Olga Korbut brought qualities to Olympic gymnastics that few had seen before. She brought innovation—her backwards flips from the balance beam and the uneven bars became a staple of the sport's repertoire. She brought youth—Korbut and her American peer Cathy Rigby were the standard-bearers of gymnastics' new breed of teenage prodigies. And she brought a smile—Korbut freely expressed the joy and pain behind her craft, countering the image of Soviet athletes as stoic and inaccessible. As Sports Illustrated writer Leigh Montville put it, "she was 85 pounds of pigtailed détente, flipping her way into the American consciousness."
Talent Shows Early
Korbut was born in 1955 (some sources say 1956) in Grodno, on the Niemen River in the country of Belarussia, then part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). Now called Belarus, the nation was a training ground for the Soviet gymnastics system, which had produced such stars as Yelena Volchetskaya, Larissa
Petrik, and Tamara Lazakovich. The youngest daughter of an engineer and a cook, Korbut was small for her age. But "she more than made up for it, in the opinion of her physical education instructor," noted Soviet Life reporter Vladimir Golubev in 1973. "Olga was good at exercises, [and] ran faster than the tall girls and many of the boys."
At age eleven the young girl qualified to enter the Soviet sports-school system (following her older sister, Ludmilla, also a master gymnast). The government-run program provides extracurricular athletic training to children who show high aptitude. Within a year Korbut was training under Renald Knysh, a top coach. It was Knysh who worked with his young charge to develop some of the groundbreaking moves that would amaze spectators years later. He recognized Korbut's strength and daring, and rehearsed her on the heretofore untried backward somersault on the balance beam. Korbut demonstrated the move at the U.S.S.R. championship meet, at which she placed fifth. Korbut's outstanding performance, however, was not without its critics, who said that her "tricks" were too dangerous to be emulated by any other gymnast.
A year after that, the rising gymnast took home a gold medal in the vault at a national meet and went on to attend her first international championship, where reserve-athlete Korbut gave a gymnastic demonstration that impressed a panel of referees. Adolescent angst caught up with Korbut briefly: "The praise went to her head, she began to put on airs, ignored her teammates and, in general, made herself objectionable," wrote Golubev. "But that was a passing phase." Injury and illness sidelined Korbut for several months, but she recovered in time to place third overall in the 1972 Soviet national championships, qualifying her for the Olympics that year.
In an interview posted on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Web site, Korbut revealed that as early as age thirteen she felt ready to compete with world-class gymnasts. "I was ready for the  Olympic Games," she said, "but I was fourteen years old, thirteen even and you couldn't compete [before age sixteen]." Korbut arrived in Munich as part of a team that included Ludmilla Turischeva, acknowledged to be the best female gymnast in the world; Tamara Kazakovich, and Antonina Koshel.
Raising the Bar in Gymnastics
The sight of the petite, pigtailed seventeen-year-old was duly noted by the audience, who were accustomed to not just more sober, but much older, Soviet gymnasts. (As recently as 1964, the gold medal winner from Russia was a 29-year-old mother.) In the past, gymnastics had been likened to a heightened form of ballet. By 1968, Cathy Rigby helped pioneer the athletic bent the sport would soon embrace; competing in her second summer games in 1972, Rigby was considered a favorite for an all-around gold medal. As the underdog, Korbut took the opportunity to show the judges her now-signature moves: the balance-beam backflip, and the Korbut Flip, a soaring backward leap from the higher to the lower section of the uneven parallel bars.
Nobody had seen anything like it. "I don't believe it!" exclaimed ABC commentator Gordon Maddux on seeing the four-foot-eleven gymnast fly around the bars. "Give her an 11!" Korbut's performance helped the Soviets secure the team gold medal. Her work on the balance beam and the floor exercise earned Korbut two additional golds in the all-around team competition. She set her sights on winning the uneven bars, but fate got in the way: During a maneuver, Korbut stubbed her toe and fell to the floor. As a worldwide audience watched, she dried her tears, rallied, and finished the routine. Later, she returned to the bars in the individual event and finished with a silver medal, bringing her Munich total to four.
