We want Olga!" The chant came down from the vast spaces of the Astrodome, from a mostly teen-age crowd in Houston shouting for an elfin Russian girl. She grinned back and her smile suffused the Dome. That made them want her even more.
What the world needs every so often is something new, something spontaneous, uncontrived, even transcendent. Last year it actually arrived in the form of Olga Korbut (see cover), the tiny Russian gymnast who appeared at the Olympic Games in Munich and, via television, captured the hearts of the world.
Russian girl gymnasts are expected to deliver prodigal amounts of symmetry, grace and daring and reap in return their customary harvest of gold and silver medals. In that establishment 17-year-old 4'10" Olga was totally fresh, without even the most modest advance heraldry. She shed energy on anyone who saw her. Her wide-mouthed smile was out of control most of the time, and it drew the kind of reaction that only a 6-months-old baby can usually manage. When Olga laughed everyone laughed with her; when she wept, it turned out, she had plenty of company, too.
She darted on the slim balance beam, swung high on the uneven bars, and what a flexible flyer she was. Her biggest triumph was a brand-new move, never displayed before by anyone, anywhere. Its technical title is simply "back-flip," but even the most casual observer knew down his spine that he had just seen something unique.
March 19, 1973
She seemed to have wings, but at one point in one event, executing a simple glide kip she had done countless times before, she tripped badly. She was clearly out of the running and she went back to the bench and wept. The camera, already transfixed by her, caught every tear. From an unearthly sprite, a durable human heroine emerged.
Now the Russian women's gymnastic team is on a two-week tour of seven U.S. cities—Houston, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington and New York—and there is no question but that it was little Olga who brought them here. There are six girls altogether, and at least two of them, Ludmilla Turishcheva and Tamara Lazakovich, are generally considered more accomplished all-around gymnasts than Korbut. But without Korbut there would be no tour. It says so right in the contract—a document involving the AAU, the U.S. Gymnastic Federation, its Russian counterpart and the cosmetic firm Fabergé, which manages the tour and will underwrite any losses in the interest of sport and publicity. ("Anything that will make people sweat more," said one tired promoter.)
In New York, where they touched down, Olga talked zestfully to the press. She is proud of her English, but her leaders usually insist that she converse through an interpreter. No, she has no boyfriends. Yes, she has studied English for three years. No, this is not the first time she has received roses ("They were in the dustbin in Munich"). Her parents' instructions? "Be careful, be first, be joyful." During the next leg of the trip, to Houston, she sashays twice down the aisle of the plane in her shocking-pink sweater enjoying the stares. From her bulging flight bag hangs an object with a mass of violet hair. It is apparently a hedgehog, and Olga carries it, she says, because it smells of candy. At Houston airport, all the girls are presented with Stetsons. Delighted, they put them on at once, but only Olga gets the angle right—straight down almost to the eyes.
Fabergé people had put together a program of cultural diversions and amusements for the girls. On presenting it to the Soviet team, they received some shocks. Through his pretty interpreter, Leader Vladimir Smolevsky said nyet to everything. No lunches, no dinners, no tours. Instead, could they please have a sauna and a place to work out now? The AAU man rustled up a local gym, but no one could find a free sauna.
Negotiations continued, with the Russians patiently but adamantly winning every point. The next stop would be Buffalo. Surely the girls should see Niagara Falls. "We will see Niagara Falls if there is no sauna," said Smolevsky.
In short, Fabergé had just encountered the small, closed world of Russian gymnastics, where discipline reigns uncontested. Despite the fact that the girls were ashen with fatigue, Smolevsky explained: "Training is the best way to recover. The most helpful thing is active rest."
His charges would not quarrel with that. They need the gym the way fish need water and, once there, they can no more be reached than trout in a deep pool. Going about regimens that seem to spring from private need or inspiration, they ignore photographers, attendants, other athletes and even some male groupies who try to attach themselves to their entourage.
In the beginning of a workout there is some horseplay—always with 85-pound Olga in the middle. Two teammates swing her like a jump rope. She does a stag leap into another's arms, mocking the bravura end of classical ballet pas de deux. Then all the girls lose themselves in dodge ball.
