Biography: KORBUT, Olga


Inducted: International women’s Sports Hall of Fame, 1982 Special Guest & Significant Contributor to U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Born: May 16, 1955, Grodno, Belarus

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There is little doubt that the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany were unique. The TV cameras showed up at the gymnastic competitions and Olga Korbut was there to show the world what they had been missing. Gymnastics clubs soon sprang up across the nations, and literally millions of youngsters found themselves flopping on mats rather that playing hide-and-seek in the park, running about a soccer field, or trying to hit a softball. Olga was the perfect young lady to be in Munich for the eyes of the camera and the heart of the American public.

Olympic Games: Gold-Team, Gold-BB, & FX, Silver (T) UB Munich, Germany, (1972); Gold-Team, Silver-BB, Montreal, Canada, (1976). Olga Korbut’s performance in Munich was the first time TV had found the gymnastics venue, and the whole world took a double take. Her amazing routines, beautiful smile as well as her tears touched the hearts of the world. This sudden tremendous interest in gymnastics started an explosion of new training centers. The training center development came about the same time as the demise of numerous collegiate gymnastics teams in the U.S. The club program has proven to be beneficial to the U.S. men and women gymnasts as witness their recent winning ways.   World Championships: Silver-AA, Gold-V, Silver-UB, BB, & FX, Varna, Bulgaria. European Championships: Silver-AA, London, England, (1973). World University Games: Gold-AA, Moscow, USSR. The Early Years: According to writings in the International GYMNASTIC magazine, Olga began training at age eight.  When she was 11, Renald Knysh became her personal coach. Together they devised event performances that emphasized her flexibility, agility, originality, and courage to perform risky movements. The web site “Gymnastics Academy” writes that “ . . . her back flip on the beam and UB were heart-stopping, and she was a master at manipulating the crowd, selecting her floor music for maximum emotional impact in whatever setting she performed.” Her routines defied the sport’s traditional emphasis on ballet type gracefulness. By the time she reached the national level in the Soviet Union, some of her moves were considered too dangerous, and, on the international level, bans were considered to stop them. Bans on specific moves were not uncommon; e.g., double back flips dismounting the HB were banned in USA high school competitions, but were lifted as safety equipment became more sophisticated throughout the world of gymnastics. The Secret To Olga’s Success: According to the Gymnastics Academy. Com, “This one Belarusian gymnast almost single handedly turned women’s gymnastics into the popular sport it is today. Prior to the 1972 Olympics, women’s gymnastics had been a sport practiced by women, not young girls. Larissa Latynina continued to compete and win even after bearing children. Vera Caslavska was 26 when she stunned the world at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Olga’s charm and technical daring changed that, and with Nadia Comaneci’s sweep of the 1976 Olympics, the sport became dominated by younger, slighter, more athletic gymnasts.” Honors: Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, (1972); ABC Sports Athlete of the Year, (1972); Top Athlete of the Year in the USA, (1973); The BBC’s “Top Athlete of the Year”, (1974); Rewarded with the “Golden Tuning Fork” and named the Woman of the Year in San Remo, Monaco by UNESCO; Selected as “Athlete of the Year” by the Women’s Sport foundation and also aptly named “Mother of Gymnastics”, (1975); The first inductee into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, (1988); Named as one of the top athletes in the past 40 years by Sports Illustrated, (1994); Designated official attaché to Belarus during the Olympic Games, Atlanta, Georgia USA, (1996); Classified the best sportswoman of the 20th century by the Italian agency AHCA, (1999). Korbut Charisma: To paraphrase U.S. Hall of Fame Honoree Frank Bare writing “Ten Years After Olga Korbut” in the November, 1981 issue of the International Gymnast, “During her (Olga’s) career she was frequently over-shadowed by the great and talented Ludmilla Turisheva. As a talented phenomenon in the sport of gymnastics, however, she was second to no one, and it may well be impossible to even estimate the number of youngsters who adopted the sport as participants or fans directly because of her impact on them. Her smile, personality, and charisma never faded, even during the rather dark moments of her performance in Montreal” where she stubbed her toe on her easy mount on the UB, her favorite event. What she and her teammates did for gymnastics in the United Sttes (sic) was significant. How she did it was also of interest. During one of the then annual USSR gymnastic tours of the U.S., the spectator appeal of the Soviets was waning.” What follows is a short re-cap of Olga’s frolics and charisma that brought about sell out crowds to see the Soviet team in action: (1) In St. Louis, Olga went shopping with a USGF chaperone. Lo and behold, she found what she wanted, a wedding dress. The press went wild with photos of Olga in the dress adorning the media. (2) The next day she left the box with the dress in the bus that carried the entourage to the airport. The dress became “ . . . a cause in itself . . .” with the press coming to the rescue. “One of the bus cleaners found the dress in a box, and a local radio station along with a local company chartered a small plane to bring the dress to Olga, and the press was again involved in promoting this tearful and yet happy reunion for Olga and her wedding dress.” Bare explains that Olga enjoyed the knowing and not telling, as much as she loved the publicity that accompanied the entire affair. No one will ever know whether the case of the wedding dress was planned or just happened. (3) The Soviet team had an unbelievably hectic schedule. When they arrived in Detroit from performing in California the day before, they were exhausted; however, at their hotel the press was waiting, and while a tired team stood and gawked, Olga jumped to the microphone and talked about all the great things they had seen and done including a description of their trip to Disneyland. Tourisheva, the Soviet AA Champion, put her head in her hands and showed total disbelief in what she was hearing. Olga saved the day once again. (4) In Atlanta, the Soviets were asked to come onto the stage and say a few words at the opening of the new (then) Omni Hotel. The group leader and interpreter had been scheduled to speak, but when their turn came the Soviets just stood on the stage, and nobody moved. “It was an awful moment or two of dead silence.” And then, out of the blue, a tiny little girl moved to the microphone, stood as tall as she could to be heard, and said, ‘Hi, my name is Olga Korbut and we love your beautiful new hotel and hope you come see us perform tomorrow night’”. She then just walked away and the guests were thrilled.  “She always came through for the tour, for the show, for the sport, and for the public who loved her.” In Munich, through the medium of TV, Olga Korbut became an unofficial goodwill liaison between the USSR and the USA during a period of Cold War suspicion and antipathy. At the same time she became an inspiration to literally millions of young people to participate in gymnastics, and now many have stood on the podium of champions across the world because a “ . . . tiny, loveable little Russian girl brought gymnastics into their lives.” Olga Today: Olga and her family emigrated to the U.S. in 1991. Olga and her second husband, Alex Voinich, live in Atlanta, Georgia. She works as a gymnastics coach, remains controversial since she publicly accused Knysh of abuse while she was training with him. She remains well respected and active in charitable work, most notably on behalf of victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant contamination. Even though her medal tally and skill level alone are timelessly impressive, Korbut is perhaps most revered for her originality and charisma that caused a worldwide surge in the sport’s popularity.

Sources: Thanks are due Bruce Davis and the publishers of International Gymnast, Nov. 1981, to paraphrase and quote excerpts from Frank Bare’s article with permission. Credit is also extended to the following web sites for information: ., . Readers may wish to visit these web sites for additional information. Introduction, commentary, and formatting by Dr. Larry Banner, Web Manager.

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