The little girl in pigtails appeared on a pair of huge screens that had been dropped from the rafters at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., on the first night of the tour. Olga Korbut was surprised. She had not seen the little girl for a very long time. "This tape does not exist in Russia," she said through a translator. "At least I have not seen it. I have no tape, no record."
She felt as if she were examining a photograph she had discovered at the bottom of a bedroom drawer. Me? Could that be me? She stared at the face of a familiar stranger. Who was this girl? What was she thinking?
So long ago.
The girl flew across the screens as if she were drawn by a cartoonist's pen. No boundaries existed, no laws of nature. One foot would touch the ground, and she would soar. The other foot would touch, and she would soar again. She was pixie, elf, amazing Soviet sylph. Her smile was the definition of innocence. She made an entire world fall in love.
November 27, 1989
"This little girl met President Nixon at the White House," Korbut said. "She was standing in a crowd of reporters, and she did not know what Nixon looked like. One man said, 'You're so tiny.' She said, 'You're so big.' She thought he was a reporter. The photographers started taking pictures. The man was Nixon."
Afterward, a Soviet foreign minister told her she had done more to improve relations between her country and the United States than all of the diplomats had done in five years.
More than all of the two nations' diplomats? In five years?
So long ago.
"It was a shame," Korbut said. "She had no idea, couldn't comprehend what was happening. She was thinking, 'Why are these people bothering me?" She met the queen of England. She spent an entire day with the prime minister—I think his name was Heath—on his boat on the Thames. An entire day. How many people spend an entire day with a prime minister? She met the shah in Iran. She met Mickey Mouse."
The tape was from the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The girl was 17 years old. She bounded through her routine as if she had invented it on the spot. She was so natural, so spontaneous, yet somehow also so skilled, so perfect. An innovator. A child. She didn't even win the all-around event in '72, though she did win individual golds in floor exercise and balance beam. In a few summer days she transformed her sport forever...
The tape ended. A spotlight came up, and Korbut, now 34, married, the mother of an 11-year-old boy, began the impossible task of following her young self on center stage. It was a feat she would perform many times over the next 13 days, as she and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton wended their way across America on an eight-city tour that ended last week. Olga Korbut was back. Sort of. The pigtails were long gone.
"I try to warm up before I go on," she said, "but the most important quality is a warm heart. The audience knows."
The tour was a chance to make up for lost time, lost opportunity. It was the fulfillment of a perpetual daydream. Wasn't the U.S. the country that always had loved Olga the most? For the most part, the Soviet fans had treated her as just another champion on their assembly line of gold medalists. The Americans, however, had fallen for the smiles, the pouts, the tears. They had made the little girl a star. America loves stars.
"This is something I have wanted to do for a long time, a dream of mine, but it has been impossible," Korbut said in Boston, the third stop on the tour. "I was supposed to come in 1977, but something happened. Then there was another trip.... I don't know. They said I was sick and could not come. Things were different. We truly lived behind an Iron Curtain."
If Korbut had lived in the U.S., she never would have left the public stage. There is a Zsa Zsa quality about her. Hello, dahlinks. By now she would have come out with a line of Olga Korbut cosmetics. She would have starred in Peter Pan on Broadway. And she would have spent many a weekend in an ABC Sports blazer. (As it is, her husband, Leonid Bortkevich, is a Soviet rock star, and her son, Richard, an actor.) She might have even been able to land a job on the Today show. Just think, Olga Korbut talks weather with Willard Scott.
"Someone gave me a red Chevrolet when I toured here after the 1972 Olympics," Korbut said. "A red sports coupe. I was not allowed to bring it back. Such a waste. I had a chance to drive it once. I love big American cars, perhaps because I am so small. I love the feeling of power. I love to drive fast. I have a very swift reaction to danger."
Korbut's last U.S. tour had been in December 1976, a few months after the Montreal Olympics. She had been eclipsed at the Games by Nadia Comaneci of Romania, and as the tour got under way, Korbut was feuding with her coaches. She felt tired, frustrated, even old. She was 21. Within a year she would retire from gymnastics; within two, she would be married. The important moment on the trip was the plane ride from Moscow to New York. That's when she met her future husband.
"He was going on tour with his group," Korbut said. "It was his first trip to America. He was sitting by himself on the plane. I recognized him, of course, because he always was appearing on television. The seat next to him was empty. I sat down. I told him, 'You look unhappy. Let me cheer you up.' We talked for the entire flight, talked about everything, talked about where our lives were going. Six hours. Then I didn't see him again for 16 months."
After the tour ended, Korbut's plan was to return to her hometown of Grodno in Byelorussia and marry her boyfriend. Two days before the wedding, however, she got cold feet, jumped into her car and drove to Minsk. She called her family and canceled the wedding and then wondered what she would do next. "T looked in my address book to find someone I knew in Minsk," she said. "I was lucky that Leonid's last name begins with B. There he was, on the second page. I called him up. We met. Two days later, we went into the country. We slept under the stars. I taught him how to ride horses. I taught him how to drive a car. We stayed in the country for two weeks. Three months later, we were married. It was a big wedding. The KGB said we were just getting married so we could go to the United States together. This was not true. We got married because we were in love."
