The little girl in pigtails appeared on a pair of huge screens that had been dropped from the rafters at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., on the first night of the tour. Olga Korbut was surprised. She had not seen the little girl for a very long time. "This tape does not exist in Russia," she said through a translator. "At least I have not seen it. I have no tape, no record."
She felt as if she were examining a photograph she had discovered at the bottom of a bedroom drawer. Me? Could that be me? She stared at the face of a familiar stranger. Who was this girl? What was she thinking?
So long ago.
The girl flew across the screens as if she were drawn by a cartoonist's pen. No boundaries existed, no laws of nature. One foot would touch the ground, and she would soar. The other foot would touch, and she would soar again. She was pixie, elf, amazing Soviet sylph. Her smile was the definition of innocence. She made an entire world fall in love.
"This little girl met President Nixon at the White House," Korbut said. "She was standing in a crowd of reporters, and she did not know what Nixon looked like. One man said, 'You're so tiny.' She said, 'You're so big.' She thought he was a reporter. The photographers started taking pictures. The man was Nixon."
Afterward, a Soviet foreign minister told her she had done more to improve relations between her country and the United States than all of the diplomats had done in five years.
More than all of the two nations' diplomats? In five years?
So long ago.
"It was a shame," Korbut said. "She had no idea, 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—I think his name was Heath—on his boat on the Thames. An entire day. How many people spend an entire day with a prime minister? She met the shah in Iran. She met Mickey Mouse."
The tape was from the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The girl was 17 years old. She bounded through her routine as if she had invented it on the spot. She was so natural, so spontaneous, yet somehow also so skilled, so perfect. An innovator. A child. She didn't even win the all-around event in '72, though she did win individual golds in floor exercise and balance beam. In a few summer days she transformed her sport forever...