Taking a Tumble

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

Besides launching a worldwide gymnastics boom, Korbut helped thaw icy political relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. Earlier in 1972, President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had gone to Moscow to ease tension between the superpowers. A temporary respite was all they could manage. Over five days in August, Korbut did what veteran diplomats could not.

Invited to meet Nixon after the Games, she declined because she had to practice for an exhibition.

"I knew the president would not care if I fall from the equipment but the public, they will say, 'Huh, you're a big star, you didn't work enough,' " she said. Persuaded to meet him, she thoroughly charmed that most vociferous Cold Warrior.

"The [Soviet] ambassador told me after we met, 'You did for just one visit with the president what we didn't do for five years,' " she said. "I was really proud of that."

Once her fame faded, the woman who'd charmed foreign leaders wasn't allowed out of the Soviet Union for nearly 11 years. After moving to the United States because she feared fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster might affect her family, her marriage to rock musician Leonid Bortkevich fell apart. Demanding as a coach and unable to inspire in her students the fervor she felt, she had trouble keeping jobs.

She clearly hasn't lived happily ever after since Munich. But she has had enough practice picking herself up after falls to believe that this time, things will turn out better.

"I will teach instructors who will be here. I will teach them how to teach basics, and I will do it by myself and they will see," she said. "My favorite is to teach gymnasts [whose level is] right before the Olympic Games, to the highest level. I know this. I am feeling this."

As she speaks, Scottsdale Gymnastics and Cheerleading is empty, although there's a poster of her in the window advertising her arrival. Korbut and Alex Voinich, her husband and manager, moved from Atlanta to Arizona this month and are still settling in. Arthur Cooper, owner of the gym, invited her to teach at a camp in June and was surprised when she decided to move there to work.

"I'm very honored," Cooper said. "Of all the choices she has, Australia, California--Alex wants to go to Florida--we're very honored to have her here for as long as we can make it .... This is Olga Korbut, for heaven's sake."

Voinich initially said Korbut was too busy to be interviewed but relented after two months of e-mails and a nudge from Cooper. However, when she briefly left the room, Voinich cautioned that any "personal" or "wrong" question would be the last.

No discussion, then, of her failed coaching ventures in New Jersey and Atlanta, or the misdemeanor charge that she had shoplifted $19.35 worth of chocolate syrup, tea bags, figs and cheese from a grocery store in Norcross, Ga., on January, 31. Or of authorities finding $35,000 in counterfeit money in a home she had owned with her first husband and was occupied by their son. Richard Bortkevich, 23, is in federal custody in Atlanta awaiting sentencing after having been arrested in July and pleading guilty to possession of counterfeit money.

Those indignities and her appearance on an episode of Fox's "Celebrity Boxing" in May led gymnastics observers to surmise she's a lost soul who needs money. Publisher Ziert believes she's coaching "because that's all she has and she doesn't want to coach.... It's very, very tragic."

Maddux, the public-address announcer during her successful post-Olympic tour of the U.S., said he was too horrified to watch her "box" Darva Conger of "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" infamy.

"I think she's having a hard time making ends meet," Maddux said. "She looks like she's 100 years old now."

No, she insisted, she's fine. She and Voinich, a fellow Belarussian whom she has known for 14 years, have all they need. They bought a car. They're looking for a house. She truly wants to coach, although she believes many kids in the United States have too much and lack the focus and motivation she had.

"You have enough if you have a place to stay, to buy food," she said. "People don't need more. Why are we born? We need to enjoy our lives every minute, and never think about the negative."

Her son's legal problems, though, undoubtedly weigh on her. A question about him made Voinich wary, but she answered frankly, if sadly.

"He's old enough to have his life," she said. "If he decided to move here, welcome. Maybe he will have a business or something."

Gymnastics, to Korbut, is more than a business. It's her life. From the time of her earliest memories, she was a gymnast, although she didn't call herself that.

"I was born in gymnastics. I didn't think about anything else," she said. "I didn't know what 'gymnastics' means. What is that? I never saw gymnastics before. I just felt it in my body. I would jump from a tree or jump over the fence--this, to me, was gymnastics. So when I came to the gym, I was ready. I was strong enough. I wasn't flexible but my mental [approach] was ready."

Yet the coach, Renald Knysh--whom she would later accuse of plying her with drinks and sexually assaulting her--didn't immediately accept her as a student.

