Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Olga Korbut: 'The Sparrow from Minsk' who changed gymnastics

By Callum Tennent, for CNN
August 6, 2012 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
Olga Korbut is one of the greatest gymnasts the Olympics has ever seen -- not just for her medal haul, but for her enduring legacy within the sport. Olga Korbut is one of the greatest gymnasts the Olympics has ever seen -- not just for her medal haul, but for her enduring legacy within the sport.
HIDE CAPTION
Gymnastic pioneer
Golden girl
The "Sparrow from Minsk" takes flight
The Olympic journey
A happy anniversary
Still going strong
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut helped redefine the sport
  • She won three Olympics gold medals in 1972 and one in 1976
  • She even has her own maneuver named after her -- the "Korbut flip"
  • Korbut is one of 20 Olympic greats honored at a new exhibition

(CNN) -- There are few Olympians who can say they redefined their sport, but that is what former Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut did at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics.

She won balance beam, floor exercises and team competition gold as well as silver in the uneven bars at the Munich Games, and then team competition gold and balance beam silver four years later in Montreal.

But she will be forever remembered for her "Korbut flip" -- a move so original and so groundbreaking that gymnastics would never be the same again.

The maneuver involved standing upright on the upper uneven bar mid-routine and executing a backflip, catching the upper bar from underneath it -- a move that has since been made illegal in accordance with the Olympic gymnastics Code of Points.

When she first performed the flip, at the age of 17 during a stunning routine at Munich, she was only awarded a score of 9.8, causing the onlooking crowd to go wild, jeering and booing at the judges for several minutes.

Team USA gymnastics' 'Golden Girls'
The dark side of gymnastics
Human to Hero: Nadia Comaneci
Gabby Douglas' mom on her golden future

"I always wanted to try something different, we tried a lot of things," Korbut told CNN at London's Royal Opera House. "When you're doing something things just happen -- like going back from the high bar to the low bar. That's how it worked."

"After me, no one else did it. It had a risky element -- I had brought to gymnastics new gymnastics, new elements, not acrobatics. It is a mistake when it is said I brought acrobatics to the event."

Game-changing

Many of the moves which are now integral to modern gymnastics can be credited to Korbut's influence.

Pre-Munich, much emphasis had been placed on poise and elegance, while older and more experienced gymnasts made up the majority of the competition.

Now the sport is more dynamic with its participants primarily comprising youngsters that are on the cusp of adulthood, like Gabrielle Douglas of the United States -- the 4 foot 11 inch 16-year-old, who has won two gold medals in London at her first Games.

"If you see my routine from 1972 there's a lot of choreography, a lot of grace, and just a couple of new elements," said the 57-year-old Korbut, who acquired the nickname "The Sparrow from Minsk" after her first Olympic appearance.

"I was inspired by no one. I'm serious. It was the 1960s, we didn't have TV -- I was just born into gymnastics."

Human to Hero: Nadia Comaneci - Olympic gymnastics' first perfect 10

Following a post-gymnastics career as a teacher and divorce after a 23-year marriage to a Belorussian folk singer, Korbut now lives in the U.S., which explains her calm, confident English.

Her Munich routine might have been performed 40 years ago but the preparation she underwent to come so close to perfection is still ingrained in her memory.

The new celebrities of the Olympic games
Obama congratulates U.S. gymnasts
Dawes: 'Fab Five' out from 1996 shadow

"I didn't have a specific preparation. I just did it over and over again," Korbut recalled.

"You would just concentrate on what you've been doing for decades, and then show in just a moment what you've prepared for years and years.

"And of course, you still enjoy it. When you touch the equipment ... that's it -- you're in."

An inspiration

If much credit is given to Korbut's complex moves on the beam and bars for revolutionizing the sport, she also helped inspire a whole new generation of gymnasts.

"When I became famous for my gymnastics, it brought a lot of people to the gym, a lot of people having to pay money," she said.

"They were very talented, but money stopped the talented people attending gym. Unfortunately that was where it ended. Usually poor people have more of a hunger to work, I've seen it in life."

