Korbut, Olga (1955—)

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Korbut, Olga (1955—)

Soviet gymnastics star and medal winner in the 1972 Munich Olympics who, thanks to television, became a world famous athlete and helped her sport gain unprecedented popularity. Name variations: Olya Korbuta. Pronunciation: CORE-bit. Born Olga Valentinovna Korbut on May 16, 1955, in Grodno in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR; daughter of Valentine Korbut (an engineer) and Valentina Korbut (a cook); graduated Grodno Teachers Training Institute, 1977; married Leonid Bortkevich (a Soviet pop singer), on January 7, 1978; children: Richard.

Enrolled at gymnastics school (1964); began work under coach Renald Knysh (1967); entered Soviet National championships (1969); won fourth place at Soviet National championships (1970); attained rank of "Master of Sports" (1971); at Olympic debut, won three gold medals and one silver medal in gymnastics (1972); named "Honored Master of Sports" and toured the U.S. and Europe (1973); competed at Montreal Olympics and toured the U.S. (1976); retired from competition (1977); inducted in absentia into International Women's Sports Hall of Fame (1982); exposed to nuclear radiation following nuclear accident at Chernobyl (1986); moved to the U.S. and toured with Mary Lou Retton (1989); tested for radiation sickness (1991).

Won Olympic gold medals in gymnastics for balance beam, floor exercises, and for allaround team competition, and Olympic silver medal for asymmetrical bars in Munich (1972); won Olympic silver medal for balance beam and gold medal for allaround team competition in Montreal (1976).

The Olympic Games held at Munich, Germany, in the summer of 1972 are remembered more for political turmoil and bloodshed than for athletic achievement. The world's controversies first appeared in a dispute about the right of Rhodesia, with its black majority and its white rulers, to be admitted to the competition. Overshadowing this and other issues was the phenomenon of political murder. Penetrating the extraordinarily lax security system, members of a radical Palestinian group took a number of Israeli athletes hostage in the Olympic Village. The terror ended in a bloody gunfight at an airport near Munich as the Palestinians tried to leave with their captives. In all, eleven Israeli athletes and five Palestinian terrorists died in the episode.

With the entire Olympic competition made somber by political murder, one individual provided a welcome image of youth, grace, and joy. The most colorful and popular figure to emerge at Munich was a 17-year-old girl who stood only 4'11" tall and weighed a mere 82 pounds. She was one of the most inexperienced members of the team from the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, she impressed a worldwide audience. Her brown hair done up in pigtails, her slight figure, and her open displays of exuberant emotion put her in a class by herself as a public figure.

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We had three coaches for each team and five KGB.

Olga Korbut

Women's gymnastics has been a part of the Olympic competition since 1928. Starting in 1952, it came to include individual as well as team performances. The sport is an unlikely one to produce a world-famous figure. Gymnastics competition consists of four specific events: horse vault, floor exercises, asymmetric bars, and balance beam. Gymnasts sometimes compete as members of a team and sometimes individually. They sometimes appear in all-around events, which combine all four of the specific events listed above; sometimes they compete in an individual exercise.

Besides its complexity, gymnastics does not pit one contestant against another in direct fashion. Competition consists of exercises to be evaluated by a panel of judges using a complex scoring system. To the eye of someone who is not an expert, the exact level of skill the gymnast achieves is hard to see. Writes Korbut's biographer, Justin Beecham: "Nobody races anybody else.… The real competition takes place between the gymnast and his or her apparatus."

Korbut's home country was one of the powerhouses in world gymnastics competition, and her success at the Olympics ensured her the status of a national heroine. But she was a new kind of Soviet sports heroine. Starting with the Helsinki Olympics in 1948, Soviet teams played a central, often dominant role in Olympic competition. Even the most notable Soviet athletes seemed to fit a clear pattern. They did not exhibit strong emotions; they did not appear as distinct and colorful personalities. The growing force of television coverage, however, with its emphasis on dramatic scenes and vivid personalities, was at odds with this tradition. With television playing a key role, Olga Korbut emerged as the first great Olympic personality representing the Soviets.

The future champion was born on May 16, 1955, in the quiet provincial city of Grodno. Now located in the republic of Belarus, Grodno was then a city in the Belorussian Soviet Republic; this was a part of the Soviet Union, and it is often known as White Russia. Located near the border with Poland, the region had been the scene of major fighting during World War II. During the war, Korbut's father Valentin fought and was wounded in the region as a partisan behind the German lines.

