SI Vault
Martha Duffy
March 19, 1973
Olga Korbut, the girl of tears and triumph at the Olympics, is off on a tour of the U.S., star attraction of the Soviet women's gymnastic team
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March 19, 1973

Hello To A Russian Pixie

Olga Korbut, the girl of tears and triumph at the Olympics, is off on a tour of the U.S., star attraction of the Soviet women's gymnastic team

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We want Olga!" The chant came down from the vast spaces of the Astrodome, from a mostly teen-age crowd in Houston shouting for an elfin Russian girl. She grinned back and her smile suffused the Dome. That made them want her even more.

What the world needs every so often is something new, something spontaneous, uncontrived, even transcendent. Last year it actually arrived in the form of Olga Korbut (see cover), the tiny Russian gymnast who appeared at the Olympic Games in Munich and, via television, captured the hearts of the world.

Russian girl gymnasts are expected to deliver prodigal amounts of symmetry, grace and daring and reap in return their customary harvest of gold and silver medals. In that establishment 17-year-old 4'10" Olga was totally fresh, without even the most modest advance heraldry. She shed energy on anyone who saw her. Her wide-mouthed smile was out of control most of the time, and it drew the kind of reaction that only a 6-months-old baby can usually manage. When Olga laughed everyone laughed with her; when she wept, it turned out, she had plenty of company, too.

She darted on the slim balance beam, swung high on the uneven bars, and what a flexible flyer she was. Her biggest triumph was a brand-new move, never displayed before by anyone, anywhere. Its technical title is simply "back-flip," but even the most casual observer knew down his spine that he had just seen something unique.

She seemed to have wings, but at one point in one event, executing a simple glide kip she had done countless times before, she tripped badly. She was clearly out of the running and she went back to the bench and wept. The camera, already transfixed by her, caught every tear. From an unearthly sprite, a durable human heroine emerged.

Now the Russian women's gymnastic team is on a two-week tour of seven U.S. cities—Houston, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington and New York—and there is no question but that it was little Olga who brought them here. There are six girls altogether, and at least two of them, Ludmilla Turishcheva and Tamara Lazakovich, are generally considered more accomplished all-around gymnasts than Korbut. But without Korbut there would be no tour. It says so right in the contract—a document involving the AAU, the U.S. Gymnastic Federation, its Russian counterpart and the cosmetic firm Faberg�, which manages the tour and will underwrite any losses in the interest of sport and publicity. ("Anything that will make people sweat more," said one tired promoter.)

In New York, where they touched down, Olga talked zestfully to the press. She is proud of her English, but her leaders usually insist that she converse through an interpreter. No, she has no boyfriends. Yes, she has studied English for three years. No, this is not the first time she has received roses ("They were in the dustbin in Munich"). Her parents' instructions? "Be careful, be first, be joyful." During the next leg of the trip, to Houston, she sashays twice down the aisle of the plane in her shocking-pink sweater enjoying the stares. From her bulging flight bag hangs an object with a mass of violet hair. It is apparently a hedgehog, and Olga carries it, she says, because it smells of candy. At Houston airport, all the girls are presented with Stetsons. Delighted, they put them on at once, but only Olga gets the angle right—straight down almost to the eyes.

Faberg� people had put together a program of cultural diversions and amusements for the girls. On presenting it to the Soviet team, they received some shocks. Through his pretty interpreter, Leader Vladimir Smolevsky said nyet to everything. No lunches, no dinners, no tours. Instead, could they please have a sauna and a place to work out now? The AAU man rustled up a local gym, but no one could find a free sauna.

Negotiations continued, with the Russians patiently but adamantly winning every point. The next stop would be Buffalo. Surely the girls should see Niagara Falls. "We will see Niagara Falls if there is no sauna," said Smolevsky.

In short, Faberg� had just encountered the small, closed world of Russian gymnastics, where discipline reigns uncontested. Despite the fact that the girls were ashen with fatigue, Smolevsky explained: "Training is the best way to recover. The most helpful thing is active rest."

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