If they had been born in America, perhaps Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut would also have, as prized possessions, glass-encased Wheaties boxes bearing their likeness, as Mary Lou Retton has in her condominium. Surely, they would at least have condominiums.
But Comaneci grew up in Romania under the terrorist reign of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and was penniless when she escaped from her country three years ago, tramping through mud in darkness with only the clothes she was wearing, leaving behind her nine Olympic gold medals and about 150 other medals.
She feared that there would be repercussions against her family, and even here, in the United States, she feared for herself. It was months before the man who helped her escape could be tricked into setting her free. He held her hostage, Comaneci explained later, demanding money for appearances and telling her what to say at them.
Now at 30, Comaneci is finally free, living here in Venice, working out and trying to free her emotions, which had also been held captive for years.
Korbut was allowed to leave her home in the then-Soviet Union about a year ago, but her heart and mind remain with the victims of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, many of whom she knows or knew, many of whom she fears will suffer in the future, some of them members of her family. Korbut lived in Byelorussia--now Belarus--about 180 miles from where the nuclear reactor caught fire, exposing millions to radiation.
Korbut, 36, lives in a rented apartment in Atlanta with her husband and 12-year-old son. She is teaching gymnastics and has written a book that she hopes will be out in time for the Barcelona Olympics. It recalls her Olympic performance in Munich 20 years later. Still, she worries about her aging parents, whose pension is not enough to provide food anymore.
"None of us can ever understand what it was like for Nadia and Olga to grow up in their countries," Retton said. "I am really lucky. God has a big bearhug around me and I thank him every night for my life."
Of the hundreds of thousands of little girls who spend time in dusty gymnastics classes around the world, no three gymnasts have had more impact on the sport than Korbut, Comaneci and Retton. Thanks in part to TV exposure, they not only changed gymnastics but transcended it, weaving their way into the hearts and minds of people who normally don't care about the sport.
There isn't a day that goes by that someone doesn't recognize them, either on sight or by name. Tonight, they should be easily recognizable when they once again put on leotards and perform at the Forum in a benefit for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Retton, at 24 still perky, albeit more mature, has pared down her muscle mass for a leaner look. She lives in Houston but travels all over the world as a motivational speaker. Being noticed has become a way of life.
"People look, and they either think they know me right off or they know me and think I'm a friend of their daughter's or something," Retton said.
"I have fun with it. Sometimes, especially when I was on the Wheaties box, I would have so much fun going down the cereal aisle in the grocery store. People would look at the box and then look at me, and say, 'Aren't you?' I would say, 'No, but everybody tells me that I look like her.' Eventually, I would tell them the truth."
Since each of these three gymnasts appeared on the Olympic podium, the attention might have slowed but it has never ceased.
In the 1972 Olympics at Munich, a 17-year-old Korbut showed the world that her countrymen did indeed have emotions. She replaced the stoic look with bouncing pigtails and a smile a yard wide. She even cried when she didn't win the all-around, but few remember who did win--Korbut's teammate Lyudmila Tourischeva. Korbut finished seventh.
Korbut was clearly the crowd and world favorite in the individual competition, where she won gold medals on the beam and floor routine, and a silver on the uneven bars.
"I think I brought a new gymnastics to the world in all ways," Korbut said through an interpreter. She can speak English but can express herself better in her native tongue.
"I feel that at that time, gymnastics was not very interesting and I made it more interesting so more people would gravitate to it.
"But the impact? I couldn't believe how everybody knew who I was after that. I can just remember there were so many gifts in my room (at the Olympics) that there was little room for me."
When Korbut returned home, she was required by the Soviet government to travel extensively for exhibition performances. She said that she continually told government officials how tired she was, but it didn't matter because \o7 they \f7 got paid for her performances. At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, she was exhausted. It was time for a 14-year-old newcomer named Nadia.
In Romania, before leaving for Montreal, Comaneci said that she was convinced that she could not beat Korbut, but wished, "if it were possible to bring home a medal."