Olga distinguished herself at an early age as a promising athlete. The tiny child began to study gymnastics when she was nine. She stood out partly because of her diminutive size, but she was even more prominent because of her native ability and limitless enthusiasm. In 1964, she won a place in a school for athletes in Grodno where she could pursue gymnastics.

The special sports school in which she enrolled was part of a nationwide network of such institutions designed to produce star athletes. In them, Soviet youngsters continued their academic studies while receiving special training and coaching. There were only a few such schools in the country where training was available for gymnastics, but one of them was in Korbut's home city. Olga was also fortunate in having several former women champions as her teachers. But the most important guide to her career was her personal coach and senior gymnastics instructor at Grodno, Renald Knysh.

Korbut's strengths as a gymnastics student soon impressed instructors like Yelena Volchetskaya , a member of the 1964 Olympic championship team. Olga combined coordination, timing, stamina, and body control with a natural grace and suppleness. Her size, a disadvantage in most sports, aided her in gymnastics: a gymnast must combine a maximum of physical strength with a minimum of body weight. Given her age, Korbut stood out because of her self-confidence; to some of her instructors and fellow athletes, she appeared too daring and sure of herself.

Under Knysh's direction, Olga concentrated on movements using her extremely supple spine. Thus, she was able to make a specialty of backward movements requiring a vast amount of agility. These skills were particularly suited to competition on the asymmetric bars, balance beam, and in the floor exercises. Her weakest

area was the competition on the horse vault where her short stature hindered her.

Starting in 1969, Korbut competed in a series of events designed to prepare her for the 1972 Olympics. She began with an appearance at the Soviet National championships, despite the fact that she was technically too young to compete that year. Her national debut fulfilled all expectations. She won fifth place overall, in some events overcoming Olympic medal winners. Her most notable achievement came on the balance beam, where she displayed her backward somersault. This movement utilized the spinal agility Knysh had recognized, and it now became her strongest competitive tool. In the National championships the following year, she raised her overall score to come in fourth. Her performances were already being characterized by daring, even dangerous movements like backflips; older Soviet women gymnasts, with their more mature bodies, did not attempt these.

In the aftermath of her 1970 success, the promising young gymnast suffered a personal setback. Soviet sports authorities did not allow Korbut to compete at the World championships that year in Yugoslavia. Only allowed to give a number of well-received exhibitions at this gathering, she turned her anger and frustration on her teammates, declaring that she had been unfairly excluded from competing. But her consequent unpopularity with her colleagues led her to an even greater concentration on developing her skills.

There were several previews of her stellar Olympic performance in the early months of 1972, including a tournament in Riga in which she placed first. In the two months just prior to the Olympics, Larissa Latynina , the coach of the national women's team and the leading figure in Soviet women's gymnastics, directed her preparation.

Under the Olympic system in effect in 1972, Korbut would participate in a variety of gymnastic activities over a period of five days, from Sunday, August 27, through Thursday, August 31. A team competition would begin the gymnastics; in it, each team member would participate in an allaround event, with their scores being combined into a team score. This meant required exercises on each apparatus (balance beam, asymmetrical bars, horse vault) plus required exercises on the floor. Following would come original routines that each gymnast (and her coaches) had developed for each apparatus and the floor. The required exercises would test the basic competence of each individual, and the original routines would permit her to display special abilities and achievements. The competition would aim at winning a medal for the entire team.

Following the team competition, top-ranking gymnasts would compete as individuals using only original routines. Again there would be an all-around event combining all the varieties of exercise, which would produce the all-around champion. There would follow specific competitions to determine the champion for each exercise category: the balance beam, the horse vault, the asymmetrical bars, and the floor exercises.

The Olympics schedule placed women's gymnastics during the first week of the gathering at Munich. Korbut marched in as the last and tiniest member of her team, her first opportunity to start drawing the eyes of the audience. She looked so small that some newspapers described her as being only 15. She did well in the team all-around competition held on August 27 and August 28, then stumbled badly in the individual all-around event held on Wednesday, August 30. A serious mistake pushed her to tears. Performing on the asymmetric bars, she lost her rhythm, slipped completely off the bars, and found herself out of the running for the most prestigious award, the individual all-around championship. Even more seriously, her composure dissolved. To many of her teammates, Korbut's tears indicated that all her hopes for a medal were now gone.

