Soviet Gymnasts Keep Garden Crowd in a Whirl

By Steve Cady

New York Times, Dec. 8, 1975   Somewhere in the Soviet Union, there must be clumsy girls who can't even jump rope without tripping.

You would never know it, though, from watching Olga Korbut and her playmates on the Soviet national gymnastics team yesterday at Madison Square Garden.  Despite a 21-hour flight from Moscow that didn't get them here until Friday night, the Russians were so good they made bobbles look like part of the act.

Because of the 10-hour jet lag, there were more bobbles than usual in yesterday's exhibition as the visitors opened a nine-city American tour.  But only the experts in the capacity crowd of 20,000 noticed the occasional wobbly landing.

How do you make what amounts to a scoreless tie exciting enough to keep a crowd cheering and applauding for two hours?  Simple.  Spread the blue mats over the basketball court, set up the equipment, and turn people like Olga and Ludmila Turischeva loose.

"We told the kids there wasn't going to be a winner," said Howard Nutter of Basking Ridge, NJ, "and they weren't disappointed at all."

Mr. and Mrs. Nutter, with a 16-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son in tow, reflected the preponderance of family groups.  As usual, the most talked about members of the 14-member Soviet squad (seven men, seven women) were Olga and Ludmila.

Poor Ludmila.  She's still the queen of women's gymnastics.  She still has more curves in the right places than any of her teammates.  But she still can't match 20-year-old Olga, the sweetheart of the 1972 Olympics, in crowd appeal.

"Ludmila's better," said 11-year-old Robin Pagnotta, "but Olga's more exciting.  We like her style, the way she does things."

Robin and 13 girl friends, all members of a gymnastics team in Hackensack, NJ, carried a poster and a bouquet of white chrysanthemums to present to their idol.  Each member of the group had purchased a $9 courtside seat three months ago, and each held a $2 program.

There were other indications that gymnastics, popularized by television exposure in general and the Russian women in particular, may be sweeping into vogue in America.

For example, Mrs. Carol O'Connor of Berkeley Heights, NJ, noted that the high school there had just made gymnastics a varsity sport for women.  Last summer, 35 girls from the town of 10,000, including her 10-year-old daughter, went to gymnastics camp.

Young gymnasts in yesterday's crowd didn't need to be told that pain, fear and fatigue are a routine part of the gymnast's world.  Even the non-gymnasts could see that Miss Korbut wore a bandage of tape on her left ankle and instep for some of the routines, and Miss Tourischeva had an elastic brace on her left knee.  Yet the product that emerged, as the Russians soared and twisted and somersaulted, was one of grace and elegance and hard-to-imagine body control.

Among the men, dominated in recent Olympics by the Japanese, Nikolai Andrianov generated heavy applause.  So did a pair of acrobats, Vladimir Alimanov and Vladimir Nazarov, whose specialty is not part of Olympic gymnastics.

Apart from Ludmila and Olga, 18-year-old Nelli Kim looked like a contender to watch in next year's Olympic Games in Montreal.

"This girl has a smile and she has poise," an impressed viewer said as Korean-born Miss Kim whipped through a brief but spectacular routine on the uneven parallel bars.  "She really moves."

In world competition, Miss Kim ranks No. 3 now behind 23-year-old Miss Tourischeva and Miss Korbut.  Ludmila, still the best of the Soviet Union's 700,000 female gymnasts, was announced as "the most decorated athlete in the world."

Yet she was the next to last member of the team to be introduced, as spotlights probed the darkened arena.  The last introduction?  Olga Korbut, naturally, dancing across the mat in the spotlight's beam with red-ribbonned pigtails bouncing as the announcer said, "and now, the most beloved gymnast in the world..."

Whether or not she's fed up with gymnastics and can't stand Ludmila, 4-foot-11-inch Olga remains the sport's No. 1 ambassador.  As one customer put it, "Until she came along, you couldn't have sold a thousand tickets to a gymnastics match."

This page was created on July 24, 2004.
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