Talent Shows Early
Korbut was born in 1955 (some sources say 1956) in Grodno, on the Niemen River in the country of Belarussia, then part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). Now called Belarus, the nation was a training ground for the Soviet gymnastics system, which had produced such stars as Yelena Volchetskaya, Larissa
Petrik, and Tamara Lazakovich. The youngest daughter of an engineer and a cook, Korbut was small for her age. But "she more than made up for it, in the opinion of her physical education instructor," noted Soviet Life reporter Vladimir Golubev in 1973. "Olga was good at exercises, [and] ran faster than the tall girls and many of the boys."
At age eleven the young girl qualified to enter the Soviet sports-school system (following her older sister, Ludmilla, also a master gymnast). The government-run program provides extracurricular athletic training to children who show high aptitude. Within a year Korbut was training under Renald Knysh, a top coach. It was Knysh who worked with his young charge to develop some of the groundbreaking moves that would amaze spectators years later. He recognized Korbut's strength and daring, and rehearsed her on the heretofore untried backward somersault on the balance beam. Korbut demonstrated the move at the U.S.S.R. championship meet, at which she placed fifth. Korbut's outstanding performance, however, was not without its critics, who said that her "tricks" were too dangerous to be emulated by any other gymnast.
A year after that, the rising gymnast took home a gold medal in the vault at a national meet and went on to attend her first international championship, where reserve-athlete Korbut gave a gymnastic demonstration that impressed a panel of referees. Adolescent angst caught up with Korbut briefly: "The praise went to her head, she began to put on airs, ignored her teammates and, in general, made herself objectionable," wrote Golubev. "But that was a passing phase." Injury and illness sidelined Korbut for several months, but she recovered in time to place third overall in the 1972 Soviet national championships, qualifying her for the Olympics that year.
In an interview posted on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Web site, Korbut revealed that as early as age thirteen she felt ready to compete with world-class gymnasts. "I was ready for the  Olympic Games," she said, "but I was fourteen years old, thirteen even and you couldn't compete [before age sixteen]." Korbut arrived in Munich as part of a team that included Ludmilla Turischeva, acknowledged to be the best female gymnast in the world; Tamara Kazakovich, and Antonina Koshel.