On Thursday, August 31, the last day of the gymnastics, Korbut returned to the auditorium for the individual competitions with restored confidence and inimitable flair. Performing an original routine on the balance beam with supreme skill, she ended by dazzling both the judges and the audience with her backward somersault. This movement was normally done only when a gymnast performed on the floor, and, following the 1972 Olympics, the International Gymnastics Federation banned it as too dangerous. Nonetheless, on this occasion it gave her a decisive edge over her competitors and her first gold medal.

Next she took a silver medal during the individual competition on the asymmetric bars, which had been her nemesis on Wednesday. She finished the day with her greatest triumph for the entire Olympics. In floor exercises, she presented a brilliant performance, once again featuring her signature movement of backward somersaults. The floor exercises, which are performed to a musical accompaniment, present the greatest opportunity for a gymnast to exhibit her skills as a dancer and acrobat. Here Korbut's skills were unsurpassed. Again, the crowd went wild, and the judges, despite their professional demeanor, followed along. They awarded her the elevated score of 9.90 (out of a possible 10) and a second gold medal.

Korbut's success in the floor exercises was doubly remarkable because she had developed her routine only in the past week. With Olympic competition just a few days ahead, she had discarded as unsuitable a sequence of exercises she had been working on for months and persuaded both Knysh and Latynina to help her create a new routine. They considered it barely possible it might win her third place, but she made it into a first-place triumph.

The greatest novelty of Korbut's success was that it took place before a television audience of hundreds of millions of viewers. Her buoyant personality and girlish looks combined with her athletic skills to make her a memorable sight. Beecham has calculated that Korbut got only 30 minutes of television coverage. But, as he put it, "this was enough to establish her reputation—she was a thirty minute superstar." In the view of Allen Guttmann, Korbut owed her new fame to the television executive Roone Arledge. Recognizing the human interest value in her fall—and display of tears—during the individual allaround competition, he directed his camera crew to make her the star of the gymnastics coverage. Thus, writes Guttmann, "Roone Arledge of ABC-TV made diminutive Olga Korbut (USSR) the most famous woman in Munich."

The political implications of her performances were also significant. At a time of continuing tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, she became a heroine despite the lingering effects of the Cold War. Writes David Wallechinsky: "In the United States, despite antipathy to the U.S.S.R., little Olga Korbut's dramatic cycle of success, failure, and success captured the national imagination."

Thus, Korbut became one of the sensations of 1972 sports. She won two gold medals and one silver medal for individual performances, and she helped her six-woman team win a gold medal in the group competition. In terms of technical achievement, her teammate Ludmilla Tourischeva did even better, winning the gold medal for the prestigious individual all-around category. Nonetheless, Korbut won the hearts of a worldwide audience. Sportswriters and other observers of the Olympics had long been impressed by the technical skill of Soviet athletes. They were doubly charmed by the gymnast who combined technical virtuosity with a bubbling personality, broad smiles, and friendly waves to the crowd.

Korbut's victory in the 1972 Olympics also helped to make gymnastics a popular sport, especially for women. Unprecedented numbers of girls took up the sport as participants, and large numbers of spectators began to follow the performances and results of gymnastic stars. Throughout America, young girls adopted Korbut's hairdo. According to The New York Times, private gymnastics clubs grew from about 50 in 1970 to almost 500 in 1976. American gymnasts, 45,000 at the start of the same period, numbered 500,000 by 1976.

Korbut herself made a tour of Europe and the United States in 1973 during which she was entertained by Prime Minister Edward Heath at 10 Downing Street and President Richard Nixon at the White House. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago declared the day of her visit, March 26, "Olga Korbut Day." Prestigious foreign honors descended on the youngster, and she became perhaps the most famous teenage sports heroine in history. For example, the American Broadcasting Company designated Korbut its "Sports Personality of the Year," and Britain's BBC named her "Sportswoman of the Year." There were other tributes as well: Olga Korbut fan clubs formed in Los Angeles; Americans sported T-shirts with her name on them. At home, she received fan mail from all over globe. Like other athletes of worldwide reputation, she received letters addressed simply by her name and home country.

Soviet authorities apparently grew disturbed by the way in which the media in the West played up her personality. When she insisted on the right to go off on shopping trips and to enjoy other features of life in the U.S. and Western Europe, they considered it awkward to deny her such privileges. Nonetheless, she found herself increasingly under the shadow of official disfavor.

