, now 33 years of age, commence his fifteenth season of world class walking with third place in the Znamenskiy 20 km in early JUly. Later that month he showed a return to his greatest form in the U.S.S.R. v. USA match at Leningrad. Despite rain and a 5C temperature, Golubnichiy and Smaga finished together – the former gaining the verdict – in a fast 88:34.4 well ahead of the new US star Dave Romansky. Seven weeks later in the Soviet championships it was Smaga’s turn to gain a narrow victory – 90:21.6 to 90:21.8! Clearly the two Russian aces were in great form for the Lugano Cup final to be held in Eschborn, West Germany. In the 20 km event they were partnered by Agapov – the man who had beaten Golubnichiy’s world record in 1969. The three Soviet walkers hung grimly on to the searing pace set by East Germans Peter Frenkel and Hans-Georg Reimann, both of whom had beaten Agapov’s record earlier in the year. Firstly Agapov and then Smaga dropped back just before the 15 km mark was reached. When Frenkel became detached after 16 km, Golubnichiy was left to battle it out with Reimann who eventually proved just too strong for him, winning in a great 86:54.6 to the Russian’s 87:21.4. In some eleven years of international competition, this was Golubnichiy’s fastest ever 20 km!

And so we bring the Golubnichiy story up to date. Is he the greatest 20 km walker ever? Well he certainly has a unique record for he has come away from every major championship with a medal of some colour. His double Olympic victory is also unique, being separated by a period of eight years. To date only one honour has eluded this Soviet Master of Sport – the European Championship. This year the European Championships will be held in Helsinki and we will, no doubt, see this great athlete trying to add to his amazing collection of medals.

And indeed Vladimir was to add to his tally and pull off the European Championships victory in 1974

1960 Olympic 20km Rome 1st 1:34:08 

1962 European Champs 20km Belgrade 3rd 1:36:38 

1964 Olympic 20km Tokyo 3rd 1:32:00 

1966 European Champs 20km Budapest 2nd 1:30:06 

1967 Lugano Cup Bad Saarow 2nd 1:28:58  

1968 Olympic 20km Mexico 1st 1:33:59 

1970 Lugano Cup Eschborn 2nd 1:27:22  

1972 Olympic 20km Munich 2nd 1:26:56 

1974 European Champs 20km Rome 1st 1:29:30 

1976 Olympic 20km Montreal 7th 1:29:25 

1977 Lugano Cup Le Grand Quevilly 14th 1:30:33 

Thanks to Alan Buchanan for this great photo of himslf, Peter Marlow and Vladimir in a 1974 5,000 metres track race

I’ll close with this moving portrait of Golubnichy penned by New Zealand and UK championship winning walker, Mike Parker, which is contained in Tim Erikson’s tribute. In July 2009 Mike was lucky enough to meet with Vladimir in his home town of Sumy.

We received word from the President of the Sumy region Olympic Committee that Golubnichy was more than happy to meet me and that arrangements had been made for me to meet him in Sumy on Monday 17th. I have to say that I am still reeling from the shock of the hospitality we received in Sumy. After spending the night in a hotel in Sumy we were escorted to the meeting with Golubnichy, arguably, for those of you who don’t the greatest race walker of all time and one of the greatest ever athletes. To my shock Golubnichy and a contingent of press and television cameras were waiting for our arrival. To cut a long and eventful story short, what I thought would be a brief ten minutes with Vladimir turned out to be a fantastic full day in his company, and what a man he is. I don’t think I have ever meet somebody who has achieved so much and is so humble. We were shown the new Vladimir Golubnichiy indoor stadium built in his honour and taken to the athletic track across town where it all began for Vladimir as a fifteen year old back in 1951. I happened to mention to Vladimir that I used to have a book on him until I lent it to someone many years ago and never got it back. A minute later Vladimir disappeared, he had jumped into his car driven home to get this book for me with a personalised inscription, in addition he gave me one of his Russian track suits.  

Vladimir took us to his apartment in the city where we could not but be mightily impressed by the simplicity of his style of life, a life that has remained the same since the day he took up athletics, despite numerous attractive offers. Vladimir showed us his array of trophies and medals he has won over the years. This collection is just about to go in its entirity to the Sumy museum so that the people of Sumy, a city of 350,000 can have access to their most famous inhabitant’s career rewards. 

