Olga Korbut

Soviet Life, February 1973    Olga Korbut is a tiny girl.  She is five feet one inch tall and weighs only 84 pounds.  Though already 17 and a high school graduate (by the way, she speaks English), she doesn't seem to be changing outwardly.  She is still a little girl with ribbons in her hair.  When she saw herself in a television film, she burst out laughing, "How funny!"

This same funny girl thrilled the spectators at the 1972 Olympics with her fearlessness and exceptional ability.  No one could equal her most difficult routines.

Soviet women gymnasts have always done well at the Olympics -- in the six Olympiads they have entered, they invariably placed first as a team.  Those who became over-all champions at the games were Maria Gorokhovskaya (1952), Larissa Latynina (1956 and 1960), and Ludmila Turishcheva (1972).  The Soviet women gymnasts also took home the largest number of awards in the separate events.  Not to speak of the praise of fans for their virtuosity, beauty and artistry.

Gymnastics is a very popular sport in the Soviet Union with 701,000 followers.  All schools include gymnastics in their physical education curriculum.  So do the 35 special sports schools for children from eight to seventeen with unusual athletic abilities.  The children in these schools are carefully selected by coaches, and they train three or four times a week.

Recently Byelorussian coaches seem to have had a monopoly on women gymnastics champions.  Vikenti Dmitriyev of Vitebsk trained two Olympic champions -- Larissa Petrik and Tamara Lazakovich.  Renald Knysh of Grodno also has two champions to his credit -- Yelena Volchetskaya (who was on the team in Tokyo) and Olga Korbut, and Viktor Khomutov from Minsk trained Antonina Koshel for the Munich Olympics.

Olga Korbut was born in the Byelorussian city of Grodno.  Her father is an industrial engineer, her mother a cook.  She has two sisters and a brother.  Her sister Ludmila is also a gymnast, with a Master of Sports rating.  Olga had a normally happy childhood -- went to school, didn't mind homework and loved to play with dolls.  One thing bothered her.  She was the shortest child in her class.  She more than made up for it in the opinion of her physical education instructor, however; Olga was good at exercises, ran faster than the tall girls and many of the boys.

He brought his promising pupil to a children's sports school headed by Renald Knysh.  Yelena Volchetskaya, a former pupil of Knysh who turned trainer after the 1964 Olympics, was in charge of new arrivals.

"Here is a girl who seems to be able to do everything.  I think she has the makings of a good gymnast," her instructor told Volchetskaya.

Olga went to her regular school as well as the special sports school.  A year later Knysh took over her training.

She made her debut in a national championships in October 1969.  Olga was not yet 15 and the minimum age for the meet was 16, but an exception was made in her case.  Larissa Latynina, head coach of the USSR women's squad, had seen her exercises and decided that Olga was quite capable of competing with the best gymnasts.

The youngest and smallest of the participants had the spectators applauding constantly.  She demonstrated exercises on the beam and uneven bars that were unusual and very difficult.

After the championships I asked Olga:

"Are you glad you won fifth place?"

"Of course!  I might even have won a medal if I hadn't fallen off the uneven bars."

"Aren't you scared doing such difficult exercises?"

"I was, at first.  I couldn't make that somersault on the beam, but now it doesn't bother me at all."

A year later Olga won her first award at the national title meet -- a gold medal in the horse vault.

She owes all of her medals to trainer Renald Knysh.  He always stands with folded arms near the area where his pupil performs.  When the hall breaks out in applause, a smile plays around Knysh's lips.  The trainer is full of ideas; an inventor by temperament, he is always thinking up something new.  He has made dozens of improvements on gym apparatus.  He has also devised many new gymnastics exercises.

The very reticent man with a funny haircut and kind eyes has brought about a revolution in gymnastics.  For a long time Knysh thought of including a backward somersault as part of a performance on the beam, the narrow wooden strip only four inches wide.  A somersault on the beam!  Was that possible?  No one believed it was.

But Knysh began to rehearse the exercise with Olga.  Immediately critics began to object:  Gymnastics didn't need circus stunts.  But Knysh remained adamant.  When Olga demonstrated the somersault at the 1969 USSR championship, it brought the house down.

Renald Knysh doesn't like to talk about himself and his plans.  He smiles in answer to questions.  When you ask Knysh what he is preparing for future tournaments, he shrugs his shoulders and mumbles:  "Well, we have something in mind..."

Of course, Korbut is a talented gymnast.  But without her coach, who plans her exercises, she wouldn't have three Olympic medals.

Knysh and Korbut are complete opposites.  The coach is a modest, quiet man; Olga has a temper, is easily hurt and wants to do everything her own way.  According to Knysh, relations with his pupil aren't easy.  Olga has a stubborn streak, and he has to keep convincing her that success only comes with a tremendous amount of hard work.  Talent isn't enough.  When he talks about her obstinacy, however, Knysh isn't complaining.  He believes that it's just such stubborn characters who become outstanding sports personalities.

In 1970 Olga was taken as a reserve to the world championship in Ljubljana.  She made a fine showing at a seminar of referees.  The praise went to her head, she began to put on airs, ignored her teammates and the trainers and, in general,  made herself objectionable.  But that was a passing phase.  By the next year Olga had grown up.

Last year, however, was unlucky for Korbut.  An injury, and then sickness, prevented her from training for quite a while.  And it was during these difficult months, when Olga was separated from sports, from the exciting atmosphere of competitions, from her teammates, that she began to understand that friendship is not to be taken lightly.

After her triumph in Munich Olga told reporters that without the support of her teammates she wouldn't have won.  In 1972 she also performed brilliantly before the Olympics:  third over-all place at the national championship in Kiev, victory at the international tournament of Riga and first place in the competition for the USSR Cup.

Soviet gymnasts are now preparing for future events.  In 1973 they will compete in the European and in 1974 in the world championships.  It goes without saying that the girls are already setting their sights on the next Olympics.  All those who performed in Munich will be young enough for the games in Montreal.  However, competition for the USSR women's team is very keen.  Every year such new gymnastic talents emerge as 14-year-old Nina Dronova, who was a reserve in Munich.

But Renald Knysh believes that his star pupil Olga Korbut still has many Olympic medals ahead of her.

This page was created on November, 2002.