1973: Olga Korbut Mania

It’s an understatement to say that the world couldn’t get enough of Korbut after the 1972 Olympics.

In fact, after the Munich Olympics, the Soviet team didn’t go home. They left immediately for a tour of West Germany, which upset Korbut. As she recalls her autobiography, My Story, she just wanted to go home:

So, after we had already done our best at the Olympics, expending our entire physical and emotional strength, we had to travel from one city to another for the next two weeks, sometimes performing as often as twice a day. We would have to use non-standard small apparatuses in small school gymnasiums, but that was the least of our problems. It was as though someone had gone up to Bob Beamon, the Olympic long-jump champion at Mexico City in 1968, right after he had jumped an incredible 29 ft 2½ in, and said, “Good job, Bob, you’ve done well. Now you have to jump again, for at least thirty feet this time.

The Sports Committee’s only interest was making more money, even if it was at the expense of our health and emotional well-being. We were like slave labor to them.

My Story

The touring didn’t stop there, and because Korbut was the biggest star on the team, the contracts reportedly demanded that Korbut participate in the tours — even when she didn’t want to. As Korbut tells it, she didn’t want to come to the United States, and Larisa Latynina, the head coach at the time, had to fetch her.

Once Korbut and the rest of the Soviet team made it to the United States, they performed around the country and made a trip to the White House to meet with President Nixon. Members of an unofficial Olga Korbut fan club greeted them everywhere, and Korbut appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

If that weren’t tiring enough, a few months later, the Soviet team headed to Great Britain, where Korbut was the star, appearing on British billboards and headlining exhibitions.

Of course, there were detractors — those who didn’t think Korbut’s gymnastics was all it was cracked up to be. But their voices were largely outnumbered by far more enthusiastic ones.

In the following post, we’ll look at a small fraction of the Olga mania that swept the globe in 1973.

(Original Caption) Los Angeles, California: Russian Olympic gold medal winner Olga Korbut, 17, holds up a “Olga Korbut” t-shirt that was presented to her by her Beverly Hills, Calif., fan club. Miss Korbut, and a group of Russian gymnasts, arrived in Los Angeles 3/13 where they will put on an exhibition 3/14.
1973 China USA

1973: China Travels to the U.S. for a Tour

In May of 1973, the Chinese gymnastics team traveled to New York City, where they competed against U.S. gymnasts at Madison Square Garden. 

This was a big deal. I repeat: A big deal. 

From a gymnastics perspective, the visit was part of China’s re-emergence in the international gymnastics scene. In 1964, China withdrew from the FIG due to the organization’s two China policy, and during the Great Cultural Revolution, Chinese gymnasts all but disappeared from international competitions. Then, in the early 1970s, Chinese gymnasts began to compete in smaller competitions. For example, they traveled to Romania in 1972.

But there was something different about this trip in 1973. Whereas Romania was a communist country, the United States was the symbol of capitalism. So, from a political perspective, the visit signaled the further thawing of U.S-Chinese relations and was further evidence of a pronounced shift in China’s foreign policy. (Previously, U.S. ping pong players had traveled to Beijing in April of 1971, and President Richard Nixon had visited China in February of 1972. More on that in the appendix.)

What follows are the results, as well as newspaper accounts from China and the U.S.

Note: If you’ve watched Gymnastics’ Greatest Stars, this is the competition where the Chinese pianist improvised after Nancy Thies’s tape broke.

1972 Olympics USA WAG

1972: Reactions to the U.S. Women’s Fourth-Place Finish

At the 1948 Olympic Games, the U.S. women took home the bronze medal. 24 years later, the U.S. women almost found themselves on the podium again. They took fourth place — 2.35 points behind the Hungarian team. Yet, many U.S. members of the gymnastics community felt that they should have been third.

Here are a few of the reactions.

Munich, Germany – 1972: Cathy Rigby competing in the Women’s gymnastics event at the 1972 Summer Olympics / Games of the XX Olympiad, Olympic Sports Hall. (Photo by Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)
1972 Interviews & Profiles USA

1972: Profiles of Joan Moore, Collector of Mice

Today’s gymnastics fans may know Joan Moore as the mother of Ashleigh Gnat, a standout on the LSU gymnastics team. But in 1972, she was one of the best tumblers in the world, opening her floor routine with a high double full and doing a front layout — a rare skill that Japanese men’s artistic gymnast Nakayama Akinori also competed.

The Philadelphia newspapers wrote a lot about Moore, and their profiles raised perennial questions:

  • How can elite athletes balance school with training?
  • How do parents manage their children’s gymnastics careers?
  • Should the U.S. government do more to sponsor elite athletes?
  • How should gymnasts be educated?
  • How many stuffed mice does Joan Moore have?

Enjoy these profiles of Moore from before and after the Munich Olympics.