The next morning Sasha picked us up and took us out into the country to witness one of their training camps for their Biathlon team, full of Olympic hopefuls taking part. Sumy can boast over 1000 race walkers, 700 wrestlers and over 2000 Biathlon athletes. Most of this growth in sport can be put down to Vladimir Golubichiy, a legend in Sumy and Ukrainian sport. 

It’s with great pleasure that we add this further article by Mike, which appeared first in the New Zealand Race Walking Newsletter.

VLADIMIR GOLUBNICHY 

 2 JUNE 1936 – 16 AUGUST 2021.

Last week Track & Field lost one of its most esteemed champions with the passing of Vladimir Golubnichy aged 85. Ukrainian by birth Golubnichy died in Sumy the city of his birth and where he had resided his entire life.

At seventeen Golubnichy was encouraged to take up race walking when he was seen powering his way through deep snow, wearing heavy boots, as he trained for cross country skiing. It was his prodigious strength that drew the attention of one of his instructors at the Kyiv Physical Education Institute that Vladimir was attending at the time. Within two years Vladimir had set a new world record for the 20 kms and at just 19 was considered a near certainty to be chosen for the following years 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. 

Unfortunately, Golubnichy developed a debilitating liver infection which side-lined him for the next 18 months costing him near certain selection for Melbourne. It is believed the infection was the result of his malnourished childhood during WW11. In his absence Soviet race walkers still managed a one, two, three whitewash in the 1956 Olympic 20kms. 

In 1957 he regained the world record over 20kms. The rest is history, he would dominate the 20 kms race walk for the next 14 years. At the Olympic Games, Gold in 1960, Bronze in 1964, Gold in 1968 and Silver in 1972, at age 43 in 1976 in Montreal he placed 7th. In 1974 in Rome, he took gold at the European Athletics Championships over 20kms. His sole European title followed on from a bronze medal at these championships in 1962 and a silver in 1966. In addition to these stella performances he won 6 Soviet titles over his specialty 20kms distance and was never beaten by another Soviet race walker in any of the major championships he contested. In Turku, Finland in 1991 he added an IAAF World Masters Athletics title to his list of accomplishments.

He cited his bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 as his toughest and most satisfying performance. Weakened by influenza and suffering from a bad headache during the race he had fallen over midway but managed to pick himself up and battle his way through the field to finish third.

I had the great privilege of spending 3 days with Vladimir at his home in Sumy in 2009. I was also fortunate because he usually saw visitors for brief periods. Being a fellow race walker, having a Ukranian wife who happened to share a mutual friendship with a friend of Vladimir’s all helped to turn the visit into a very memorable one. I was struck by his humility and the warmth of his hospitality. He was happy leading an amazingly simple lifestyle, no car, no telephone and living in a quite simple 1950’s style Soviet apartment. He had had many opportunities to gain coaching positions or move to Moscow in some official capacity but had rejected them all, he preferred his simple life in Sumy. I will never forget his generosity, the strength of his handshake and his disbelieve when he enquired about Peter Snell and Murray Halberg and heard that they were not occupying high up positions in sports administration in New Zealand.

He wanted us to go with him to his dacha (summer house), in the country about 25 kms outside Sumy so we could meet his wife and have dinner together. After we left Vladimir’s apartment Olga stopped to buy watermelon from a nearby stall. I noticed Vladimir had walked on up the road and was standing near a bus stop. Olga in the meantime had hailed a taxi. We had genuine difficulty in persuading Vladimir to make the journey to his dacha by cab. Upon getting in the taxi the cabbie seemed quite taken aback by his famous customer.

Race walking has lost its greatest exponent, certainly one of its most humble champions. 

Awards & Honours:

Awarded the Red Banner of Labour in 1960.

The Order of the Badge of Honour in 1969. 

Awarded the Medal “For Labour Valour” in 1972.

Elected to the IAAF Hall of Fame as one of the 20 inaugural inductees in 2012.

R.I.P. Vladimir.

Mike Parker, 2021. 

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