Athlete Turns Activist
Montreal represented Korbut's farewell to competition; she returned to the Soviet Union, married in 1978, and gave birth to her son, Richard, a year later. But the world had not heard the last of Olga Korbut. In 1986, the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl exploded. Some 180 miles away at her home in Minsk, Korbut could see the cloud of radiation. "But the government never even told us to stay indoors," she was quoted in a Sports Illustrated article by Hank Hersch. When some of her friends and relatives began falling ill, Korbut went into action. She became personally involved in Chernobyl relief projects, traveling to the U.S. to raise consciousness and money on behalf of the victims of radiation poisoning. Working with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Korbut helped collect $70,000 for medical supplies.
The United States became Korbut's adopted home. After sending her son, Richard, to live with friends New Jersey to keep him out of harm's way following Chernobyl, the former gymnast and her family settled in Atlanta. She established a new life and career—gymnastics coaching—but the damage had been done. Korbut revealed in 1991 that she was suffering from thyroid problems, which she attributed to radiation poisoning. Talking to People correspondent Bill Shaw, Korbut recalled the frightening atmosphere in the wake of a nuclear leak: "When people began hearing bits of
information, they felt panicky. They were afraid to drink the water, breathe the air, afraid of everything. We were all outdoors, because it was close to the [May Day] celebration, and we were planting gardens and enjoying the spring. If they had told us Chernobyl had exploded, we would have stayed inside and maybe avoided those early heavy doses of radiation." Cancer, she added, was rampant: "There are some people who were perfectly healthy and all of a sudden came down with severe illnesses we hadn't heard of." Worse, conditions in the impoverished region hampered treatment: "There are no machines for chemotherapy or drug therapy.… We can't find produce or meat or anything you need for a normal existence." As Korbut told Shaw, "I have never seen in my entire life such a lack of everything."
Subsequent to her move to the United States, Korbut faced challenging personal crises. In 1999 she went public with a claim that, as young as fifteen, the gymnast was coerced into sex by one of her coaches. The man told her to comply or risk being thrown off the Soviet team, she said. "Many of my teammates were forced to become sexual slaves … and I was one of them," she was quoted in a Moscow-based article printed in the Globe and Mail. Her marriage to Bortkevich broke up in 2000; she remarried a year later. But her image as a representative of her sport stayed with Korbut; during the 1996 Olympic summer games in Atlanta, she was an official attaché for Belarus.
Olga Korbut changed the face of gymnastics and made possible the goals of small girls to reach great heights in sport. She "flew across the screens as if she were drawn by a cartoonist's pen," Montville remarked. "No boundaries existed, no laws of nature.… She was pixie, elf, amazing Soviet sylph. Her smile was the definition of innocence. She made an entire world fall in love." But in her later years, the former teenage star spoke up for the older athlete. "I always thought there should be a separate classification for older gymnasts," she said to Montville in a 1989 Sports Illustrated article. "There should be different expectations for someone in a mature stage of womanhood than for a young girl. The audiences 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."