Olga Korbut, also known as the "Sparrow from Minsk", is a Belarusian, Soviet-born gymnast who won four gold medals and two silver at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. She became the first gymnast to perform a backward aerial somersault on the balance beam and the first to do a backward release on the uneven parallel bars. During the Cold War period, she served as an unofficial goodwill liaison between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Olga Korbut was born on May 16, 1955 in Grodno, at that time Belarusian SSR, to Valentin Korbut, an engineer and his wife, Valentina Korbut, a cook. She was the youngest child in her family with three elder sisters. After World War II, they moved to Grodno from a small town near Kalinkavichy called Dubniaki.
At the age of eight, she started training in gymnastics (following her older sister, Ludmilla, also a master gymnast) and the following year, she entered a Belarusian sports school headed by Coach Renald Knysh. There, Korbut's first trainer was Elena Volchetskaya, an Olympic gold medalist of 1964, but she was moved to Knysh's group a year later. It was Knysh who worked with his young charge to develop some of the groundbreaking moves that would amaze spectators years later. He recognized Korbut's strength and daring, and rehearsed her on the heretofore untried backward somersault on the balance beam.
In 1977, she graduated from the Grodno Pedagogical Institute (today’s Yanka Kupala State University of Grodno).
In 1969, she debuted her backward somersault at a competition in the USSR. The same year, she completed a backflip-to-catch on the uneven bars; this was the first backward release move ever performed by a woman on bars. She took part in her first USSR championship in 1969 where she was allowed to compete as an underage 15 year old. She was placed fifth all-around in the championship. Korbut's outstanding performance, however, was not without its critics, who said that her "tricks" were too dangerous to be emulated by any other gymnast. The following year, she won a gold medal in the vault. Her first big success came in 1970 when she became a champion of the USSR and joined the USSR national team. But due to illness and injury, she was unable to compete in many of the competitions before the 1972 Summer Olympic Games.
In 1972, she participated in the Olympic Games held at Munich. She arrived as part of a team that included Ludmilla Turischeva, acknowledged to be the best female gymnast in the world; Tamara Kazakovich, and Antonina Koshel. The sight of the petite, pigtailed seventeen-year-old was duly noted by the audience, who were accustomed to not just more sober, but much older, Soviet gymnasts. Korbut demonstrated innovative gymnastic moves and became a favorite of the audience, winning three gold medals and a silver medal. She won two individual gold medals in Balance Beam and Floor Exercise, and the third one in the team all-around competition. She won silver medal in the Uneven Bars.
For gymnastics' newest star, life would not be the same. She toured the United States and Europe, meeting everyone from the British Prime Minister to Mickey Mouse. At the same time, Korbut felt the pressure of compliance with the Soviet government, who put the teenager into exhibition after exhibition to feed their financial coffers and to show the world, as she told the PBS interviewer, that the "former Soviet Union is the best." From 1972 to 1976, she added, "I wasn't at home. I was always being somewhere in different countries." She knew, as Korbut told same interviewer, that the Soviet secret service, the KGB, trailed her during those years. "Athlete of the Year" honors came Korbut's way, and she continued to compete. In 1973 she was second allaround to Turischeva at the European Championships; she won the all-around title at the World University Games in Moscow. Over the next two years she continued to pursue Turischeva in national and international meets, but finished second all-around.
In 1974, she competed in the World Championships at Varna, where she won six medals. She won the gold medal on Vault and team all-round competition, and silver medals on Uneven Bars, All-Around, Balance Beam and Floor Exercise.
She made her last appearance in international gymnastics at the 1976 Olympic Games held in Montreal, Quebec. Now twenty-one, Korbut saw firsthand the legacy of her Munich triumph in the form of young, bold, highly athletic competitors. Chief among them was Romania's Nadia Comaneci, who would go on to make history as Korbut had four years earlier. Plagued by uncharacteristic poor performance, Korbut won just one medal in the competition, a silver for the balance beam. Though her smile never faded, Korbut was eclipsed in the public eye by Comaneci, a fourteen-year-old phenom who posted gymnastics' first perfect "tens."