Korbut became an administrative director for the Byelorussian gymnastics team in Minsk and settled into a quieter life. Richard was born a year later. She was now a homemaker and a rock star's wife, but she felt that, somehow, there should be more to life. Why wasn't she still a performer? Why wasn't she still in front of a crowd?
In a curious way, Korbut had put herself out of business as a gymnast. By adding a new element of danger to her routines, she had turned women's gymnastics into a sport for teenage daredevils. No mature woman—let alone a working mother—would choose to devote the time required to master the daring new moves Korbut had introduced. Nor would a woman have the supple physique. Flip yourself into the air. Spin around twice. Land on a beam four inches wide and four feet off the ground. A girl might do this—if she had started in grammar school and had a child's blind faith in her coach. A woman would not.
"I always thought there should be a separate classification for older gymnasts," Korbut said. "There should be different expectations for someone in a mature stage of womanhood than for a young girl. The audience should not cheer only out of fear. There should be an appreciation of the beauty of gymnastics. That is what should be shown. A gymnast should be able to stay in the sport for a long time."
Talk of a tour started late last year when Korbut and her husband came to New York, where he cut an album. During that trip she visited Oceanside, Calif., to become the first inductee into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. That brought her name back into the news. Talking with reporters, she started revealing her plans for the future. She would like to write a book in the U.S. She would like to open gymnastics schools in the U.S. She would like to perform again. Hello, dahlinks.
The U.S. Gymnastics Federation organized the tour, and Korbut began training again last spring, for the first time in 10 years. Her weight was fine. Ninety-seven pounds. Her legs were sore, but that was to be expected. She and her husband were given three-year work visas. Three years! Imagine. She could do whatever she wanted to, like her countrymen who had recently signed up with the NHL and NBA. Her only regret was that all of this hadn't happened sooner.
"After I delivered my son, two or three years later, I would have done brilliantly," she said. "I could have stayed in competition for 10 more years than I did. Even now, if I had six months to a year, I could be in good shape. But this is fine. I am a great realist in all aspects of life. Whatever I can do...here it is."
Retton approached the tour with the same enthusiasm as Korbut. She hadn't performed in 3½ years. After the 1984 Olympics, where she won the all-around gold, silver in team and vault, bronze in uneven bars and floor exercise, Retton spent a lot of time traveling around the country giving motivational speeches to students and business groups. She appeared on the Wheaties box. She made millions. She also finished high school and later enrolled at the University of Texas, where she's working toward a degree in communications. In May she plans to marry former Longhorn quarterback Shannon Kelley. Retton's life had settled down quite a bit since her whirlwind Olympic year. And, like Korbut, she felt the need to stand in front of an audience again.
When Retton arrived at Bela Karolyi's gym in Houston two months ago to start training for the tour, she shouted to her former coach, "Hey, Bela, I'm back." And for a few days she even thought about making a real comeback. Why not? Go for 1992. You're only 21. You feel great. Then reality sank in.
"I just can't do it," she said. "My body's strong enough, but I don't have the discipline. The girl who won those medals was a machine. Gymnastics was her life. I've found other things now—that you actually can go to a movie on a Thursday night, and it can be very nice. Just go to a movie. I wouldn't want to give that up. The price is too high. I would have to start right now for 1992."
Korbut and Retton barely knew each other before the tour began. Retton was only four years old when Korbut debuted in Munich. The Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Olympics, and Korbut didn't get to see Retton on TV. Korbut and Retton had met only once, during Korbut's previous U.S. visit. Their links were spiritual rather than physical. They had shared experiences, if not words. They were defined by the wondrous things they had done as teenagers and could do no more.
"You give up your childhood," Retton said. "You miss proms and games and high school events, and people say it's awful. I don't know. I mean, I walked on top of the Great Wall in China when I was in eighth grade. I rode the bullet train in Japan. I met Gorbachev. I met Michael Jackson. I say it was a good trade. You miss something, but I think I gained more than I lost."
Retton is still young enough to perform some of her Olympic moves. As she took the stage in Boston, after the film clips of her Olympic performance concluded, she bounded wildly across the mat, with flips and tucks and much of her familiar oomph. Korbut worked at a slower pace. She also did a floor routine, but with a ballerina's studied grace. There were no grand leaps. She did splits. She tumbled. Neither routine lasted much longer than a minute, and neither came close to the furious activity of the young Soviet and U.S. gymnasts who also performed on the program, such as current world champion Svetlana Boginskaya and Wendy Bruce, who is ranked fifth among U.S. women. But the crowds did not seem to mind. The biggest ovations were for the old-timers.
Korbut said the experience was exactly what she imagined it would be. On the road, she made plans for publishing her book. She courted the media. She was a star in front of people who considered her a star. The tour, she thought, was a turning point in her life. What would she do next? After the tour she would spend at least a month with Leonid and Richard in New York. Maybe longer. Much longer. She did not know.
One thing was certain. She was happier now than she had been in a long time. She had rediscovered the girl she had left behind in Montreal. And every night as she stood at the edge of the mat and prepared to go on, she felt 17 years disappear. "I am not the pigtailed girl anymore, but I hold her dear to my heart," Korbut said. "My personality is similar to that girl. I feel much the same way she did. Maybe I am wiser, and sometimes I may scold that girl for what she used to do, but she is still in me."
Now, whatever happened to that Chevrolet sports coupe?