Grin and bear it

Sex and drugs and forward rolls: the Olga Korbut story

Anne McElvoy
Thursday 24 June 1999 23:02 BST

There she is, a picture still fresh in the memory more than 25 years later, an indelible icon of the Seventies. Olga Korbut standing on the beam, leg outstretched, her tiny frame poised in perfect amplitude, the little girl's face set in an expression of devout concentration. From the scrawny bunches tied with homely braid, to the winning, irregular smile, Olga was the perfect sporting product retailed to the West. We hankered for a human face of Communism and she obliged with a grin the middle-aged commentators liked to call "cheeky".

"Smile," her coach Renald Knysh told her. "Always smile because there's nothing else you can do." Korbut has now revealed that shortly before the 1972 Munich Olympics, at which the teenager won three gold medals, he had forced her to have sex with him, thoughtfully plying her with cheap cognac in advance. Korbut this week told a Russian newspaper that Knysh, together with other Soviet coaches, saw his charges "not just as potential gymnasts but future concubines", and alleges that he hit her and sought complete control of her life, fearful that if she met boys, it would distract her from the sport.

Their sexual and professional relationship lasted several years, until Knysh moved his attention to younger gymnasts. In an earlier biography, My Story, Korbut says that he regularly beat her and that, on her retirement, he tried to persuade her to marry him. She turned him down. "When it gets right down to it, I think I was more afraid of the mental threat of my coach than the physical fear of falling."

But in her interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda this week, Korbut fills in the sexual detail she left out of the Knysh story in her memoir. Both were afraid that the truth would emerge and tarnish her image. She paints a picture of complete dependence on Knysh. Like an abused child, she had nowhere else to go. The Soviet sporting regime separated parents from their children as brutally as the Spartans. It was unthinkable for any mother or father to intervene.

The coaches determined what the girls ate and when they were given drugs to suppress the outward signs of puberty. As for the revelations that the regime of control extended to sex, the only surprise is that anyone is surprised. It was an inevitable consequence of a system that handed over sole charge of prepubescent girls to obsessive male trainers.

More than any gymnast before her, Korbut was constructed to have mass appeal, and Knysh was her brilliant and brutal Svengali. He discovered the daughter of working-class parents from the sad little town of Grodno in Belarus, the youngest of four girls who all shared a single room with their parents, teased at school for being a "dumpling". Knysh saw the potential to expand the very nature of the sport by using the personality of the performer, as well as technical skill, in order to create a more rounded spectacle, part art, part circus. He invented daring moves for her, like the "Korbut Loop" in which she hurled herself backwards from the top asymmetric bar only to catch it again. It took five years and three concussions to get right.

Korbut's technique was never perfect: her team-mate, Lyudmila Turischeva, was the more precise and reliable performer. But Olga made it look so easy and natural. We were hooked. Her propaganda value outstripped a million Tass-is-proud-to-announce bulletins. She succeeded, where thousands of other spies, apparatchiks and tour guides had failed, in making us love the Soviet Union, or at least the girlish representatives of its sporting might, with the legend CCCP emblazoned on their socialist red tracksuits.

Even President Nixon sought a meeting with her, as part of his re-election campaign. "You're very small," he said. "And you're very big," she replied. The Soviet authorities knew they had struck gold. They showered her with travel visas for performances in the West and coached her to speak a few words of English when she received the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award, the first person from the Eastern bloc to do so.

Korbut's fame bred resentment, however, and morale within the star Soviet team was strained. Even today, bitterness remains between Korbut and Turischeva, who now trains the Ukrainian squad. "Olga was a selfish team-mate," says Turischeva. "Lyudmila worked tirelessly to compensate for lack of grace," retorts Olga.

Korbut recalls that in 1974, at the age of 19, she was physically exhausted, secretively smoking in order to control her weight. The girls performed in displays across Europe and America - the state took the money while they were given $20 a day, which they hoarded to buy T-shirts.

Korbut's story, though sad, is far from unique. Eastern bloc sporting systems were constructed on the ideological premise that the performers were the beneficiaries of the state and owed it a debt of loyalty in return. When their careers were over, they were also heavily reliant on the sporting bureaucracy to provide them with a niche in coaching or sports administration, since their general education had been whittled down to a couple of hours' schoolwork a day in order to leave more time for training.

I have asked many former performers whether the authorities knew of the sexual exploitation of the young women. "Naturally," says a friend who was a champion East German speed-skater. "They knew everything. Why shouldn't they know that? They turned a blind eye to anything as long as the medals kept coming in." When my friend had her first child, a girl, they were round faster than the health visitor to ask whether she wanted her daughter to receive an early elite training in an ice-sport. "Absolutely not," my friend replied, her attitude perhaps emboldened by the fact that she had married into a Politburo family. The officials were horrified and wanted to know why. "There are so many other lovely things in life," she replied.

No such considerations were entertained by the Soviet Union's most famous sporting couple. In 1976, Lyudmila Turischeva married Valery Borzov, the Russian sprinter who in 1972 broke the domination of American black sprinters over 100 and 200 metres. It was rumoured that the marriage was contracted at the authorities' behest with the intention to produce sporting genius as offspring. This sounded to me like a Cold War myth taken too far.

So in 1993, I went to meet them both: he has become Ukraine's Minister for Sport, she trains the national squad. Embarrassed, I rehearsed the old story about their match, expecting a denial or a joke. "Naturally," said Lyudmila, deadpan. "We were both gold medallists in 1972. We were both due to retire in 1976. Our trainers thought that we would go well together."

Like a lot of former top gymnasts, she had difficulty bearing children, the probable result of high-impact blows to the ovaries. (Korbut also had a still-birth before bearing a son.) When Turischeva did have a daughter, she was graded by physique at pre-school age as a likely sprinter - but the dreams of a genetically programmed champion failed to materialise. Tatiana was not fast enough to be a sprinter and became a hurdler instead. "She's very lazy," said her father. "She won't put in the work: too many distractions now. When I was training, we had a motto: `Victory for the Flag.' And we really believed it."

The casualties of Soviet sport go unmourned. How many people remember Yelena Mukhina, the most promising Soviet gymnast of the early Eighties and now confined to a wheelchair, having broken her spine performing a manoeuvre on the bars which adapted and advanced the Korbut Loop? I asked her old team-mate Turischeva what had happened to her. She looked uncomfortable. "I never see her," she said. "But the state takes care of her."

The collapse of Communism has allowed Soviet-bloc coaches a second career abroad. Their uncompromising standards make them especially sought after in America, which now dominates the medal tables. Korbut runs a gym in Atlanta and has a reputation for exacting discipline. It was Bela Karolyi, the former coach of Nadia Comaneci, who trained the victorious US team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and scooped up Kerri Strug when she performed her final vault on a badly damaged ankle and had to crawl off the mat. The crowd loved it.

Gymnastics is a sport of magical, impossible images, frozen in time. You never forget seeing Olga Korbut mount the beam and arch her elastic back, or Kerri wobble on the landing mat, her teenage will conquering the body's scream of pain. We will remember her, just as surely as we forget Christy Heinrich, who missed inclusion in the US Olympic team by 0.118 points and died of anorexia nervosa two years later. As for Olga, we will remember the myth. The reality is too much to bear.

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