When 17-year-old Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut performed her daring back flips on the uneven bars and balance beam at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, TV viewers around the world gasped—and then fell instantly in love with the 4'11", 85-pound dynamo in pigtails. "I don't believe it!" said ABC's color commentator Gordon Maddux when Korbut flung herself into space while performing on the bars. "Give her an 11!"
Now living in Atlanta, Korbut looks back and sees herself as an innovator, one who pushed the envelope in gymnastics, having much the same impact that a mostly male cast—e.g., Bannister, Fosbury, Beamon, Bubka, Gretzky, Jordan—has had in other sports. "Plus...I smile!" says Korbut, her face lighting up as it did when she won three gold medals.
Much has happened to Korbut since 1972: She married folk-rock musician Leonid Bortkevich, and in '79 they had a son, Richard. But the intervening years have not been full of joy. She is upset that Soviet gymnastics officials didn't support her after her career ended at the Montreal Games in 1976. Worst of all, says Korbut, the Soviet government "failed to alert its citizens about the radiation dangers resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in 1986. My family lived in Minsk; we could see the radiation cloud from 180 miles away, but the government never even told us to stay indoors."
Because of the Chernobyl disaster, Korbut has found both a mission in life and a means to exorcise her anger. When friends and relatives became ill, some even dying because of what Korbut believes were Chernobyl-related causes, she and Richard underwent cancer tests on a trip to the U.S. While their-tests were negative, Korbut became convinced during the trip that she needed to get personally involved in aiding Chernobyl victims. "If you don't deliver medical supplies in person, as I have done," says Korbut, "they end up on the black market."
Working with the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Olga Korbut Foundation has raised $70,000 for medical supplies, equipment and training, mainly through speeches and clinics given by Korbut. The foundation has also enabled two teenage girls—one, from Minsk, with congenital heart problems, and another, from Grodno, Korbut's birthplace, with leukemia—to come to the U.S. for treatment.
Korbut moved to Atlanta in 1991, partly to establish a coaching career there before the '96 Olympics and partly because of the warm Georgia climate. While in the Soviet Union she never had a chance to see footage from Munich. As she watched the videotape recently, her face was a mixture of wonder and wistfulness. "When I look at that little girl out there, it's almost like I envy her—and yet I want to help her," Korbut says.
Instead, she has channeled her energy into helping those in need now. "I try not to focus on the annoying things in my past," she says. "It's like the Russian proverb says: If I always watch who steps on my feet, I wouldn't walk."