50 stunning Olympic moments No47: Olga Korbut redefines gymnastics | Paul Doyle (2024)

Faster, higher, stronger. Yes to all of that. But how about madder? A sportsperson can delight by doing things better than everyone else but none can thrill so viscerally as the brilliant oddball who comes along once in an era and does things that no one else had even thought of. To successfully defy normality is to redefine it. Olga Korbut changed the world.

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If that seems an exaggeration, it’s one the world was happy to go along with. The world needed changing in 1972. Tension was an unwelcome, inevitable guest at that year’s Olympics Games in Munich.

The atmosphere in the buildup was such that fears were widespread that this would be the most politicised Games ever, that things, unspecified things, would occur to make Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salutes of four years previously seem trivial. The Cold War was raging, Rhodesia was thrown out of the Games just four days before the start and, of course, towards the end the Palestinian terrorist group Black September launched a murderous attack on the Israeli team. Even before that atrocity, spectators craved some sort of escapism. Along came Korbut.

She arrived as part of the USSR team and that meant she was expected to be among the medals, since the Soviets had swept the board in Olympic gymnastics for the previous 20 years. But she was like no other team member; she, assuredly, was an individual. An individual who had been preparing for glorious subversion since childhood.

Born in Belarussia, Korbut took up gymnastics when she was nine and was soon awarded a place in one of the 35 elite Soviet gymnastics schools. She was coached at first by Yelene Volchestskaya, a gold medal winner in 1964 before the latter, recognising that she was special, recommended that the head of the school, Renald Knysh, coach her personally. Knysh had a vision for gymnastics and only someone exceptional could help him realise it. Knysh and Korbut would become one of the most fateful teacher/pupil relationships in sporting history.

Knysh has said that at first he did not like Korbut, finding her “lazy and capricious” but he also recognised in her, in addition to great talent and an unusually supple spine, the mischievousness and charisma that would be needed to make his dream a reality. Korbut, for her part, has described Knysh as “a loner, a despot, a weirdo, but as a coach, a genius”.

Knysh started tutoring Korbut when she was 12. He was relentlessly demanding. He was planning for Korbut to wow the world with something never before attempted: but to do that she had to rehearse hundreds of times per day. For years.

The first major display of her uniqueness came at the Soviet National Championships in 1969, when, following persistent lobbying by her coaches, she was allowed to enter at the age of 15, a year younger than the usual age of admission. She finished fifth, the judges accepting that she was skilled but deducting marks for her radical approach. She came fourth the following two years but a few months before the Olympics, she had finally attained a level that even the snooty Soviet judges could not diminish and she beat her two main rivals – the European champions for the last two years – to win the Soviet Cup. Outside the USSR she was still relatively little known in a sport that was among the most obscure at the Games. That would change.

In her first event in Munich, the balance beam, Korbut performed something that no one had tried at an international competition: a backward flip on the beam. Spectators were used to seeing this on the floor but not on the beam, which was a mere 4.5in thick. Her bravery and skill took their breath away, then there was uproar and cheers. This was the reaction Knysh had foreseen. Until now the beam was about ballet grace and poise, suddenly here was a girl performing extraordinary feats of agility on it with no fear of falling. It was spectacular. “Before, gymnasts treated the beam like a tightrope, I wanted it to be a floor,” Knysh said. What could be done on the ground could be done on a slim sliver of wood way off the ground – that was his reasoning and it took someone of Korbut’s character and ability to make it make sense. And to turn a stuffy niche sport into mass entertainment.

Korbut won gold on the beam, took another gold following an extraordinary display in the floor exercises, and got a third gold in the team competition. However, she got only a silver in the event that was to catapult her to superstardom.

In her first attempt at the uneven bars, Korbut slipped and made several mistakes. Her chances of winning gold seemed all but over. And she publicly wept, an entirely unexpected outburst from a Soviet athlete. But in the final the next day she produced her most inconceivable move yet. The highlight of her routine was a move that would become known as the Korbut flip, a standing backward somersault to swingdown in which she managed to propel herself backwards as if sucked by a giant invisible vacuum cleaner and deftly clasp the bar behind her and carry on spinning and somersaulting. “Has that ever been done by a girl before?” gasped one incredulous American TV commentator to his sidekick, who picked his jaw up the floor in time to reply: “Never! Never! Not by any human that I know of! This gives me the chills!”