Kim Chace, Debbie Hill, Joan Moore, Roxanne Pierce, Linda Metheny, Nancy Thies, Cathy Rigby
1972 Interviews & Profiles USA

1972: Profiles of Cathy Rigby

In 1972, Cathy Rigby was the “it girl” in the United States. Not only had she won a silver medal on beam at the 1970 World Championships; the American public and media were enamored with her (and her looks). The Tribune out of San Luis Obispo printed:

Cathy Rigby looks more like a windup doll than a world-class athlete. She has a pixie face, large brown eyes, and her blond hair is usually tied in bows. Furthermore, she is only 4’11”, and weighs a mere 92 pounds, a stature that earns her the title “Peanut” from her coach, Bud Marquette, of the Southern California Acro Team of Long Beach. At 19, Cathy may be the finest all-around female gymnast in the world.

May 6, 1972

Famously, Rigby posed nude for Sports Illustrated in 1972 — a move that received backlash from both the FIG and her fellow teammates on the Olympic team. Linda Metheny reportedly was not pleased with the photos. The Dispatch out of Moline, IL, wrote:

There is even an interesting little squabble taking place among members of the United States women’s gymnastics team. Linda Metheny of Champaign, Ill., and Cathy Rigby of California are vying for the honor of being known as the nation’s outstanding female gymnast, and they aren’t friendly. When Miss Rigby’s nude photo appeared in a gymnastics pose in Sports Illustrated magazine this weekend, Miss Metheny — and presumably others — took offense.

At least that isn’t a political issue, and the gals may have scratched at each other and fought that issue out on the weekend plane ride to Germany.

The Dispatch, August 21, 1972

Even before the photos came out, the topics of nudity and gymnasts’ bodies were discussed in the same breath. In an article about the U.S. women’s performance in a dual meet with Japan, Ginny Coco stated:

“You want all the curves to be there in the right places,” said Mrs. Ginny Coco, women’s coach for the meet here, “but not at the level Hugh Hefner might want for the Playboy image. Voluptuous girls don’t win in gymnastics. You want lean, strong girls, the race horse type.”

Warren Times-Mirror and Observer, Feb. 3, 1972

When the articles focused on Cathy Rigby’s gymnastics rather than her appearance, they tended to portray her as a fearless trickster, who had a knack for learning skills quickly.

Here’s a small collection of profiles on Cathy Rigby from 1972…

Munich, Germany – 1972: Cathy Rigby competing in the Women’s gymnastics event at the 1972 Summer Olympics / Games of the XX Olympiad, Olympic Sports Hall. (Photo by Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

Note: The articles below will mention Rigby’s weight and eating habits. Rigby would later discuss her struggles with bulimia.


1961: U.S. Gymnasts Compete in the Soviet Union

In January of 1961, a group of Soviet gymnasts headed to the United States for an extensive tour of the country. Months later, U.S. gymnasts headed to the Soviet Union for a dual meet in August of 1961. In a show of friendship, U.S. and Soviet gymnasts alternated routines. Rather than having an entire team compete back-to-back, a Soviet gymnast competed on, say, vault, and then an American gymnast competed on vault.

Speaking of vault, one of the main stories was a three-way tie for the women’s vault title, which produced a rather cramped podium.

L. Latynina, M. Nikolaeva, and B. Maycock
photo: Pravda, August 25, 1961

In this post, you’ll find news coverage and videos of the trip.


1961: Soviet Gymnasts Tour the United States

In 1971, the Soviet gymnasts did a quick tour of the United States, competing at Penn State and Temple University.

10 years prior, in 1961, the Soviet gymnasts did a much more extensive trip. The women competed at West Chester, while the men competed at Penn State. On top of that, there were exhibitions across the country, including in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Urbana, Illinois; and a performance during an NBA game at Madison Square Garden.

The trip was arranged by the Amateur Athletic Union with the sanction of the U.S. State Department.

Below, you’ll find both U.S. footage, as well as Soviet and U.S. news articles. It’s interesting to see how the gymnasts were depicted in different publications and mediums during the Cold War.

Note: In the next post, we’ll look at the U.S. gymnasts’ trip to the Soviet Union for a competition in August 1961.


1971: The USSR vs. the USA

In 1969, the United States Gymnastics Federation invited the Soviet Union to its World Cup, but the Soviet Union did not attend. In 1971, the winds changed, and the Soviet Union traveled to the U.S. for dual meets at Penn State and Temple University.

What follows are remarks on the competition at Penn State (February 5 and 6, 1971).

Left to Right: Sikharulidze, Voronina, Tourischeva
Source: Madamoiselle Gymnast, March/April 1971

Note: It should be noted that this gymnastics competition was not the first sporting event between the two countries during the Cold War. In 1962, for example, there was a U.S. vs. USSR track and field dual meet. In 1961, Soviet gymnasts toured the United States, and U.S. gymnasts competed in the Soviet Union.

1969 East Germany Japan Politics USA USSR

1969: East Germany vs. Japan’s Foreign Office

The Japanese Gymnastics Association wanted to invite East Germany to a competition with the Soviet Union and the United States. However, Japan did not have diplomatic relations with East Germany until May of 1973.

So, what would happen if an East German gymnast won the competition? Would the meet organizers still hoist the flag for a nation that Japan didn’t recognize?

Unless you lived through the Cold War, it’s hard to imagine the complicated diplomatic hoops countries had to jump through. The following article painstakingly details many of the scenarios that the Japanese meet organizers had to consider when inviting East Germans to a gymnastics competition.

The East German Flag, 1959 – 1973