Forbes has estimated that the annual cost of an under-18 training program to be an Olympic-level gymnast is $15,000, which requires gymnasts to either have parents with very deep pockets or be willing to make huge financial sacrifices.

How Gabby Douglas charted her own destiny

But, if gymnasts can transcend those financial cost, there are other great rewards to be had.

"You know what?" says Korbut, "to be in the Olympics is good, but to truly compete is great. It takes courage and hard work to compete. Everybody is a winner, I couldn't pick a best. Everyone who competes is great."

"The Olympic Journey: The Story of the Games" is an exclusive exhibition running from July 28 to August 12 at the Royal Opera House in London.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
The moment that Team GB's Mo Farah won the 10,000 meters was a wonderful collision of electricity.
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 1534 GMT (2334 HKT)
His blistering pace and larger-than-life antics made him the king of the track in London, and bolstered his claims to be a "living legend."
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 0944 GMT (1744 HKT)
Disappointment for Nigeria's Muizat Ajoke Odumosu, who came last in the 400m hurdles final, London 2012 Olympics.
The Olympics are generally won and lost long before the opening ceremony cauldron is touched by fire.
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 0738 GMT (1538 HKT)
Fans of the home side, Team GB, wave Union Jack flags during the Olympic Games
CNN's Richard Quest believes the London Games will be regarded as having brought the Olympics concept home.
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Strategist Alastair Campbell says he never imagined London 2012 would be quite the triumph it turned out to be.
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Award-winning director Danny Boyle celebrates the best of British music in London 2012's Olympic Closing Ceremony.
January 31, 2013 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
From Usain Bolt's record-setting achievements to an unexpected Ugandan gold, London 2012 has provided a wide array of highlights.
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 0305 GMT (1105 HKT)
CNN's Amanda Davies recaps the London 2012 Olympics from the opening ceremony on July 27 to the finale on day 16.
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 1702 GMT (0102 HKT)
Mo Farah and Usain Bolt celebrate their success at the London 2012 Olympic Games by copying each other's
It's been just over two weeks since the Queen parachuted into London's Olympic Stadium, her apricot dress flapping in the breeze.
August 15, 2012 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
When the world's top marathon runners bid to win Olympic gold, they would do well to draw inspiration from one of the greatest athletes in the history of track and field.
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Team GB supporters with their faces painted in Union Jack designs at the Olympic Stadium in London.
Alastair Campbell always thought London 2012 would be a success, but never imagined it would be quite the triumph it has turned out to be.
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1021 GMT (1821 HKT)
Adrien Niyonshuti is unlikely to win an Olympic medal, and he will do well to even finish his event, but his story is surely one of the most inspirational.
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
The colors of the Olympic Rings at the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, August 2012.
Olympic fever has cheered up London and made it a more welcoming place, but will optimism be one of the legacies of the Games?
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Wojdan Shaherkani's Olympic debut was short, but sweet -- the Saudi judoka said competing at the Games was
London 2012 is the first Olympics to feature women in every national team, with Jacques Rogge hailing a "major boost for gender equality."
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
An impoverished South Korean gymnast has not only struck Olympic gold, but also reaped a $444,000 donation in a veritable rags to riches tale.
August 9, 2012 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
Britain's hero Jessica Ennis is set to cash in after winning heptathlon gold, but the poster girl of the 2012 Olympics says fame is not her motivation.
August 8, 2012 -- Updated 0746 GMT (1546 HKT)
China is rallying around fallen hurdler Liu Xiang after he failed to make it past the first-round heat for a second consecutive Olympics.
August 3, 2012 -- Updated 1930 GMT (0330 HKT)
The first woman to win Olympic gold almost died in a plane crash, but remarkably returned to run again for the U.S. in 1936.
August 7, 2012 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
Don Paige could not bear to watch the race he knew he could win. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were the death of a dream for many athletes.
August 4, 2012 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
Ricardo Blas Jr
While Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt grab the headlines, little-known athletes from around the world keep alive the original spirit of the Olympics.
Athletes spend years eating the right foods ... and then must resist the free fast food in the Olympic village. How do they do it?
ADVERTISEMENT