1972: Was Olga Korbut Supposed to Be on the Soviet Team in Munich?

If you grew up watching U.S. gymnastics coverage, you might think that Olga Korbut was not supposed to be on the Soviet team in 1972. During an ABC replay of the 1972 Olympics, the commentators remarked:

“She was a last-minute substitute on the Soviet team, replacing Nina Dronova who had broken her wrist. Olga wasn’t even listed in the Russian team biographies.”

A similar remark was printed in Gymnast (now International Gymnast) magazine in an article about the 1972 Chunichi Cup, in which Dronova competed:

The Russians were represented by three girls, Ludmilla Tourischeva, 1st All-Around in Munich, Lyubov Burda, 5th All-Around in Munich, and 14-year-old Nina Dronova who was a member of the USSR Olympic team until she broke her wrist several weeks before the games. She was replaced by Olga Korbut.

Gymnast, February 1973

But is that what happened? The Soviet press told a different story.

November 1-4, 1972. Grodno, Byelorussian SSR, USSR. Three times Olympic Champion in artistic gymnastics Olga Korbut. The exact date of the photograph is unknown. Vitaly Sozinov/TASS PUBLICATION

Get up to speed: At the start of the 1972 competitive season, Korbut was one of the top Soviet gymnasts.

  • She finished third at the USSR Championships at the end of March and early April.
  • At the end of April, she won every single gold medal at the Riga International.
  • Then, she capitalized on an error by Tourischeva and won the Soviet Cup in late June and early July.

Meanwhile, Dronova missed both the USSR Championships and USSR Cup in 1972 due to her injury.

In other words, her injury was not a last-minute problem that happened just weeks before the Olympics; Dronova was already injured in March — long before the Olympics opened on August 26.

Further refuting this myth: Taissia Demidenko, former head coach of the Soviet women’s team and a VP of the Women’s Technical Committee of the FIG, made the following remark after the Soviet Cup:

— I am happy with the girls’ preparation. We can say with confidence that Tourischeva, Korbut, Lazakovich, Burda, and Saadi will go to Munich. But the sixth member of the team is still in question. Karaseva, Koshel, Schegolkova, Voronina are currently the candidates for this spot.

Физкультурник Белоруссии, July 15, 1972

[…] вице-президент женского технического комитета Международной федерации гимнастики заслуженный тренер СССР Таисия Демиденко: 
— Я довольна подготовкой девушек. Можно смело сказать, что в Мюнхен поедут Турищева, Корбут, Лазакович, Бурда, Саади.  А вот шестой член команды пока под вопросом. Претендуют на вакантное место Карасева, Кошель, Щеголькова, Воронина. 

So, in July, after the Soviet Cup, it seemed as if Korbut had her spot secured.

Oh, and one more thing: When the team headed to Minsk for a pre-Olympic training camp at the end of July, the competition for the sixth spot was between Antonina Koshel and Nina Dronova.

In a 1990 interview with Belarusian Athlete, Koshel recalls that Latynina really wanted Dronova on the team, even consoling Dronova by telling her not to worry, that she would be on the team no matter what.

Here’s a portion of Koshel’s interview:

1970. The middle of the Olympic cycle. High time to think about the upcoming Olympic Games in Munich. Larisa Latynina, the head coach of the women’s national team, was passing through a rough time. Natalia Kuchinskaya and Larisa Petrik were leaving the team. Zinaida Voronina gave birth to a son, and Olga Karaseva’s stability wasn’t good enough. Young Korbut, without any doubt incredibly talented, was trying to perform super-gymnastics but often failed. Lazakovich from the famous Vikentiy Dmitriev School was charming and light but at the same time too young and couldn’t cope with the psychological stress. Beautiful Elvira Saadi was excellent, but not on every apparatus. Only two reliable girls left, who gained some experience in Mexico – Lyuda Tourischeva and Lyuba Burda. And so, Larisa Semyonovna started searching for new gymnasts. Her attention fell on Antonina Koshel, among others. The Spartakiad of the Peoples of the USSR-1971 was drawing near; it was the moment when Latynina had to announce the candidates for the national Olympic team…

