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Taking a Tumble

Olga Korbut has struggled in life since dazzling world with innovative gymnastic routines


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Her smile is the same, illuminating her face and stirring memories of the enchanting girl she once was.

Certainly, Olga Korbut has changed in 30 years. She wears heavy makeup, carefully applied, and tinted rectangular glasses. Her blond hair is brushed to the side, too short to bunch into the plucky pigtails she used to wear.

But when she talks about the 1972 Munich Olympics, it's easy to forget she's sitting cross-legged on the floor of a shabby but ambitious gym tucked between a post office and a Walgreens in a strip mall. Banished are thoughts of her recent woes, which include a shoplifting arrest in Georgia--she avoided prosecution by paying $333 and completing a course on values--and her son's arrest on counterfeiting charges.

In this unlikely place emerges the spirit of the 4-foot-11, 85-pound sprite who daringly dived off the uneven bars, pranced on the four-inch-wide balance beam and cavorted through her floor exercise routine "like a little kid playing in the sun," in the picturesque description of ABC commentator Jim McKay. At 47, with some unkind years behind her, she still has that glorious grin.

"Because it wasn't fake," she said. "I didn't change."

Maybe not, but the world has.

With athletes from the former Soviet Union routinely playing alongside Americans in professional sports, it seems a lifetime ago that ideological barriers separated East and West politically and athletically. Unlike boisterous Americans, Eastern European athletes, taught from childhood to put the good of the team ahead of individual gratification, were serious and robotic.

Korbut, from the town of Grodno in what is now Belarus, didn't conform. Defying officials who were horrified by her dangerous tricks and predicted she'd never go far, she performed innovative moves and instinctively played to the crowd. She was 17 but childlike and irresistible in her innocence, transcending politics and borders.

"This is what I thanks God I have and had, this gift," said Korbut, who moved to the U.S. in 1991 and became a citizen in 2000. "I didn't pay attention to [politics].

"Why would the world fall in love with me? Because I was smiling from my heart. I was crying from my heart. I never paid attention to anything and I just focused on my work, on what I have to give. I don't perform for the judges or to win. I always compete for the public. If one seat will be empty, I will be disappointed."

Cathy Rigby, the top U.S. gymnast and a medal hopeful at Munich, noticed Korbut at the 1970 World Championships in Yugoslavia and marveled at her courage and skill.

"I remember thinking she was incredible, very impressive, really a tiny ragamuffin girl doing flips on the beam," Rigby said. "Olga always seemed to not fit the mold of the real subservient, stone-faced athlete. She would ask questions. She was quick to smile and she enjoyed the media and understood what to do.

"The thing that made her great and charming and wonderful was that kind of spirit of the compulsive risk-taker. She did some incredible things."

Most remarkable was Korbut's openness. She exulted at Munich when she and the Soviet women won the team gold medal, and she sobbed into her blue team jacket after she stubbed her feet during her uneven bars routine and fell out of contention for the individual all-around title. Although she lost, she won hearts all over the world.

"She had great flexibility and courage and was really fearless," said Paul Ziert, publisher of International Gymnast magazine. "And she had that certain something that captivated people, and she was able to show that each time, not just when she missed the bars and cried, which hadn't been seen from a Soviet."

She went to Munich an unknown outside the gymnastics world. She left as an icon, having won three gold medals and a silver, and having changed gymnastics forever. In 1976 at Montreal, she won team gold and silver on the balance beam, but was surpassed by another tiny dynamo, Nadia Comaneci of Romania. Munich was Korbut's personal playground.

"Olga Korbut was a darling because she was pixie-like, child-like, yet she was an amazing and highly trained athlete for many years," said John Lucas, a retired Penn State professor and Olympic historian. "She was the first girl-woman gymnast. Previous to that, all the Eastern bloc gymnasts were tall, statuesque gymnasts who were fully mature women rather than pixie girls. They were ballet trained. She was athletics trained. Therefore, her performance was startling."

Said Gordon Maddux, a rookie ABC analyst at Munich, "She was a blight or a bright star, depending on how you looked at it. It had been women's gymnastics, but after Olga, it became girls' gymnastics. Until then, the athletes had been very elegant, very mature. They replaced that with a battle of danger, a challenge to see who could do more difficult tricks."

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