By Sam Conner –
Olga Korbut was the first person inducted into the International Gymnasts Hall of Fame in 1988. She is known as The Mother of Gymnastics, a title she deserves as her performances in the 1972 Olympics revolutionized the sport and made it popular and participated in much more widely than before. She will be honored as one of 16 gymnasts in the ceremonies at the Royal Opera House in London during the 2012 Olympics. She will be in London for that honor on the 40th anniversary of her magnificent performance in the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Korbut was born in 1955 and lived in Grondo in Belarus, a city which had excellent gymnastic facilities. She began training for the sport when she was eight years old and was fortunate to live in a city with such excellent accommoda-tions. Studying hard with an excellent trainer, staying in good physical condition and working hard got her prepared to do things no gymnast had ever done before. She won three gold medals and two silver ones, and captured the hearts of fans all over the world.
A slip during one of her routines undoubtedly cost Korbut yet another gold meda,l but also got many fans to root-ing for her. She won most of her medals after that incident. She said in a recent interview that she now feels that the incident won her more fans and probably enhanced her reputation as a great gymnast.
She says that the announcers who described her performances helped create her reputation. Jim McKay and Gordon Maddox said such things as, “Did you ever see a woman do that?” “No human being ever did that.”
In 1973, Korbut was in Washington, D.C., with the Russian gymnastics team when she got a call from the Soviet ambassador to the United States, who asked her if she could come meet President Richard Nixon at the White House at 9 a.m. She told him, “No, I have practice at nine.” He told her to come to the White House after practice, which she did.
“You are a little girl,” Nixon said to the 4’11”, 94-pound gymnast.
“You are a big boy,” she told the president.
He then spoke of her acrobatic moves and how she could flip around all over the equipment and always manage to land on her feet. “I really wish I could do that in politics,” he said.
She has met many political leaders throughout the world and has plans to meet with First Lady Michelle Obama in the near future.
Korbut’s father was a volunteer fighting the Nazi invaders in World War II, and met her mother, who was a nurse, during the hostilities. She still has family in Belarus.
Olga Korbut is well traveled, mostly promoting gymnastics and physical fitness. She has many friends who are involved in the sport. It is likely that virtually everyone involved in gymnastics today considers her one of the biggest benefactor of the sport and their friend.
When asked how she competed in gymnastics, she said that she did not compete against other gymnasts, but against herself. She said that she always worked to try to improve her performances and do better than she had in her last effort. She also said that she is constantly working to promote and improve gymnastics. She has traveled to many countries to give speeches and do a variety of things to promote and benefit gymnastics.
Olga Korbut was named one of Sports Illustrated’s 40 greatest athletes in 1994. Also included were Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Joe Mon-tana, Joe Namath, Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Orr, Arnold Palmer, Pele, Richard Petty, Pete Rose, Nolan Ryan, Secretariat and others. Of those commonly listed, one is a horse and, other than Korbut, the others are men. It is likely, though, that a full list would have included Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Billie Jean King and possibly more women.
Olga Korbut has made gymnastics a popular sport, increasing participation in it throughout the world. Having many American viewers become her fans and supporters during the 1972 Olympics had to have helped ease cold war tensions and lead to bettering the chances of peace.
Her performances were the best part of the 1972 Munich Olympics, but there were bad parts, too. The worst by far was the incident in which a group of terrorists from Palestine took the Israeli Olympic team hostage and eventually killed them and a German police officer. Korbut had completed her performances and returned home before that event. She said that she was saddened to learn of the happenings, but glad to have no longer been in Munich or in any danger.
There was also controversy regarding the Russian men’s basketball team’s upset of the American team in the clos-ing seconds of a one-point game. It was the first time a U.S. men’s team had lost in the Olympics and it was disputed.
Korbut continues to not only make gymnastics and physical fitness more important and valued by people world-wide, she is among the leaders of those who help make peace a goal and a reality. She is a woman admired by people all over the world. She is friendly, and has a talent for making people feel good to be around her.