— I took third place at the Spartakiad. The Khomutov lessons paid off. He always taught me to be an all-around gymnast, he said that “shining” on the apparatus is a simple matter, but gymnastics is, above all, the all-around. That’s probably why I succeeded. And when Larisa Semyonovna said that I made it to the chosen twelve and would focus on training for the Olympic Games, I had great purpose. It’s hard for you to imagine what this means for an athlete! The state when you are ready to die but do everything to achieve it. I remember that at the last pre-Olympic championship of the USSR, I competed with a 39ºC [102.2ºF] fever, and the day before, during the testing of the apparatus, I fainted. Still, my performance was good – they called me to the last pre-Olympic training camp.

— Forgive me, but I won’t even try to search for mild words to express my attitude toward this situation. Such a risk! Gymnastics is an extremely difficult sport, and the loss of coordination, which is inevitable during fever, may result not only in expulsion from the team, but with an injury, if not worse. Did Latynina know about your illness and still let you out on the stage?!

—No. Latynina didn’t know about that. I got better overnight and went there. Then, already in the middle of training, I didn’t feel the fever. I was driven by my purpose. Besides, you exaggerate the danger. First, all routines are performed automatically. Secondly, gymnastics was not so difficult back in those days. Anyway, I didn’t have any choice.

— But why?

— On our team, we had a very good gymnast from Georgia, Nina Dronova. Beautiful and “accurate.” But to be honest, until today I don’t know what she was better than me in. Fate never brought us together in championships. However, Larisa Semyonovna liked her very much. And I was always made aware of it. After practice, the girls used to ask me, “What are you slaving away for? No matter how much you work, you won’t make it onto the team.” Once I accidentally heard Latynina console Nina: “Don’t worry. You will be on the team no matter what.” I was so hurt I could cry! So I had to prove my worth all the time. Even while training, I could not afford to make a mistake, let alone withdraw from the USSR championship due to illness.

…However, Tonya did make it into that Olympic squad. The result of her work in Munich is “gold” for the team. “Gold” and “bronze” were received by the finalists in the all-around competition. In the medals of Tourischeva and Lazakovich, there was also a part of her work, even if it was left unnoticed — the work of an athlete who personified the Soviet team. I don’t recall her Munich exercises but it’s not surprising. Everybody was smitten with the “miracle” from Grodno – Olenka Korbut. But two or maybe three years later, when I watched gymnastics competitions, it suddenly felt that something was missing. Ludmila Tourischeva and Olga Korbut were still shining, the passionate and bold Nellie Kim was already on stage, sometimes the camera glided over the sweet little “sparrow” Masha Filatova, who was just about to conquer the world, but someone was really missing.

— After the Olympic Games in Munich, I lost my purpose. I felt that I had achieved the limit of my potential. And somewhere along with the purpose, the earnest desire to train went away. I kept practicing for a long time after that, kept training, participated in competitions, especially if it was necessary for the total of the republican team. But the “spark” left me.

-—Tonya, you are an Olympic champion, but I did not find your name in the list of honored masters of sports…

— I am a master of sports of international class. I guess at some point they must have reasoned along these lines, I have an Olympic medal only in the team championship, so why should I be given such an important title? What to say about myself, if the famous Elena Volchetskaya, our first gymnast, an Olympic champion, is also only an “international” master!

[In other words, Antonina Koshel was not given the highest level of sporting achievement in the Soviet Union, even though she was an Olympic gold medalist. In the Soviet Union, there were several levels in sport — from highest to lowest: Honored Master of Sport of the USSR; Master of Sport of the USSR, International Class; Master of Sport of the USSR; Candidate for Master of Sport of the USSR; First-Class Sportsman; Second-Class Sportsman; Third-Class Sportsman, First-Class Junior Sportsman; Second-Class Junior Sportsman; and Third-Class Junior Sportsman.]

