Olga Korbut, Whiz Kid

Selskaya Molodyozh, 1973

The photograph shows a girl sitting on a narrow bench.  Blinded by dozens of photoflashes, she is wiping her tear-stained face...

Almost every newspaper in the world has carried this photograph.  One of them captioned it: "Where did this whiz kid come from?"

She is 17 years old and speaks fair English.  Last year she finished secondary school.  She is five feet two, and tips the scale at just under six stone.  She does not seem to have changed with the years -- still a chit of a girl with ribbons in her braids who skips as she walks.

Once she saw herself on television.  She laughed at what she saw and said, "Isn't she funny?"

It was this funny girl, spry as a sparrow, who won the hearts of gymnastics fans with her daring and skill.  Who could have known that the most difficult exercises of all would be performed at the Munich Olympics by none other than Olga Korbut, a Soviet gymnast?

Soviet women gymnasts have always been popular at the Olympics, though.  Mexicans sang songs about Natalia Kuchinskaya and dubbed her "Mexico's Bride."  Before that, in Rome, the fans made a great fuss of Larissa Latynina.  Polina Astakhova, "the Russian Birch," won the fans' hearts, too.  And now Olga Korbut.

She was born in Grodno, in Byelorussia.  She has a brother and two sisters.  Her father is an engineer, and her mother works as a cook.  It is noteworthy that one of Olga's sisters, Ludmila, is also a gymnast with a Master of Sport rating.

Olga went to school when she was seven.  She was a diligent pupil.  Like all little girls, she was fond of dolls.  Nothing clouded her existence except one circumstance: she was shorter than anyone in her class.  The P.T. instructor, however, was very pleased with her.  She did all the gymnastic exercises better than anyone else.  She could run faster than the other, much taller, girls and she could outrace even many of the boys.

One day the P.T. instructor showed his capable pupil to Renald Knysh, trainer at the children's sports school.  Knysh took Olga to Yelena Volchetskaya, his former charge who had become a trainer herself after the Tokyo Olympics and was working with beginners that day.

"Look, this is a really gifted girl," he told Yelena Volchetskaya.  "There is nothing she can't do.  I think she'll make an excellent gymnast."

After that Olga began attending two schools at once -- her regular school and the sports school.  A year later Renald Knysh took her into his own group...

Came October 1969, and with it the USSR gymnastics championships.  Under the rules, competitors had to be over 16.  One exception was made, however -- for Olga Korbut, who was only 15 at the time.  Larissa Latynina, coach of the USSR national gymnastics team, decided there was no reason why the girl should not compete against the best gymnasts.  It turned out that she was right.  The youngest and smallest of the competitors showed some original and most intricate exercises on the beam and parallel bars.  After the championships Olga, who had taken fifth place, was asked if she was satisfied with her results.

"Of course!" she replied. "Although, I could have taken a higher place if I hadn't fallen off the parallel bars."

"Aren't you afraid to do such complicated exercises?"

"I was at first, especially the back somersault on the beam, but now I've no fear at all."

One year later, at the next national championships, Olga Korbut won her first high honor -- the gold medal for vaulting.

Much of her success, no doubt, Olga owes to her trainer, Renald Knysh.  He is a man whose only interest in life seems to be gymnastics.  A man with an inventive mind, he is always full of ideas and thinking up new elements and combinations.

That taciturn man with the eyes of a kind wizard has brought about a veritable revolution in gymnastics.  For a long time he nursed the idea of introducing a back somersault on the beam into the exercises.  A somersault?  On the beam?  A long piece of squared timber only four inches wide?  Who ever heard of such a thing?  No one believed it possible.

Knysh, however, began working on his idea with Olga Korbut.  At once there were critics who declared that there was no place for circus stunts in gymnastics.  But Knysh persevered.  When, at the 1969 national championships, Olga Korbut performed the somersault, fans were delighted.

Renald Knysh is sometimes called a "mystery man," because he does not like, or just does not want, to talk about himself and his plans.  He smiles and keeps his mouth shut, and nobody knows what is on his mind.

Knysh and Korbut are opposites.  He is quiet and unassuming.  She is quick-tempered, over-sensitive and willful.  Knysh says that he had a difficult time of it with Olga at first.  She has the disposition of a mule.  Day after day he had to din it into her that persistent work, and not ability alone, was essential for success.

However, in recalling this Renald Knysh does not mean to complain about Olga's willfulness.  He believes it takes a hard-headed person to become a big name in sport.  She has already achieved a lot, and she is only seventeen, don't forget.

At seventeen she is experiencing early fame.  She displays a fanatical devotion to sport, a superb agility and an ability to get a firm grip on herself.  Besides, she is an inspired athlete: her composition on the parallel bars and on the beam, and her floor exercises (where one can express one's individuality to the utmost) -- are all akin to flight.

In floor exercises it is particularly easy to see how Olga is improving.  Only recently her trainer and the choreographer racked their brains: what kind of exercises to arrange for that child so she would not look unnaturally adult, her wonderful acrobatic ability would be demonstrated to the best advantage, and her character would be revealed.

The last was the most difficult part: her character was changing, it eluded definition, and it was difficult therefore to express it in movement.  Yet, by joint effort they managed to create a lovely composition.  It was called "The Flight of the Bumblebee," and Olga performed it for several years running.  On the eve of the Munich Olympics, however, she rejected the "Bumblebee" pointblank:  "It's kids' stuff.  I want a different set," she declared.

There were doubts as to whether it was not too early to change her composition.  All right: she was seventeen, but she looked like a child!  However, Olga would not have been her own self if she had yielded.  She had her way, and showed that she was right.  The new set of floor exercises gave full play to her special, rollicking style of performance.  And her Olympic gold medal in the floor exercises was a logical outcome.  Olga had surpassed both European champions there -- Tamara Lazakovich, voted the most graceful gymnast of the Olympics, and Ludmila Turishcheva with whom floor exercises were the favorite event.

Why then did Olga Korbut, despite her phenomenal abilities and exceptional daring, lose the crown of all-around Olympic champion to the earnest, unsmiling (at least during contests) Ludmila Turishcheva?  For after two days of competition Olga was in the lead, and everybody was sure she would win the all-round event.  It was on the third day that the fall occurred which made the spectators gasp, and after which Olga sat down on the bench wiping away her tears.  Why did she fall off the parallel bars, a gymnastic apparatus on which she had always performed so confidently?

There is a concept which is being more and more talked about in sport today -- "psychological stability."  Having landed for the first time in the tense atmosphere of Olympic Games and being overwhelmed with her success in the first two stages of the all-round event, Olga broke down.  But only for a short while.  She had everything under control practically in no time.  Her three gold medals, won subsequently in individual events, were a great achievement, and she left the Games a happy girl.

Today, Olga Korbut is a first-year student in the History Department of the Teachers' Training College in Grodno.

Some time in May this year Olga and her teammates are scheduled to take part in the European championship, and next year in the championship of the world.

And, of course, the girls are giving plenty of thought to the next Olympics.  All of them who appeared in Munich are young enough to maintain their present shape till the Games in Montreal.  Competition for a berth in the USSR women's gymnastics team is very intense, though.  Every year new names flash up on the scoreboard -- names of such talented gymnasts as 14-year-old Nina Dronova, who was a substitute on the Soviet team at the Munich Olympics.

As for Renald Knysh, he believes that his trainee, Olga Korbut, has not won her last Olympic gold medal yet.  And, one must admit, he has good reason.

This page was created on May 10, 2003.
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