In the eyes of Americans who harbored negative impressions of Soviet athletes, the sight of Korbut, smiling, waving, even crying when things went poorly, touched a common nerve. "Americans who didn't know a thing about gymnastics when the Munich Olympics began were arguing at the end whether or not Korbut deserved a perfect 10 for her work on the beam," wrote Montville. "Through television, the American public saw a fascinating, delicate creature, the little girl down the street, who seemed as removed as possible from the unemotional, cold Communist stereotype perpetuated by her teammates," Paul Attner stated in a Washington Post piece.
Indeed, the memory of Korbut's charm helped offset the trauma engendered by the worst terrorist attack ever to strike an Olympic games. On September 5, days after the women's gymnastic competition ended, a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Army known as Black September kidnapped and murdered the entire Israeli Olympic contingent: nine athletes and two coaches. The games stopped cold during the crisis, and controversy arose when it was decided to resume immediately afterward.
A Worldwide Favorite
For gymnastics' newest star, life would not be the same. She toured the United States and Europe, meeting everyone from the British Prime Minister to Mickey Mouse. In one notable encounter, Korbut met a stranger who greeted her by saying, "You're so tiny." "You're so big," she replied to President Richard Nixon. At the same time, Korbut felt the pressure of compliance with the Soviet government, who put the teenager into exhibition after exhibition to feed their financial coffers and to show the world, as she told the PBS interviewer, that the "former Soviet Union is the best." From 1972 to 1976, she added, "I wasn't at home. I was always being somewhere in different countries." She knew, as Korbut told same interviewer, that the Soviet secret service, the KGB, trailed her during those years.
"Athlete of the Year" honors came Korbut's way, and she continued to compete. In 1973 she was second allaround to Turischeva at the European Championships; she won the all-around title at the World University Games in Moscow. Over the next two years she continued to pursue Turischeva in national and international meets, but finished second all-around.
In 1976 Korbut again represented the Soviet Union at the Olympic summer games in Montreal, Quebec. Now twenty-one, Korbut saw firsthand the legacy of her Munich triumph in the form of young, bold, highly athletic competitors. Chief among them was Romania's Nadia Comaneci , who would go on to make history as Korbut had four years earlier. Plagued by uncharacteristic poor performance, Korbut won just one medal in the competition, a silver for the balance beam. Though her smile never faded, Korbut was eclipsed in the public eye by Comaneci, a fourteen-year-old phenom who posted gymnastics' first perfect "tens."
Athlete Turns Activist
Montreal represented Korbut's farewell to competition; she returned to the Soviet Union, married in 1978, and gave birth to her son, Richard, a year later. But the world had not heard the last of Olga Korbut. In 1986, the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl exploded. Some 180 miles away at her home in Minsk, Korbut could see the cloud of radiation. "But the government never even told us to stay indoors," she was quoted in a Sports Illustrated article by Hank Hersch. When some of her friends and relatives began falling ill, Korbut went into action. She became personally involved in Chernobyl relief projects, traveling to the U.S. to raise consciousness and money on behalf of the victims of radiation poisoning. Working with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Korbut helped collect $70,000 for medical supplies.
|Born May 16, in Grodno, Belarussia (now Belarus)
|Begins gymnastics training
|Enters Belarussian junior championship
|Competes in first Soviet national championship
|Represents Soviet Union at Olympic summer games, Munich, Germany
|Represents Soviet Union at Olympic summer games, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
|Retires from competition
|Marries Leonid Bortkevich (divorced, 2000)
|Gives birth to son, Richard
|Becomes active in relief efforts following Chernobyl nuclear accident
|Relocates to U.S.
