Olympic gymnast Olga Korbut, known as “The Sparrow from Minsk,” redefined the sport of gymnastics. She injected dazzling acrobatics into a sport once focused on ballet and elegance and launched artistic gymnastics into the spotlight globally.
Olga Korbut competed for the Soviet Union, bringing home four gold and two silver medals during the 1972 and 1976 Summer Olympic Games. Her incredible skill and transformative efforts made her the very first gymnast inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1988.
Born in Belarus
Olga Valentinovna Korbut was born on May 16th, 1955 in what is now Hrodna, Belarus. She was naturally charismatic and elegant, and had an unusually flexible spine. She signed up for gymnastics training at the age of 8 to make use of these natural gifts.
She started training under Olympic gold medalist, Elena Volceyskaya, before moving to a Soviet sports school led by Renald Knysh. Under his tutelage, Korbut was pushed to be more daring, and to bring something new to the sport of gymnastics. Korbut didn’t hold back.
It’s all in the name
In her first U.S.S.R championship, Olga Korbut debuted a new move. She became the first gymnast to perform a backward aerial somersault on the balance beam, known as the Back Tuck Salto.
Korbut wasn’t done trying out new techniques. She went on to complete a backflip-to-catch on the uneven bars. This was the first backward release ever performed by a woman on the bars. The move would become known as the “Korbut Flip.”
The Korbut Flip would become Olga Korbut’s best known move, although the move would later be banned in the Olympic Code of Points. Her daring and technique helped Korbut excel at the sport of gymnastics.
In 1970, Korbut won a gold medal in the vault at USSR Championships, and though she was out of commission for the first part of 1972 due to illness and injury, she made a swift comeback and was ready to compete in her first Olympic Games.
A sport-defining performance
In Munich, Olga Korbut completely captivated the audience with her acrobatics and attitude. She quickly became a crowd favorite, and she didn’t disappoint. Korbut helped the Soviet team take home the gold medal, and she won individual gold medals on the balance beam and floor, and a silver medal on the uneven bars.
Everyone was talking about Olga Korbut. That year, in 1972, she was named Female Athlete of the Year by Associated Press, Athlete of the Year by ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and Sportswoman of the Year by the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Korbut was injured when she returned for the 1976 Olympic Games at Montreal. Despite this, she won a team gold medal and an individual silver for the balance beam.
The world was a buzz. When Korbut performed, it was like watching a whole new sport. Young gymnasts everywhere were inspired to push the boundaries of what has been perceived possible - to find eponymous skills of their own.
A lasting legacy
Olga Korbut retired from gymnastics in 1977 at the age of 22. At the time, this was considered quite a young age for retirement. Although Korbut’s career was brief, her influence on the sport was long-lasting.
She was the inaugural induction into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, and she continued to devote her life to gymnastics as a coach. Olga Korbut moved to the United States in 1991 and began to teach gymnastics in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Korbut continues to give back through motivational speaking and active involvement in charity, devoting much of her time to helping the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. She is an inspiration to anyone who meets her.
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