We talked for a long time with Antonina Vladimirovna. About her life today, about the things that have been hurting her for ages. One thought didn’t leave me — why, why do we forget the most modest and devoted people?! Why do we not value our skillful athletes who brought us so many victories?

It is not too late, it is still possible to review the attitude from twenty or thirty years ago and give them what they deserve.

N. Kalugina

Физкультурник Белоруссии, 1990

1970-й год. Середина — олимпийского цикла. Самое время думать о грядущей мюнхенской Олимпиаде. Непросто было в то время старшему — тренеру женской сборной Ларисе Латыниной. Уходили Наталья Кучинская и Лариса Петрик. Родила сына Зинаида Воронина, Ольга Карасева оказалась недостаточно стабильна. Молоденькая Корбут, безумно талантливая, пыталась показывать сверхгимнастику, но часто срывалась. Лазанович из знаменитой школы Викентия Дмитриева — очаровательна, легка, но слишком юна, могла не выдержать психологической  нагрузки. Красавица Эльвира Саади хороша, да не на всех снарядах. Были только две надежные девочки, уже обстрелянные в Мехико — Люда Турищева и Люба Бурда. И вот Лариса Семеновна стала искать новых исполнителей. Среди прочих она обратила свой взор и на Антонину Кошель. Приближалась Спартакиада народов СССР-71. Срок, когда Латыниной предстояло назвать кандидаток в олимпийскую сборную…
— На спартакиаде я заняла третье место. Сказывались уроки — Хомутова. Он меня всегда учил быть — многоборкой, говорил, что «блеснуть» на снаряде — дело нехитрое, а гимнастика — это — многоборье. Поэтому, наверное, мне все и удавалось. А когда Лариса Семеновна сказала, что я — в числе двенадцати и буду целенаправленно готовиться к Играм, у меня появилась высокая — цель. Вам трудно представить, что это значит для спортсмена! Состояние, когда готов умереть, но сделать все для её достижения. Помню, на последнем — предолимпийском чемпионате СССР я выступала с температурой 39 градусов, а накануне на опробовании снарядов упала в обморок. Но выступала все-таки нормально — меня вызвали на — предолимпийский последний сбор.
— Простите меня, но я даже не буду искать мягких слов для выражения своего отношения к этому случаю. Это же такой рис Гимнастика — сложнейший выд спорта, и потеря  координации что неизбежно при высокой температуре, чревата отнюдь не отчислением из команды, а инвалидностью, если не хуже, Неужели —Латынина знала о вашей болезни и выпустила вас на помост?!
— Нет. Вот об этом — Латынина как раз не знала. Подлечилась я за ночь и пошла. А потом, уже работая, температуры не чувствовала. Меня вела моя цель. Кстати, вы немного преувеличиваете опасность, Все комбинации были ведены до автоматизма, это первых. А во-вторых, все-таки гимнастика тогда была не настолько  сложная. А выхода иного я не видела.
— Но почему?
— Была у нас в сборной очень неплохая гимнастка из Грузии Нина Дронова. Красивая, «чистенькая». Но я, честно говоря, до сих пор не знаю, в чем она превосходила меня. Судьба ни разу не сводила нас на турнирах. Но зато она очень нравилась Ларисе Семеновне. И мне это каждый раз давали понять. После тренировок меня останавливали девочки: «Что ты надрываешься? Сколько бы ни работала, все равно в команду не попадешь». А однажды я случайно услышала, как Латынина  утешала Нину: «Не волнуйся. В команде ты в любом — случае будешь». Обидно мне до слез! Вот и приходилось все время доказывать, что я не верблюд. Даже на тренировках не могла себе позволить ошибиться, не то, чтобы сняться с чемпионата СССР по болезни.
…Тоня все-таки попала в ту олимпийскую дружину. Результат ее работы в Мюнхене — «золото» в команде, «золото» и «бронзу» получили финалистки в абсолютном первенстве. И в медалях Турищевой м Лазакович был и её не очень  заметный труд — труд человека, олицетворявшего советскую команду. Упражнений её мюнхенских я не помню. Да м это не удивительно. Всех потрясла, всех затмила  гродненское «чудо» — Оленька Корбут. Но года через два, может быть, три, когда я смотрела гимнастические соревнования, мне вдруг показалось, что чего-то не хватает. Еще блистали Людмила Турищева и Ольга Корбут, уже появилась страстная и задорная Нелли Ким, иногда камера скользила по милому, маленькому «воробышку» Маше Филатовой, которой только предстояло завоевать мир, но кого-то очень не хватало.
— После Игр в Мюнхене у меня пропала цель. Я понимала, чувствовала, что добилась максимума возможного. И куда-то вместе с целью ушло истовое желание тренироваться. Я еще долго приходила в зал, занималась, участвовала в соревнованиях, особенно, если это нужно было для зачета республиканской сборной. Но что-то ушло из меня.
— Тоня, вы — олимпийская чемпионка, но я вашего имени не нашла в списке заслуженных мастеров спорта…
— А я — мастер спорта международного класса. В свое время, вероятно, рассудили так: олимпийская медаль у меня только в командном
первенстве, так за что же мне давать это высокое — звание? Что обо мне говорить, если прославленная Елена Волчецкая, наша первая гимнастка — олимпийская чемпионка, тоже только — мастер-«международник»!
Мы еще долго беседовали с Антониной Владимировной. О её сегодняшнем, наболевшем. И меня неотступно мучила одна мысль — ну почему, за что мы забываем самых скромных и преданных людей?! Почему мы не ценим «забойщиков» побед? Еще не ушло время, еще можно пересмотреть позиции двадцати-тридцатилетней давности н воздать им по заслугам.

