By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
TOKYO (Reuters) - Five years before Simone Biles was born, Oksana Chusovitina was already an Olympic gold medallist in a sport whose brightest stars often fade early, their bodies battered by years of gruelling training.
At 46, the Uzbek gymnast has defied all odds to compete at her eighth Olympic Games in Tokyo but following the opening day of the women's competition, she bid a tearful farewell after failing to make the cut for the vault final.
With ticket-paying fans barred from the arena due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chusovitina missed out being given a rousing farewell from thousands of cheering fans but she was nevertheless moved by the standing ovation she received on Sunday from the coaches and fellow gymnasts who hailed her extraordinary career.
"These were tears of joy because so many people were supporting me," said Chusovitina, adding that she would have loved to have ended her career in the presence of spectators.
Despite the disappointment on missing out on the vault final -- the only apparatus she has been competing on in recent years -- Chusovitina said her life-long accomplishments outweighed her result in Tokyo.
"I had been preparing for things to end here, but it's impossible to be fully ready for ending your career," she said.
Chusovitina become the Soviet all-around champion at 13 and the world champion on floor in 1991. She won gold in the team event at the 1992 Barcelona Games and silver in the vault in Beijing 16 years later when she had temporarily switched her allegiance to Germany.
Chusovitina's career also embodies the political upheaval that rocked the Soviet Union. After competing under the Soviet flag, she went on to represent the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Unified Team, and her native Uzbekistan after the Soviet collapse.
She later competed for Germany, where she moved to seek treatment for her son's leukaemia, before returning to compete for Uzbekistan.
Chusovitina said her longevity had been fuelled by an intense passion for gymnastics. At the 2012 London Olympics she had announced her retirement, only to change her mind just 24 hours later.
"There is no secret," said the Uzbek, who had made it into the vault final at the Rio Olympics five years ago. "I just love gymnastics and no one ever forced me to do it. I do it with pleasure."
Chusovitina's grit and ability to adapt to changing times has awed the gymnastics community and she has often proved that age is no barrier to succeed in the sport.
"No words to describe how impressive that is," Aly Raisman, a six-time Olympic medallist, wrote on Twitter ahead of Chusovitina's performance. "Forever an icon."
Now done with gymnastics, Chusovitina said she was looking forward to devoting more time to her family and opening a sports club in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
But for now, she just plans to relax in the sauna and wear a nice dress on Sunday night to celebrate her incredible career.
"My time in gymnastics dragged on, now there isn't much time left," she said with a chuckle.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)