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THE LAND OF OPPORTUNITY : Korbut in U.S. With a Cause : Former Gymnast Raises Money to Help Victims of Chernobyl

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A generation ago, Olga Korbut, the little girl in pigtails, won the hearts of the world with daring gymnastic routines and infectious charm.

Today, 19 years after her Olympic magic at Munich, Korbut, 36, is still probably the most famous of all Soviet athletes. Maybe not in the Soviet Union--or what was the Soviet Union--but in the rest of the world.

Her fame, though, has brought neither wealth nor happiness. Korbut left the Soviet Union and its political system earlier this year, something she and her husband had wanted to do for years.

They and a 12-year-old son now live in a rented apartment in Atlanta, where Korbut works with young gymnasts. They plan to establish permanent residency in the United States later this year.

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Korbut knows that the freedom she always yearned for is finally coming to the Soviet Union.

“It should have happened a long time ago,” Korbut said through an interpreter during a recent visit to Southern California.

Summing up the Communist system, she said: “Sitting on one bench are talented people next to people not doing anything.

“I am not talented, but there were less talented people next to me.”

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Korbut, in English, said of the changes in the Soviet Union: “It is a good thing. I am happy.”

Korbut was at Dana Point taping a “Greatest Sports Legends” segment that will be televised next year.

While in the Los Angeles area, she and her agent, Bob Walsh of Seattle, also met with potential producers of a TV movie about Korbut’s life.

The movie would be based on Korbut’s yet-to-be-published autobiography, “243,” the title coming from Korbut’s number at the 1972 Olympics. The plan is for the book and the movie to come out before the Barcelona Olympics next summer, which will be the 20th anniversary of Korbut’s Olympic glory.

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After finishing seventh in the all-around competition at Munich, she came back the next day and won gold medals for the balance beam and floor exercise and a silver for the uneven bars.

Her best performance at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal was a silver medal on the balance beam. She retired in 1977 and was married the next year.

Korbut’s husband is Leonid Bortkevich, 42, the lead singer in a Soviet rock group. Their son, Richard, is an actor.

If they had lived in a free-enterprise system, this family would be very rich. But in the Soviet Union, there were no endorsement deals for Korbut and no record contracts for Bortkevich.

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Korbut, as the national gymnastics director for the republic of Byelorussia, made an above-average salary of 300 rubles ($470) a month, which was later cut to 200 rubles ($312) a month.

Asked if she realized how much she could have made under another political system, Korbut, smiling, said through the interpreter, “It will come. But money is not important to me. What is important is helping other people.”

Her main objective these days is helping victims of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. She and her family lived in Minsk, the capital of Byelorussia, when there was a fire at a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, exposing millions to radiation. Minsk is only 180 miles northwest of Chernobyl, which is located near the Polish border in the Ukraine republic. But most of the fallout was in Byelorussia.

Now, five years later, the worst fears are being realized. It is becoming apparent that the radiation from the accident is causing widespread cancer, particularly among children, Korbut said.

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Singly and in small groups, mothers came to her home in Minsk and pleaded with Korbut to get help for their sick children.

“You are famous. Maybe you can help,” they told her.

Korbut went to the Goodwill Games in Seattle in the summer of 1990. When Korbut and her husband returned to Minsk, they left their son with a friend, Natasha Grinberg, in East Brunswick, N.J. They were concerned for his health because of Chernobyl.

“I was afraid for him,” she said. “Many children have died in Byelorussia. Leukemia. Every parent is afraid for her children.”

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Korbut and her husband, after securing work visas, returned to the United States in March and in April went to Seattle, where the family was examined at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. No immediate radiation-related problems were discovered.

Korbut had learned of the center during her visit to Seattle in 1990. It is named after the Seattle native who was a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and later manager of the Cincinnati Reds. He died of lung cancer in 1964.

Also during the earlier visit to Seattle, Walsh, who was president of Seattle’s Goodwill Games Organizing Committee, offered to assist and represent Korbut, and she accepted. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Walsh was the program director at Los Angeles radio station KABC.

With Walsh’s help, Korbut, in conjunction with the Hutchinson Center, started the Olga Korbut Foundation in April. Its purpose is to raise money for Chernobyl victims.

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The Hutchinson Center has invited Soviet physicians and scientists to Seattle to train them in bone marrow transplants and other procedures, and Korbut hopes to raise money to absorb some of those costs as well as the costs of treating victims.

“Each bone marrow transplant costs $250,000,” she said. “If we can save one child’s life, it will be worth it.”

Although Korbut was given a clean bill of health in April, she still complains of listlessness.

“All people in Byelorussia feel bad,” she said. “They are tired, but they don’t sleep.”

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She complained that she hadn’t been able to sleep in Dana Point. One problem, she said, was that she was nervous about taping a TV show.

She asked Berl Rotfeld, executive producer of the show, to make sure that she will get to talk about the Olga Korbut Foundation. Rotfeld promised she would.

At one point, someone said that Korbut had been living in the United States for five years.

“No, five months,” she said. “If I were here five years, my English be perfect.”

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She speaks without an accent, but only in short sentences. And she seemed to prefer using the interpreter.

“My son’s English is perfect,” she said in English. But she said she doesn’t converse with him in English.

“I don’t want him to forget Russian,” she said.

Korbut’s parents and three older sisters still live in her hometown, Grodno, close to the Polish border.

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She said life has been tough for her parents. Even though her father, now retired, had a good job as the chief engineer in a factory, her family is struggling.

“Prices keep going up,” she said through the interpreter. “They barely get by.”

Things will improve, Korbut said. “But it will take time.”


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