"I start to come by myself and watch him and how he was teaching," she said, "and after his class I stood in the gym alone and did everything he taught to his gymnasts. After one year he came to me and said, 'You want to try this with me?' I said, 'Sure.' "

She quickly learned moves capitalizing on her flexibility and tininess. Soviet gymnastics officials said some of her tricks were too dangerous for women, but she wanted to advance the sport.

"I said, 'This is my life, and if you won't let me do it, I will go away from the gym, because this is what I want to represent,' " she recalled. "This is my style. I showed them difficult was beauty. But I see them go a different way."

Just as the Munich Games were a coming-out party for Korbut, they were meant to be the same for the city. Intent on erasing memories of the grim, Nazi-dominated 1936 Berlin Games and creating a light atmosphere that put world politics out of mind, organizers used light colors and pastel decorations. Until the Israeli athletes were taken hostage in Olympic village and killed on Sept. 5--after the gymnastics had ended and Korbut had departed--she was the symbol of the Games' new benevolence.

Considered a supporting player behind the elegant Lyudmila Tourischeva and the musical Tamara Lazakovich, Korbut made her Olympic debut Aug. 27 in the team compulsory exercises, compiling the fourth-highest score and leading the Soviets ahead of the East Germans. The next night, in the team optional exercises, she started a buzz with her charming floor exercise, for which she got a 9.75 (out of 10.0), and her back flip from the high bar on the uneven bars. Her back somersault from a tuck position on the balance beam, which she capped with a happy, grinning dismount, drew gasps of shock and delight as she helped the Soviets win the gold medal.

"I was in awe," Maddux said. "She was out of the blue. She wasn't the greatest talent, but she was terrifically theatrical, and her coach, Renald Knysh, decided to use that to wow the judges and play to the audience. They just blew everybody away because no gymnast had ever done that."

Two nights later, in the individual all-around competition, Korbut dazzled the crowd with a quick and bouncy routine in the floor exercise and was in first place after the vault. But early in her routine on the uneven bars, she stubbed her feet against the floor while doing a basic move, causing a costly break in the flow. She made another similar mistake and earned merely 7.50, dropping to 10th. When she sobbed on the sidelines, a global audience cried with her.

"It was baffling to the Russians that she was so warmly received," Olympic historian David Wallechinsky said. "She wasn't their leading gymnast.... A lot of it had to do with timing. These were the first Games that were extensively covered by TV. It was great drama, the classic formula. The fact that Americans could fall in love with a Russian athlete in the middle of the Cold War is the most amazing thing of all."

Korbut said she recalls sensations more than events.

"The newspaper, the radio, all languages--I didn't know the languages but I heard my name, 'Olga Korbut,' " she said. "Right away, I started to get telegrams and letters, and I didn't know what was going on. Everybody started to recognize me. I didn't know how to deal with that because I wasn't ready for that. Overnight, I just became a huge star."

Her star reached its peak Aug. 31, the night champions were determined on each apparatus. She finished fifth in the vault finals and tied for second on the uneven bars, behind Karin Janz of East Germany. The judges' decision didn't go over well with the crowd.

"People were throwing cushions on the floor," Maddux said.

Her spectacular balance-beam routine won her an individual gold medal, but it was a prelude to the floor exercise, the finale. Confident and sharp, smiling all the while, she tumbled and rolled, sweet but strong, to a golden ending.

"I was last of all the Olympic Games gymnastics," she said. "I felt [I was] in my small town, on the grass, just playing and dancing. That's all. I will remember for all my life this moment."

She returned to the Olympic stage in 1976 at Montreal, but she was older, bigger, no longer the surprising little imp.

And too many post-Munich tours had left her too little time to develop new skills. Her life soon took a different turn, toward being a wife and mother and coach, as it has taken another turn toward Scottsdale.

"It is like a different country," she said of moving from Atlanta to the desert. "The cars are different, the cactus, the people are different. They are very nice here. Very straight."

To her, it hardly feels like 30 years have passed since Munich.

"I always focus on work, always creating. Time is going too fast," she said. "For me, I need to do a lot and I don't have time to do it."

Asked if she were happy, she paused and smiled.

"Yeah. I'm happy," she said. "I don't know who have so many of what I had and have.

"My life is extremely different and goes very fast. I do in one day a lot. Maybe people don't imagine. For their whole life they didn't do what I have had before. It has been very interesting."

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