Many thanks to Olga and Mike at the Medal Count for helping me track down the Koshel interview.

Myth Debunked: In other words, Latynina very much wanted Dronova on the team, but Korbut was not a last-minute substitute for Dronova. After the Soviet Cup, there was no doubt that Korbut would be part of the team.*

*Note: In Korbut’s English-language autobiography, she posits that there was a last-minute attempt to remove her from the team through some dishonest trickery. That said, she never mentions the notion of being a “last-minute substitute” for Dronova.

Immediately before I started packing to go to Munich, there was a potentially disastrous incident. One of our accompanists, Kokovina, found 150 roubles missing from her purse. That was a great deal of money in those days — about a month’s salary. I was sorry about the theft, but forgot about the whole thing once it had been reported to the militia.

Then, one day, during a workout, Latynina came to Ren, and confided that she had some very bad news.

“What’s happened?” Ren asked.

“Part of the stolen money has been found,” she whispered.

“Well, great,” Ren said. “Why is that bad news?”

Latynina lowered her voice even more. “Fifty roubles were found in Olga’s hotel room between the wall and the bed. Do you realize what that means?”

The insinuation made Ren very angry. “She couldn’t have done it,” he said.

“Then, where di the money come from?” Latynina asked. Ren turned to me, raising his voice. “Olga, you go on training. I’ll be back soon.”

I continued what I was doing, wondering why he looked so upset.

Ren and Latynina went to my hotel room, and when Ren saw the two twenty-five-rouble notes, his blood ran cold. He did not believe the accusation, but he knew that anyone suspected of theft would be banished from the Olympic Team. He picked up the phone and called German Bokun, the then Deputy Chairman of the Belorussian Sports Committee.

“Don’t touch anything,” Bokun said. “I’ll find a good investigator, and he’ll be there soon.”

Moments later, the militia arrived. They took fingerprints, inspected the room, and questioned various people. I did not find out about any of this until the militia interrogated me. I was horrified and disgusted. Who would do such a thing to me?

A few days passed, and we heard that a thief had been arrested, but we never found out who it was, or who had really planted that money behind my bed.


This happened no only to Ren’s pupils, but to many others who made “too much” progress “too fast.” […]

Korbut, My Story

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