In 1970, Stanislav Tokarev published an article titled “Gymnastics without Natasha?…” in the magazine Yunost. In it, he announced Natalia (Natasha) Kuchinskaya’s retirement from the sport and observed that the careers of gymnastics stars were much shorter. In addition, he praised the next generation of gymnasts, including Nina Dronova, whom he nicknamed “The Mozart of Gymnastics.”
Four years later, Tokarev wrote a follow-up article in which he opines on several burning questions: Why didn’t Nina Dronova live up to her potential? How do you become Olga Korbut? Why can’t Olga Korbut beat Ludmila Tourischeva in the all-around? What is it like for the Soviet Union to have such deep wells of talent?
Below, you’ll find a translation of the article “Without Natasha, but with Lyuda and Olya.” It was published in the September 1974 issue of Yunost — right before the 1974 World Championships in Varna.
The Soviet Union, like the rest of the world, wasn’t immune to Korbut mania. She appeared in numerous newspaper articles and photographs. The country’s media followed along as the Women’s Technical Committee considered banning Korbut’s famous skills, and the newspaper Izvestiiaportrayed Korbut as the star of the Soviet gymnasts’ British tour. There even was a short film about Korbut in 1973. It was titled The Joys, the Sorrows, and the Dreams of Olga Korbut (Радости, огорчения, мечты Ольги Корбут).
Below, you’ll find a small collection of Soviet media about Korbut, including the aforementioned film and an article from Soviet Woman, a bimonthly illustrated magazine out of Moscow.
Note #1: There will be references to Knysh below. It should also be mentioned that Korbut has alleged that Knysh sexually assaulted her. Knysh denied the allegations. He died in 2019.
Note #2: There will be references to weight and weight-shaming in this article.
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.
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.
In 1973, newspapers around the globe printed some version of this headline: “Olga ‘May Say Goodbye Forever.’”
The articles typically went on to explain that Olga Korbut, the fan favorite of the Munich Games, might end her gymnastics career because the FIG had decided that her skills were too dangerous.
Not surprisingly, the newspapers got some of the details wrong. One Japanese newspaper wrote, “The 89-pound Olympic gold medalist has been banned from performing a breathtaking double backward somersault on the balance beam” (The Daily Yomiuri, July 18, 1973).
To be clear, the FIG did not ban a double back on the beam, nor did Korbut perform a double back on the beam. But in early 1973, the Women’s Technical Committee (WTC) was set to ban two skills that Korbut popularized: the standing back tuck on beam, as well as dismounting the bars by pushing off with one’s feet.
Then, over the course of the year, the members of the WTC slowly walked back their decision.
So, here’s a brief history of the Women’s Technical Committee’s decisions in 1973, as well as a translation of Korbut’s interview that sent shockwaves around the globe.
Reminder: Korbut was not the only gymnast to do a standing back tuck on beam at the 1972 Olympics. Nancy Thies (USA) also did one in Munich. Nor was she the only gymnast to dismount the uneven bars using her feet. Her teammate Bogdanova was doing a double-twisting version of Korbut’s dismount. Korbut was the most famous gymnast to perform those skills and thus became a lightning rod for the issue.
Note: The articles below will mention Korbut’s coach. Korbut has alleged that Knysh sexually assaulted her. Knysh has denied the allegations.
In July of 1973, after Viktor Klimenko won his second European all-around title, Stadión, a weekly Czechoslovak sports magazine, published a profile on him. It offers details about his early years in the sport, his rivalries within the Soviet team, his coaching changes, his recovery from an Achilles tear that occurred during the 1971 European Championships, and more.
Note: You can read a much shorter profile of the Klimenko brothers from 1972 here.
In 1972 and 1973, the Romania juniors competed against the Soviet juniors in dual meets. In both years, Comăneci won the all-around.
In other words, long before the Montreal Olympics, the Soviets knew they would be up against stiff competition. In fact, Larisa Latynina, the head coach of the Soviet team, would refer to Comăneci as the “Romanian Korbut” after the 1973 Friendship Cup.
Here are the Romanian news reports on the dual meets. Plus, there’s an early profile of Comăneci included at the end.
Reminder: In 1972, the Soviet newspapers didn’t know how to spell Comăneci’s surname.
Months after Olga Korbut captivated the world’s attention in Munich, there was a national youth championship in Zaporizhzhia, and a familiar name — Nellie Kim — took second behind Raisa Bichukina, a much less familiar name to today’s gymnastics fans. (Kim was leading after the preliminary competitions.)
The path from junior elite to senior elite is never easy. Of the top juniors in 1972, only Kim and Grozdova would make the 1976 Olympic team. On the men’s side, several of the top juniors in 1972 would go on to have successful senior careers, including Marchenko, Markelov, and Dityatin.
What fascinates me about this event is the coverage. It raises hard questions: Was the nation in too much of a hurry to have young gymnasts competing on a major stage? Are they forcing gymnasts to compete too much? At the same time, the articles marvel at the gymnasts’ talent. The next generation of women’s artistic gymnasts was performing the most difficult skills in the world, including the same vault that Nikolai Andrianov competed in Munich.
In Voronin’s 1976 autobiography titled Number One (Первый номер), he reflects on his final Olympic Games. By his standards, he struggled during the Soviet competitions prior to the Olympics, and while in Munich, he injured his ankle. Arthur Gander refused to let him pull out of the all-around final, so he competed after receiving an injection that made him black out. (Note: Korbut also got an injection before the all-around final that caused her legs to go numb.)
In the end, the Soviet men’s team won two golds, three silvers, and one bronze. They had made progress in the two years between the Ljubljana World Championships and the Munich Olympics. But in the end, Voronin recognized that they were unable to put together a team that could match Japan’s team.
Here’s what else he said about Munich…
Note: Chapters of Voronin’s book were translated into Estonian for the newspaper Spordileht, and I have translated the text from Estonian into English. The following excerpts come from the February 8, 1978, February 10, 1978, and February 13, 1978 issues of Spordileht.
In 1972, there were no Soviet men’s artistic gymnasts on the all-around podium. Afterward, the Soviet press noted that the fight was not over. The Soviet gymnasts could still take home gold during the event finals, and indeed, they did. Nikolai Andrianov and Viktor Klimenko became Olympic champions on floor and pommel horse, respectively.
Here’s what the main Soviet sports newspaper wrote about the men’s artistic event finals. Though the Soviet and Japanese gymnasts were rivals, the press was quite complimentary towards the Japanese gymnasts, especially Tsukahara’s high bar routine.
Only two countries medaled in the women’s event finals: the Soviet Union and East Germany. Sovetsky Sport concluded that “the Soviet and German sportswomen now fully dominate in women’s gymnastics and determine the course of its development.”
Given the newspaper’s emphasis on the friendliness between the gymnasts of both countries, it had to tread lightly when discussing the uneven bars final. Without saying that Olga Korbut should have won the title, it implied as much. But it was quick to point out that the fault was with the FIG and the judges.
Here’s what Sovetsky Sport wrote about the 1972 event finals.