Gradually they separate. Turishcheva, the best athlete and acknowledged group leader, may spend an hour in trancelike motion on the high, four-inch balance beam. Lazakovich, the most musical, traces and retraces her floor exercises. The younger girls are slightly more volatile: Rusudan Sikharulidze, a fiery Georgian; Luba Bogdanova, a daring girl with a loping stride who has not yet quite found her own style; Antonina Koshel, miserable because she has hurt her elbow slightly.
Soon they are unaware even of each other. But who are the three men hanging around on the sidelines staring at the ceiling, counting the empty house? They might be security guards, but they are in fact three of Russia's most famous gymnastic coaches. The three top girls travel with their own coaches, who each also superintends one younger girl during the trip.
At first the noncommunication between coach and pupil seems comical. In the U.S., coaches are constantly underfoot, encouraging or criticizing their charges, "spotting" them—standing ready to catch them—on risky high maneuvers. The Russians look at things differently. Says Vikenty Dimitryev, who coaches Lazakovich, "The relationship is so close that a gesture is usually enough to correct a flaw. This approach makes the gymnast independent, as she must be in competition." He adds that in general it is harder to coach women than men. "They get frustrated more quickly," he sighs. "They like to be loved, to be admired."
Korbut's mentor, Renald Knysh, is the most unfathomable of an inscrutable lot. But between him and Olga there is animal communication. Sometimes they stare at each other from a distance like two cats; then Knysh may turn his back. But their gymnastics are mental as well. They are the two greatest innovators in the sport. "Olga's spectacular moves have evolved slowly," says Knysh. "The relation of the coach and the athlete is very prickly. There is a lot of tension." Knysh knows exactly what he is aiming at. "I am not interested in gold medals. Judges are usually slow in accepting innovation. What I am concerned with is how spectators react to Olga and I try to get her to think the same way." He does not add that the judges will follow, but in fact they usually do. In Munich, Korbut's marks soared after the audience booed her first day's scores.
There has been no time yet to develop a new move, but the famous back-flip is even more electrifying and technically perfect than at the Olympics. Since then she has received thousands of letters, some of them addressed to "Olga, Moscow," but she insists that she does not feel like a celebrity.
Still, the Olympics brought some changes. For one thing, she was given her own apartment in her hometown of Grodno near the Polish border. What part of town is it in? "In the same house, the same floor, the same corner as mine," says Knysh. Olga acquired some modern furniture along with hand-me-downs from her mother. She would like to decorate the walls with posters of herself, she says, "but there aren't any."
There will be if the voice of young Houston is heard. When the workouts move to the Astrodome, she is dogged by autograph-seekers, many with braces on their teeth. The gymnastic club of Andrews, Texas (for ages 8 to 15) journeyed nine hours and 600 miles to catch a glimpse of her. Hordes of delegates to a convention of high school entrepreneurs attempt to storm the seventh floor of the Astroworld Hotel, where the girls stay. No one succeeds, and the girls are not allowed to go anywhere without the entire party.
They do not seem frustrated, even Olga, for all her theatrical ways. They have quickly learned to love American television and start watching cartoons at 6:30 a.m. They diet strictly. Breakfast is the only real meal of the day and its high point in the U.S. is ketchup. One morning they washed down their eggs with three whole bottles.
It may have been the ketchup or perhaps the lingering effects of flight, but the tour's first performance in Houston had some ragged moments. Olga's flips were brilliant, but elsewhere her timing seemed hurried. Turishcheva fell off the balance beam and curtailed the rest of her program. Even so, her floor exercises—a free program done to music—provided the evening's most lyrical sequence. The crowd gave her two ovations, then went back to chanting for Olga.
When it was all over, Smolevsky pronounced himself satisfied. "They will loosen up now; the Astrodome is not the ideal place for gymnastics. It is a sport of precision as well as strength." He is doubtless right that his proud athletes will loosen up, hunker down, or do whatever else is necessary to bring about perfection. Niagara may have to wait.