She retired from competitive gymnastics after the 1976 Olympics. The following year, she graduated from the ‘Grodno Pedagogical Institute’ and became a teacher.
The United States became Korbut's adopted home. After sending her son, Richard, to live with friends New Jersey to keep him out of harm's way following Chernobyl, the former gymnast and her family settled in Atlanta in 1991. She established a new life and career—gymnastics coaching - but the damage had been done. Korbut revealed in 1991 that she was suffering from thyroid problems, which she attributed to radiation poisoning.
Subsequent to her move to the United States, Korbut faced challenging personal crises. In 1999, she went public with a claim that, as young as fifteen, the gymnast was coerced into sex by one of her coaches. The man told her to comply or risk being thrown off the Soviet team, she said. "Many of my teammates were forced to become sexual slaves … and I was one of them," she was quoted in a Moscow-based article printed in the Globe and Mail. Her marriage to Bortkevich broke up in 2000; she remarried a year later. But her image as a representative of her sport stayed with Korbut; during the 1996 Olympic summer games in Atlanta, she was an official attaché for Belarus.
In 2000, she moved to Arizona and was appointed the Head Coach at Scottsdale Gymnastics and Cheerleading. She now works with private gymnastics pupils and does motivational speaking. Korbut traveled to London for the 2012 Summer Olympics. She watched the gymnastics competitions in the North Greenwich Arena, providing commentary on Twitter and Facebook.
In 2017, Korbut sold her 1972 and 1976 Olympic medals amongst thirty-two lots (including two golds and a silver from the Munich Olympics) which fetched $333,500 at Heritage Auctions. This was reportedly done "to save her from hunger" though auction house spokesman Elon Werner and Korbut herself have strongly denied this claim.
(Three decades of unforgettable moments in gymnastics. Oga...)
“Don’t be afraid if things seem difficult in the beginning. That’s only the initial impression. The important thing is not to retreat; you have to master yourself.”
In one notable encounter, Korbut met a stranger who greeted her by saying, "You're so tiny." "You're so big," she replied to President Richard Nixon."
Club of Soviet Army in Grodno
In the eyes of Americans who harbored negative impressions of Soviet athletes, the sight of Korbut, smiling, waving, even crying when things went poorly, touched a common nerve. "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," wrote Montville. "Through television, the American public saw a fascinating, delicate creature, the little girl down the street, who seemed as removed as possible from the unemotional, cold Communist stereotype perpetuated by her teammates," Paul Attner stated in a Washington Post piece.
Olga has been actively involved in charitable work, most notably on behalf of victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant contamination. She is a professional motivational speaker and life-long fitness advocate.
: Height: 150 cm
Weight: 38 kg
“"I don't believe it!" exclaimed ABC commentator Gordon Maddux on seeing the four-foot-eleven gymnast fly around the bars at the 1972 Summer Olympics. "Give her an 11!"”
hiking, exercising, cooking
In 1978, she married Leonid Bortkevich, famous singer of the Belarusian folk band ‘Pesniary’ and gave birth to their son, Richard. In 2000, the couple got divorced. Later she became a naturalized U.S. citizen and got married to Alex Voinich.
Olga Korbut: Gymnastics Trailblazer: GymnStars Volume 10
At age seventeen, Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut captured hearts everywhere at the 1972 Olympics. From Moonbeam-winning author Christine Dzidrums, Olga Korbut: Gymnastics Trailblazer describes the gymnast’s trek from her cartwheeling as a young girl to capturing four Olympic gold medals in gymnastics. Accompanied by beautiful illustrations and thrilling photographs, the children’s biography narrates Olga’s early life, her inspiring athletic journey, and her enormous impact on the sport of gymnastics.