The incredulity of the crowd increased when judges awarded Korbut only 9.8 out of 10. Surely, the 11,000 people in the arena insisted, this unprecedented performance deserved to be the first ever to be rewarded with maximum marks. The crowd howled, whistled, shouted and stamped their feet, causing the event to be delayed.

The judges, however, refused to amend their score. Technically, they were perhaps correct to mark down Korbut for slight scruffiness at the start but morally this was a monumental failure to see the bigger picture. A picture that no one had ever expected was so big. And despite the judges’ meanness, no one could downplay the impact of Korbut.

Her groundbreaking performances transformed the image of gymnastics all over the world, suddenly making it one of the prime attractions of the Olympics and the preferred sport of choice for young girls almost everywhere. In Britain, 500,000 people did gymnastics in 1972; within two years, three million British girls were members of gym clubs.

Korbut broke sporting boundaries by doing something considered unfeasible, almost freakish. But what intensified her popularity was that, in another sense, she subverted systems by being utterly normal. Her displays of emotion during competition – her girlish smiles after successful performances, her tears of distress after botched ones, and her warm, natural connection with crowds – exploded the myth fostered by Cold War propaganda that Soviets were a callous, mechanical bunch. The Red Army may have suppressed Alexander Dubcek’s attempt to introduce “socialism with a human face” to Czechoslovakia in 1968 but here a tiny pig-tailed Soviet athlete showed people behind the Iron Curtain could have adorable faces. She even softened the anger of some American basketball fans.

On the back of the transformative 1972 performances, the Soviet team undertook sell-out world tours. Korbut – who when not travelling had become a teacher back home on 36 roubles (about £40) a week – was by far the biggest draw. She was asked by one journalist “what is it like to be the Russian David Cassidy?” when they came to England and when they were in the United States, the New York Times reported that she elicited a reaction akin to “a cross between Cary Grant and Joe DiMaggio”. Everyone wanted a piece of her. Even President Richard Nixon asked for, and got, an audience with her, quipping that he admired her ability to “always land on her feet”.

Not everyone loved Korbut’s influence. Some sniffy officials were hostile to the change that she ushered in, which they equated to turning gymnastics from a discipline on a par with ballet to some kind of vulgar circus show. Eleven months after Munich, the backwards somersault on a beam was banned, allegedly for safety reasons. Korbut threatened to retire from the sport. “Gymnasts are not guaranteed against injury,” she said indignantly. “In effect I am asked to revise my views on gymnastics without being given any choice in the matter. Gymnastics is about expression.”

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She did not retire immediately, and her influence did not wane. Her career did, however. With her flexible body and open attitude, she expanded minds – and they did not need her to continue expanding. In fact, she became old hat. The fame and travel detracted from her training and focus. Her life was changing, and her view of what happened during her years of regimented living may have changed too.

She stopped working with Knysh (whom she would later accuse of exploiting her sexually, accusations that Knysh vehemently denied).

Whatever the reasons, she had raised expectations of gymnastics but her own performance levels were now dropping. At the 1976 Games in Montreal, injury hampered her further, and she was eclipsed by her team-mate Nellie Kim but, most of all, by a young Romanian who showed as much audacity as her but also the technical finesse to win the approval of the purists: 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci became the first athlete in modern Olympic history to be awarded a perfect 10. Throughout the competition, the cameras that had lingered lovingly on Korbut in Munich now seemed to take a certain pleasure in showing her dismay at her slips and mistakes. She retired a year later, the extreme shortness of a gymnast’s career being another aspect she introduced to the sport.

50 stunning Olympic moments No47: Olga Korbut redefines gymnastics | Paul Doyle (2024)


How did Olga Korbut change gymnastics? ›

Her ground-breaking performances at the 1972 Munich Olympics won her three of these gold medals -- one in the team all-round event, one in the balance beam and one in the floor exercise. The "Korbut flip" revolutionized gymnastics, bringing an element of danger and acrobatic technique to the sport.

