She was 85 pounds of pigtailed detente, flipping her way into the American consciousness. The Iron Curtain parted just a bit in August and September of 1972 at the Munich Olympics, and—Hey, Martha, come in here and take a look at this little Russian girl—Olga Korbut put a different, human face on her Communist country and changed the sport of gymnastics forever. It was quite a show.
Seventeen years old, 4'11" tall, she seemed even younger and smaller, looking like a talented grandchild brought forth to perform at a family reunion in, say, Des Moines. How could she do those things she did? At a time when the average American's view of Soviets was limited mostly to pictures of dour politicians and generals reviewing the May Day parade in Red Square, here was this...Shirley Temple. She was perky and adorable, ebullient in victory, tearful in defeat.
Women's gymnastics previously had been more like an athletic ballet, and its champions were adults. Larissa Latynina of the Soviet Union had been 29 and a mother when she won six gold medals eight years earlier in Tokyo. Now, here was this waif throwing herself around the uneven bars and backward off the balance beam in a series of moves that seemed almost death-defying. What mature woman could do what she did? Or would even try? Some gymnastics purists called Korbut "a circus act," but to the public she was a wonder.
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. When she stubbed a toe and was thrown off her routine in the uneven bars, America gasped. When she received a 7.5 for her performance in that event and cried, America cried with her. When she finished with three gold medals and a silver, well, that was gymnastics justice. America cheered.
In the Soviet Union, oddly, she was seen only as another part of the sports machine. Here, she was a star. After the Olympics ended, she toured the U.S. She went to Disneyland and posed with Mickey Mouse. She was presented with a red Chevrolet sports coupe that she drove once, as fast as possible, but wasn't allowed by Soviet sports officials to keep. She met President Richard Nixon at the White House. ("You're so tiny," the President said. "You're so big," Olga replied.) The Soviet foreign minister told her that she had done more in a few weeks to improve relations between her country and the U.S. than all of the diplomats had done in five years.
"I look at that little girl now and see that it was a shame she wasn't prepared for any of this," Korbut, now 39, says. "She couldn't comprehend what was happening. She was thinking, Why are these people bothering me? She met the queen of England. She spent an entire day with the prime minister on his boat on the Thames. She met the shah in Iran. She went everywhere."
The changes she had brought to her sport, alas, also were the seeds of her competitive doom. Little daredevil girls around the world marched from their television sets into the arms of gymnastics coaches in hopes of becoming the next Olga Korbut. By the time the 1976 Olympics rolled around in Montreal, the first Olga was 21, already too old for this new environment she had created. The star now was a 14-year-old, Nadia Comaneci of Romania. Nadia had watched Olga, and now, somewhere in West Virginia, a little girl named Mary Lou Retton was watching Nadia, and on and on it went. Olga was retired from competitive gymnastics within a year, married to a Russian rock singer within two.
"I am not the pigtailed girl anymore," Korbut says, "but I hold her dear to my heart. My personality is similar to that girl's. I feel much the same way she did. Maybe I am wiser, and sometimes I may scold that girl for what she used to do, but she is still in me." She now lives in Atlanta, of all places, where she coaches gymnastics and raises her teenage son and heads the Belarus American Child Health Foundation, which raises money for victims of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. Twenty-two years have passed since her grand moment—can it be?—and her country of birth and her adopted country are now shaky allies. She has been in the U.S. since 1991, part of the flow of Russians who have arrived since communism died and borders were opened.
The final flip has landed her where she was meant to be.