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Olga Korbut

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.

Chronology

1955 Born May 16, in Grodno, Belarussia (now Belarus)
1963 Begins gymnastics training
1967 Enters Belarussian junior championship
1969 Competes in first Soviet national championship
1972 Represents Soviet Union at Olympic summer games, Munich, Germany
1976 Represents Soviet Union at Olympic summer games, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
1977 Retires from competition
1978 Marries Leonid Bortkevich (divorced, 2000)
1979 Gives birth to son, Richard
1986 Becomes active in relief efforts following Chernobyl nuclear accident
1991 Relocates to U.S.
1993 Becomes gymnastics coach
2001 Marries Alex Voinich; becomes gymnastics instructor in Dunwoody, Georgia
2002 Arrested for shoplifting and investigated for counterfeiting

Awards and Accomplishments

1968 Gold medal, Spartakiade championship
1969 Introduced Korbut Flip, Soviet national gymnastics championships
1970 Reserve competitor, world championships
1971 Placed fourth, Soviet national championships
1972 Team gold, individual gold (2) and individual silver, Olympic summer games
1972 Named "Athlete of the Year," ABC Wide World of Sports
1972 Youngest person named Honored Master of Sport, Soviet Union
1973 Named "Athlete of the Year," Associated Press
1974 Won five medals at world championships
1975 Named "Woman of the Year," United Nations
1976 Team gold and individual silver, Olympic summer games
1988 First inductee, Gymnastics Hall of Fame
1994 Named one of the top athletes of past 40 years, Sports Illustrated
1996 Official attaché of Belarus, Olympic summer games
1999 Named among the best sportswomen of the twentieth century, by Italian news agency ACHA

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

Olga Korbut

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."

Where Is She Now?

Having survived the Communist regime and Chernobyl radiation, Olga Korbut moved to the United States to begin a new life. All would not go smoothly, however. In January 2002, Korbut was arrested, charged with shoplifting $19 worth of food from a Publix supermarket in Norcross, Georgia. The gymnast's representative, Kay Weatherford, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it was a misunderstanding. Korbut, she explained, had mistakenly walked out of the store with the items to retrieve her wallet, left in the car. A more serious charge came shortly after that incident, when it was revealed that authorities had found $30,000 in counterfeit $100 bills in the Korbut home during eviction proceedings. The home had been most recently occupied by the athlete's grown son. The investigation was continued by the Secret Service.

Korbut's denied any involvement with this federal offense. Still, her attorney Howard Weintraub told Beth Warren in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "it must be absolutely devastating to have millions of people the world over now look at you in a light differently … for something you didn't do." In a 1992 Sports Illustrated piece, Korbut revealed a philosophy that may have well served her during these hard times. "I try not to focus on annoying things in my past," she said. "It's like the Russian proverb says: 'If I always watch who steps on my feet, I wouldn't walk.'"

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