Arts, Culture & Media

40 Years Ago, Soviet Gymnast Olga Korbut Dazzled the World

Forty years ago, a tiny pigtailed gymnast from the Soviet Union was the darling of the Munich Olympics. Olga Korbut captured three gold medals and one silver at the l972 games. She also inspired tens of thousands of little girls all over the world to take up the sport.

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Olga Korbut seemed to come out of nowhere. She was 17-years-old, 4-foot-11, and as slender as a sparrow.

During her first routine on the balance beam, she executed a move never before seen in Olympic competition: a backward aerial somersault.

Olympic announcers went wild.

Olga Korbut, who now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, says of that moment, "I can't believe I did it like that. This girl is good!"

Korbut then did something even more astonishing on the uneven bars, a move that was subsequently banned because it was so dangerous.

Standing on the top bar, she dived backwards, and somehow managed to arch around and catch the bar with her hands. One announcer said at the time that the move had never been done by any human that he knew of.

"Those kinds of comments just excited and ignited the public in no way we'd ever seen before," said Paul Ziert, publisher of International Gymnast Magazine and a former Olympic coach.

He said Olga Korbut didn't just dazzle everyone with her acrobatics.

"I think the most interesting thing for most of us was how different she was from the stereotypical Soviet gymnast."

She was wild and unpredictable, and utterly charismatic. The crowd loved her even when she stumbled.

"And of course that wonderful scene when she burst into tears, we didn't think during the Cold War like that the Soviets had any ability to show any emotion publicly like that," said Ziert.

Soviet gymnasts might have been poker faced. But they always took home the gold.

"At that time, the Soviet team was the best," Korbut said from her home in Scottsdale.

In fact, Soviet gymnasts dominated the Olympic competition for decades. It's just that no one else paid very much attention, until Olga Korbut came along.

But Paul Ziert said the sport was always popular in the USSR.

"They did gymnastics the right way. It might not have been easy for the athletes, but my goodness, they were all trained classically in ballet and all the basic skills were taught perfectly."

Olga Korbut began training at one of the Soviet Union's elite gymnastic schools when she was nine. The youngest of four girls, she says her mother didn't even know she took gymnastics until she saw Olga perform on TV.

"Because my mother and father worked very hard, four kids, and we were poor," she said.

After the Munich Olympics, President Nixon invited Korbut to the White House. "You are a little girl," he quipped, to which she replied, "You are a big boy."

Korbut made the Soviet Olympic team again in l976, but she retired from competition after a disappointing showing in Montreal. She then became the head coach for the Soviet Byelorussian team.

She was living in Minsk with her husband and young son during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in l986. Much of the radioactive fallout landed in nearby Belarus. When the Soviet Union collapsed in l991, Korbut and her family moved to the United States.

"Actually, I didn't want to leave country, but I raise money to help victims of Chernobyl, and I was in the United States a lot," she said.

She ended up staying, and teaching gymnastics. She became an American citizen in 2000.

Olga Korbut was named one of Sport's Illustrated's 40 greatest athletes in l994, and was the first person inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

Now 57, she still teaches, and she's still incredibly fit.

"I work out every day, because my body needs that," she said.

And she's still passionate about gymnastics. But she said the sport has changed a lot over the past 40 years. Now it's much more about power than artistry.

"You know what, I'm waiting maybe another Olga will be born and change gymnastics to be more graceful and beautiful. But now it's like robots – not smiling, not enjoying. And sometimes it's boring to watch."

But she'll be in the Olympics' North Greenwich Arena, watching the gymnastics and providing live commentary on Twitter and Facebook.

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    Olga Korbut at the Munich Olympics (Photo: BBC)
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    Olgar Korbut now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo: BBC)
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    Olga Korbut on the uneven bars during the 1972 Munich Olympics. (Photo: olgakorbut.com)
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    Olga Korbut on the uneven bars during the 1972 Munich Olympics. (Photo: olgakorbut.com)

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