|Becomes gymnastics coach
|Marries Alex Voinich; becomes gymnastics instructor in Dunwoody, Georgia
|Arrested for shoplifting and investigated for counterfeiting
Awards and Accomplishments
|Gold medal, Spartakiade championship
|Introduced Korbut Flip, Soviet national gymnastics championships
|Reserve competitor, world championships
|Placed fourth, Soviet national championships
|Team gold, individual gold (2) and individual silver, Olympic summer games
|Named "Athlete of the Year," ABC Wide World of Sports
|Youngest person named Honored Master of Sport, Soviet Union
|Named "Athlete of the Year," Associated Press
|Won five medals at world championships
|Named "Woman of the Year," United Nations
|Team gold and individual silver, Olympic summer games
|First inductee, Gymnastics Hall of Fame
|Named one of the top athletes of past 40 years, Sports Illustrated
|Official attaché of Belarus, Olympic summer games
|Named among the best sportswomen of the twentieth century, by Italian news agency ACHA
The United States became Korbut's adopted home. After sending her son, Richard, to live with friends New Jersey to keep him out of harm's way following Chernobyl, the former gymnast and her family settled in Atlanta. She established a new life and career—gymnastics coaching—but the damage had been done. Korbut revealed in 1991 that she was suffering from thyroid problems, which she attributed to radiation poisoning. Talking to People correspondent Bill Shaw, Korbut recalled the frightening atmosphere in the wake of a nuclear leak: "When people began hearing bits of
information, they felt panicky. They were afraid to drink the water, breathe the air, afraid of everything. We were all outdoors, because it was close to the [May Day] celebration, and we were planting gardens and enjoying the spring. If they had told us Chernobyl had exploded, we would have stayed inside and maybe avoided those early heavy doses of radiation." Cancer, she added, was rampant: "There are some people who were perfectly healthy and all of a sudden came down with severe illnesses we hadn't heard of." Worse, conditions in the impoverished region hampered treatment: "There are no machines for chemotherapy or drug therapy.… We can't find produce or meat or anything you need for a normal existence." As Korbut told Shaw, "I have never seen in my entire life such a lack of everything."
Subsequent to her move to the United States, Korbut faced challenging personal crises. In 1999 she went public with a claim that, as young as fifteen, the gymnast was coerced into sex by one of her coaches. The man told her to comply or risk being thrown off the Soviet team, she said. "Many of my teammates were forced to become sexual slaves … and I was one of them," she was quoted in a Moscow-based article printed in the Globe and Mail. Her marriage to Bortkevich broke up in 2000; she remarried a year later. But her image as a representative of her sport stayed with Korbut; during the 1996 Olympic summer games in Atlanta, she was an official attaché for Belarus.
Olga Korbut changed the face of gymnastics and made possible the goals of small girls to reach great heights in sport. She "flew across the screens as if she were drawn by a cartoonist's pen," Montville remarked. "No boundaries existed, no laws of nature.… She was pixie, elf, amazing Soviet sylph. Her smile was the definition of innocence. She made an entire world fall in love." But in her later years, the former teenage star spoke up for the older athlete. "I always thought there should be a separate classification for older gymnasts," she said to Montville in a 1989 Sports Illustrated article. "There should be different expectations for someone in a mature stage of womanhood than for a young girl. The audiences should not cheer only out of fear. There should be an appreciation of the beauty of gymnastics. That is what should be shown. A gymnast should be able to stay in the sport for a long time."
Where Is She Now?
Having survived the Communist regime and Chernobyl radiation, Olga Korbut moved to the United States to begin a new life. All would not go smoothly, however. In January 2002, Korbut was arrested, charged with shoplifting $19 worth of food from a Publix supermarket in Norcross, Georgia. The gymnast's representative, Kay Weatherford, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it was a misunderstanding. Korbut, she explained, had mistakenly walked out of the store with the items to retrieve her wallet, left in the car. A more serious charge came shortly after that incident, when it was revealed that authorities had found $30,000 in counterfeit $100 bills in the Korbut home during eviction proceedings. The home had been most recently occupied by the athlete's grown son. The investigation was continued by the Secret Service.
Korbut's denied any involvement with this federal offense. Still, her attorney Howard Weintraub told Beth Warren in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "it must be absolutely devastating to have millions of people the world over now look at you in a light differently … for something you didn't do." In a 1992 Sports Illustrated piece, Korbut revealed a philosophy that may have well served her during these hard times. "I try not to focus on annoying things in my past," she said. "It's like the Russian proverb says: 'If I always watch who steps on my feet, I wouldn't walk.'"
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Sketch by Susan Salter
Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut (born 1955) revolutionized the sport of gymnastics with her charm and incredible flexibility. She captured the hearts of millions of television viewers worldwide and brought gymnastics to the forefront of the Olympics.
Early Interest in Gymnastics
Korbut was born May 16, 1955, in the town of Grodno, close to the border of Poland in the former Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which is now Belarus. Her father, Valentin, was an engineer, while her mother, Valentina, was a cook. She was the youngest of four sisters.
