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Olga Korbut

Raising The Bar In Gymnastics

The sight of the petite, pigtailed seventeen-year-old was duly noted by the audience, who were accustomed to not just more sober, but much older, Soviet gymnasts. (As recently as 1964, the gold medal winner from Russia was a 29-year-old mother.) In the past, gymnastics had been likened to a heightened form of ballet. By 1968, Cathy Rigby helped pioneer the athletic bent the sport would soon embrace; competing in her second summer games in 1972, Rigby was considered a favorite for an all-around gold medal. As the underdog, Korbut took the opportunity to show the judges her now-signature moves: the balance-beam backflip, and the Korbut Flip, a soaring backward leap from the higher to the lower section of the uneven parallel bars.

Nobody had seen anything like it. "I don't believe it!" exclaimed ABC commentator Gordon Maddux on seeing the four-foot-eleven gymnast fly around the bars. "Give her an 11!" Korbut's performance helped the Soviets secure the team gold medal. Her work on the balance beam and the floor exercise earned Korbut two additional golds in the all-around team competition. She set her sights on winning the uneven bars, but fate got in the way: During a maneuver, Korbut stubbed her toe and fell to the floor. As a worldwide audience watched, she dried her tears, rallied, and finished the routine. Later, she returned to the bars in the individual event and finished with a silver medal, bringing her Munich total to four.

In the eyes of Americans who harbored negative impressions of Soviet athletes, the sight of Korbut, smiling, waving, even crying when things went poorly, touched a common nerve. "Americans who didn't know a thing about gymnastics when the Munich Olympics began were arguing at the end whether or not Korbut deserved a perfect 10 for her work on the beam," wrote Montville. "Through television, the American public saw a fascinating, delicate creature, the little girl down the street, who seemed as removed as possible from the unemotional, cold Communist stereotype perpetuated by her teammates," Paul Attner stated in a Washington Post piece.

Indeed, the memory of Korbut's charm helped offset the trauma engendered by the worst terrorist attack ever to strike an Olympic games. On September 5, days after the women's gymnastic competition ended, a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Army known as Black September kidnapped and murdered the entire Israeli Olympic contingent: nine athletes and two coaches. The games stopped cold during the crisis, and controversy arose when it was decided to resume immediately afterward.

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