After her triumphal tour, Korbut returned to her schooling. She was, after all, still only in high school. With secondary school behind her, she studied at a training school for teachers in Grodno. Meanwhile, she continued her grueling schedule in preparation for 1976: five hours of practice a day in addition to her school work. In these years, she gave both exhibitions and public talks to audiences throughout the Soviet Union.

The 1976 Olympics showed that she remained a charismatic and popular performer as crowds applauded her wildly. Nonetheless, her results were disappointing: she won only a single silver medal for her individual performance. Just as she had been the tiny teenage sensation four years earlier, that role now fell to Rumania's Nadia Comaneci . Television's coverage of Comaneci's performance continued the process begun by Korbut of making women's gymnastics one of the high points of the Olympics. Korbut had competed at the age of 17; Comaneci was only 14. Sports commentators now called Comaneci the successor to Korbut as "the little kid" of gymnastics. In the 1984 Olympics, the sport's popularity continued to grow with the spotlight now on the American teenager Mary Lou Retton .

In January 1978, now 22, the former star gymnast married Soviet pop singer Leonid Bortkevich, wearing a wedding dress she had purchased two years earlier during a tour of the United States. At her wedding, she announced that she was giving up performing. She now expected to devote herself to coaching younger gymnasts. In the spring of 1979, she gave birth to a son.

Korbut's public appearances became less and less frequent. Her teammate Tourischeva was honored by being named to membership to the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet legislative body, and appointed to the organizing committee for the 1980 Olympics. According to interviews Korbut gave more than a decade later, unlike Tourischeva, she had refused to cooperate with Soviet political authorities.

Wallechinsky has suggested that she had, in particular, shown unexpected independence during her tour of the United States in December 1976. This continued the pattern that had disturbed Soviet authorities in 1973 during the tour following her success at Munich. Certainly, she enjoyed and accepted the role of an individual celebrity in a way that other Soviet athletes had been encouraged to avoid. She paid the penalty by being denied what Tourischeva received and more. Korbut's hopes for a coaching job went unfulfilled, she was not permitted foreign travel, and she settled down in obscurity in the Byelorussian city of Minsk.

In 1986, Korbut found herself involuntarily involved in one of the great tragedies of the decade. The Soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in the Ukraine became the scene of the world's worst nuclear accident, pouring radiation into the atmosphere. Korbut's home was less than 200 miles from the site of the calamity. She now became concerned about the danger to her health.

By the close of the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms had opened the way for Soviet citizens to travel more freely. Korbut visited the United States in 1988, her first trip abroad in more than a decade. In 1989, she left Minsk and settled in the U.S. to take up a career as a gymnastics coach. She now received formal induction into the International Women's Hall of Fame—an honor she had been forced to accept in absentia in 1982. At the close of 1989, with her famous pigtails no longer in evidence, she made an eight-city tour of the United States with American Olympic star Mary Lou Retton.

The shadow of Chernobyl remained with Korbut, however. She helped raise funds for the victims of the accident, and, in 1991, she suffered from apparently ominous bouts of fatigue. Medical tests conducted in the United States showed that, so far, she was not suffering from radiation exposure. She then turned her energies to writing an autobiography.

Although experts have rated her technical skills below those of Tourischeva, Korbut remains a renowned figure in the history of the Olympics. Her colorful and daring performances focused attention on a once obscure sport; since 1972, women's gymnastics has become a featured event in Olympic competition. At a time of Soviet-American rivalry, the smiling young girl bridged the gap between the two countries, becoming a sports heroine both at home and in the United States. To the chagrin of her nation's political establishment, she became a colorful, individual personality, far removed from the skilled but depersonalized athletes the system had previously produced.


Beecham, Justin. Olga. NY: Paddington, 1974.

Brokhin, Yuri. The Big Red Machine: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Olympic Champions. NY: Random House, 1977.

Freeman, Simon, and Roger Boyes. Sports behind the Iron Curtain. London: Proteus, 1980.

Guttmann, Allen. The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Tatlow, Peter, ed. The World of Gymnastics. NY: Atheneum, 1978.

Wallechinsky, David. The Complete Book of the Olympics. NY: Viking, 1984.

suggested reading:

Associated Press and Grolier. Pursuit of Excellence: The Olympic Story. Danbury, CT: Grolier Enterprises, 1983.

Groussard, Serge. The Blood of Israel: The Massacre of the Israeli Athletes, The Olympics, 1972. NY: William Morrow, 1975.

Kanin, David B. A Political History of the Olympic Games. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1981.

Mandell, Richard D. The Olympics of 1972: A Munich Diary. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California