One sister, Ludmilla, was involved in gymnastics, and Korbut followed her lead and started training. She was small, but her size made her more determined to succeed. She could run faster and jump higher than all the other children.
When she was eleven, Korbut qualified to attend the Soviet Union's government sports school. More than 500 girls attended the school. She started training with Yelena Volchetskaya, a gold medal winner from the 1964 Olympics. Volchetskaya saw Korbut's potential and brought her to the attention of the man who ran the school, Renald Knysh. They both were impressed with her determination and fearlessness. She was always willing to try new flips, jumps, and twists.
In 1967, Korbut entered the Belorussian junior gymnastics championships. In 1968, she won gold medals in the vault, balance beam, and uneven bars at the Spartakiade school championship, competing against some of the best gymnasts in the Soviet Union.
At her first Soviet national championship in 1969, the age rules were altered to allow the fourteen-year-old Korbut to participate. She performed two new moves that she had been working on with her coaches. The Korbut Salto was a backwards-aerial somersault, launching and then landing back on the four-inch wide balance beam. Even more daring was the Korbut Flip, an unprecedented back flip on the uneven bars. She placed fifth in her first major competition, but controversy surrounded the unorthodox moves. Some officials complained that they were not in keeping with traditional gymnastics. Others were concerned that they were dangerous.
Korbut became the Soviet vault champion at the Soviet national championships in 1970 and took eighth place overall. She was taken along to the 1970 world championships as a reserve competitor. Soviet officials were concerned that she was too young to compete, but they allowed her to travel with the team to gain the experience of an international meet. Although she did not compete, she did perform for a panel of judges, who were very impressed.
In 1971, she placed fourth in the Soviet national championships. She also earned her Master of Sports title, granted to those who attained excellence in sports. At the time, she was the youngest person to be granted the honor. She decided that she had two goals: to win a gold medal at the Olympics and to finish school.
She finished third in the Soviet national championships in 1972. She then participated in the Riga Cup in Latvia, her first international championship, and won. This allowed the Korbut Salto, the Korbut Flip, and a new move, the Korbut Flic-Flac, to earn wider recognition.
1972 Munich Olympics
Korbut completed school and went to the USSR Cup, which was also the selection trial for the Olympics. She was named as an alternate to the Soviet team. When a teammate was injured, Korbut was added to the squad. Her yarn-bound pigtails made her seem much younger than her seventeen years. She was four feet eleven inches tall, weighed 90 pounds, and was the smallest of all the competitors in the 1972 Olympics.
Five days before the team left for Munich, West Germany, Korbut decided to change her musical selection for the floor exercise. Her coaches strongly advised against it, concerned that she would disrupt her peformance, but Korbut was insistent. Her mother's advice to Korbut before she left, according to the book Comebacks: Heroic Returns, was: "Be careful, be first, be joyful."
In the first days of the Olympics, Korbut helped the Soviets win the team gold medal. She also captured the attention of television viewers around the world who watched her joyfully fly through her routines. Most of the Soviet competitors were stern, but Korbut was smiling. People tuned in to see her incredible flexibility but also to see her spirit.
Next came the all-around competition, where gymnasts competed in all four exercises: vault, balance beam, uneven parallel bars, and floor exercise. The athlete with the highest combined score wins the gold medal. Korbut vaulted well, scoring a 9.7 out of 10. She then scored a 9.75 on the floor exercise. As she faced the uneven parallel bars, she was in third place, just 0.15 from first place. Then she fell apart. She bobbled on her start, and it seemed to disrupt her rhythm. Then she caught her toe but recovered. She lost her composure and lost her balance, falling off the bars. She completed her performance and headed back to the bench. The television cameras followed her to watch her cry her eyes out. The world watched and sympathized.
The next day, Korbut returned to the arena and made an incredible comeback. She executed a back flip on the balance beam and a back flip on the uneven bars. Her incredibly flexible body performed contortions that amazed everyone watching. She won individual gold medals on the balance beam and the floor exercise and a silver medal on the uneven bars.