Has anyone else done the Korbut flip? ›

Other gymnasts who have performed the skill's uneven bars variation include Radka Zemanova (1980), Steffi Kraker (1977), Emily May (1981), Lyubov Bogdanova (1974) and Natalia Shaposhnikova (1976).

What ever happened to Olga Korbut? ›

In the 1976 Olympic Games at Montreal, she won a team gold medal and an individual silver medal for the balance beam. Korbut graduated from the Grodno Pedagogical Institute in 1977 and retired from Olympic competition thereafter. In 1991 she relocated to the United States, where she taught gymnastics.

How old was Olga Korbut when she won Olympic gold? ›

She captured the public imagination with her charismatic and daring performances in the team competition at the 1972 Munich Games, aged just 17 year old. After her spectacular routine on the uneven parallel bars, Korbut later recalled, "It was amazing. One day, I was a nobody, and the next day, I was a star."

When did Olga Korbut quit gymnastics? ›

Korbut retired from gymnastics in 1977 at the age of 22, considered young for gymnasts of the period, but her influence and legacy in gymnastics were far-reaching.

Did Olga Korbut ever score a 10? ›

Olga Korbut never scored a Perfect 10 in her career. Olga Korbut is best known for the 1972 Olympics, Nadia is best known for the 1976 Olympics. Both gymnasts achieved incredible levels of fame, but they were famous in very different ways. Olga Korbut loved interacting with fans, crowds, and the media.

Did Olga Korbut get a 10? ›

"Never! Never," was the response. "Not by any human that I know of." Four years before Nadia Comaneci earned the first ever perfect 10 at the Olympics, Korbut came agonisingly close but the judges awarded her 9.8 -- enough only for a silver medal.

Was Olga Korbut affected by Chernobyl? ›

Korbut does have a slight enlargement of her thyroid, a condition he described as common and easily treated. She and her family lived in Minsk, capital of the republic of Byelorussia, when Chernobyl spewed radioactive materials into the atmosphere. Minsk is about 180 miles from Chernobyl, which is in the Ukraine.

Was Olga Korbut from Ukraine? ›

Born in Belarus, Korbut and her family moved from Minsk to New Jersey in 1991, concerned about the long-term health effects of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in nearby Ukraine. (Belarus had been covered in a radioactive cloud from the 1986 disaster; Minsk lies approximately 200 miles northwest of Chernobyl.)

How old was Olga Korbut when she did the Dead Loop? ›

Olga Korbut was only 17 years old when she performed the 'Dead Loop' at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

How much did Olga Korbut weigh? ›

How old was Nadia Comaneci when she went to the Olympics? ›

At age 14 she made her Olympic debut at the 1976 Montreal Games.

How old was Nadia Comaneci at the Olympics? ›

Bio: Nadia Comaneci

At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada, a 14-year-old Romanian dynamo captured the hearts and minds of the world with her daring and perfection. We came to know her simply as “Nadia.”

What are some fun facts about Olga Korbut? ›

became the media darling of the 1972 Olympics in Munich by winning 3 gold medals (balance beam, floor exercise and team all-around); came back in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and was a part of the USSR's gold medal winning all-around team; first to perform back somersault on balance beam; was inducted into the ...

How has women's gymnastics changed? ›

The four modern events, along with the combined All-around and Team competitions, have been in place since 1956. The equipment has increasingly allowed more spring and bounce since the 1970s as difficulty in the sport has increased.

Why did they change the bars in women's gymnastics? ›

By the mid 1980s, routines had become so based on swing and release moves that the bars were moved even farther apart. The distance between bars increased even more as gymnasts developed difficult transition elements that required space, such as the Pak salto.

What did Nadia Comaneci do for gymnastics? ›

At the 1976 Olympics, Nadia Comăneci became the first gymnast to earn a perfect score. She received a total of seven 10.0 scores as she won three gold medals (one of which was in the all-around event), a silver, and a bronze. At the 1980 Moscow Games, she captured two gold and two silver medals.

What is Olga Korbut known for? ›

Olga Korbut was a pigtailed teenager and not even five feet tall when she dazzled the world at the Munich Olympics in 1972, winning three gold medals and one silver medal in gymnastics.


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