The world was enamored of Korbut. Within days, she had catapulted to stardom. The press followed her everywhere. People paid attention when she said she liked ketchup. It was news when she told a reporter, "Life is marvelous now because I have a tape recorder." The American Broadcasting Company's "Wide World of Sports" named her Athlete of the Year. In early 1973, the Associated Press conducted on international poll and named Korbut as Athlete of the Year, marking the first time in more than forty years that an athlete from a communist country received the honor.
Following the Olympics, Korbut attracted huge crowds as she toured the United States and Europe. She visited President Richard Nixon at the White House. She also met with the prime minister and the queen of England. She received bags full of fan mail. Some of it was simply addressed to "Olga, Moscow."
Interest in gymnastics exploded around the world. In the United States, there were 15,000 practicing gymnasts prior to the 1972 Olympics. A decade later, there were 150,000.
Korbut returned to Grodno to attend college. In 1975, she was honored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for bringing the world together. They named her the Woman of the Year and awarded her with the "gold tuning fork."
1976 Montreal Olympics
Korbut returned to the Olympics in 1976 in Montreal. Once again, she was a part of a gold-meal-winning Soviet team. She also took an individual silver medal on the balance beam. However, that year there was a new darling of gymnastics. A fourteen-year-old named Nadia Comaneci scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic history.
Officially retiring from gymnastic competition in 1977, Korbut returned home and completed college. She then accepted a position as head coach of the Belorussian team in Minsk. She was the first inductee when the Gymnastics Hall of Fame opened in 1987. She married Soviet rock star Leonid Bortkevich, and in 1979 they had a son, Richard.
On April 26, 1986, disaster struck the Soviet Union. There was a nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, 180 miles from Korbut's home in Minsk. She and her family could see the radiation cloud, but they were never warned to stay inside. "I was at my home in Minsk when Chernobyl happened, and they didn't tell us for three or four days," People reported Korbut as saying. "You in the West knew first. When people began hearing bits of information, they felt panicky. They were afraid to drink the water, breathe the air, afraid of everything. We were all outdoors, because it was close to the May 1 celebrations, and we were planting gardens and enjoying the spring. If they had told us Chernobyl had exploded, we would have stayed inside and maybe avoided those early heavy doses of radiation." She was outraged at the government for endangering the lives of so many people.
Korbut and her husband sent their son to live with relatives in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in order to keep him away from any further effects of the radiation. "Most of the doctors say the biggest thing you can do for kids is take them out of the country. But so many people can't do that," she told People.
While traveling in the United States in 1989, she found that she had developed thyroid problems, most likely the result of her exposure to the fallout from the nuclear disaster. In 1990, she became the spokesperson for the Emergency Help for Children Foundation, a nonprofit agency set up to help the victims of the Chernobyl disaster.
Life in the United States
Korbut and her husband moved to the United States in 1991, settling with their son in Atlanta, Georgia, where she continued her coaching. Korbut and Bortkevich divorced in 2000. In 2001, an eviction notice was served at the house in Atlanta. Bortkevich had bought out Korbut's interest in the house during divorce proceedings. Korbut had not lived there for some time, but her son was still there. Officials were surprised to find $30,000 in counterfeit bills as well as child pornography. Officials moved everything from the home, including Korbut's Olympic memorabilia. "She hasn't lived there for two years," Andre Gleen, a part owner in the facility where Korbut coached, told Sports Illustrated. Korbut was not implicated in the case.
In January 2002, Korbut was arrested for shoplifting $19 worth of food from a Publix grocery store in Atlanta, Georgia. She avoided prosecution by paying a fine and agreeing to take a "life values" course. She also agreed never to shop at Publix again.
Despite taking a few tumbles, Korbut once again staged a comeback. She married Alex Voinich. In 2002, she moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where she trained young gymnasts. She also presented clinics and made motivational speeches. Her legacy remained untarnished. Almost single-handedly, Olga Korbut revolutionized the sport of gymnastics, making it a highlight of the Summer Olympics for many decades.
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Coffey, Wayne, Olga Korbut, Blackbirch Press, 1992.
Great Women in Sports, Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Jennings, Jay, Comebacks: Heroic Returns, Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
People, March 4, 1991; July 15, 1996.
Sports Illustrated, Fall 1992; February 18, 2002; April 22, 2002.
"Olga Korbut," Olga Korbut,http://www.olgakorbut.com (January 9, 2004).