The Rise (and Fall?) of the Little-Girl Gymnast

It's been 40 years since teenager Olga Korbut ushered in a new era of youth-dominated gymnastics. Is the sport starting to change again?


Forty years ago, at the Munich Olympics, Olga Korbut became the first female pixie star of women's gymnastics. With a slight build and yarn-tied pigtails that belied her 17 years, the Belarussian gymnast stood atop the top rung of the uneven bars and dove backwards, re-grasping the same bar where her feet had been moments earlier. On the four-inch wide balance beam, she performed another feat of daring: the first back flip without the aid of hands on the beam.

Korbut left Munich with three gold medals, including two individual ones for her beam and floor routines. Her impact on the sport has little to do with her results at that competition. Korbut's debut marked the beginning of the end for the older balletic women who had dominated women's gymnastics during the early years and paved the way for young, energetic women like herself. Larisa Latynina of the USSR, who remains the most decorated female Olympian ever, was in her 20s when she competed at her first Olympics and even won several medals while four months pregnant; her chief rival, the Hungarian Agnes Keleti was in her early 30s at the time of her Olympic debut. But they were winning medals with some very elementary skills. "They were doing what are considered primitive gymnastics today," said Paul Ziert, publisher of International Gymnast magazine. "There are kids who are 5 years old who are doing those skills already."

Korbut's Munich performances changed all that. Not only did her daring raise the difficulty and athleticism threshold, but her youthful exuberance help make Korbut one of her sport's first globally famous figures.

Yet just four years after Munich, at the end of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Korbut was no longer at the top of her sport. Instead, the star of that Olympiad was Romania's Nadia Comaneci, who at age 14 earned the sport's first perfect tens. In addition to showing technical mastery, Comaneci also greatly upped the acrobatic ante with connections between her aerial and acrobatic skills on beam and double twisting dismount off of it. Korbut was also in Montreal but in the brave new world she helped create, she was past her prime, gymnastically speaking, winning a pair of individual silvers, twice coming in second to the rising superstar.

"I didn't want to compete in 1976, but I had to," Korbut, 57, who now resides in Scottsdale, Arizona, told me. After she catapulted to fame in 1972, she spent the subsequent years traveling the world and performing—a Soviet goodwill ambassador of sorts—and had the occasion to meet world leaders including President Nixon. By the time the next Games rolled around, she was exhausted. This touring schedule also meant that she wasn't in the gym, upgrading her elements and routines. "I didn't have time to prepare in 1976 what the world wanted to see," she said. Korbut might have been ahead of her time in '72, but the world had caught up and surpassed in the four years after. Also, between Olympic Games Korbut went through puberty. "My body changed. I started to develop things. This is another point. This is why I was so tired," she explained.

And so it has gone for successive generations of female gymnasts since Korbut. They start training young to learn the gravity-defying skills that make gymnastics the marquee sport of the Summer Games and compete at the elite level for just a few years before yielding to the next group of tricksters. The petite athletes peak in their early-to-mid teens, and every Olympic cycle introduces mainstream audiences to a new crop of young talents who can perform an even more difficult array of skills.

The post-Korbut era was witness to a massive acceleration in the difficulty levels in women's gymnastics, which was attributable to several factors. As Ziert noted, the skill level before 1972 had been exceedingly low so there really was nowhere to go but up. And up it went, and fast. In 1976, Comaneci was the first woman to do a double back on floor exercise at the inaugural American Cup. By the time the early '80s rolled around, several gymnasts were completing this skill as a dismount off the balance beam or with a full twist on floor.

During this time, the equipment improved to allow gymnasts to try more complex skills. "I used to compete at some point on a beam that was a wooden beam. The floor was really hard when I was competing," Comaneci recalled. Modern versions of these apparatuses incorporate springs to add lift and reduce impact on the joints. "It was hard to think about too many acrobatic moves because you couldn't do it, but as the equipment became better, you can try daring things."

By the early-to-mid '80s, young gymnasts like 15-year-old Oksana Omelianchik were performing back-to-back tumbling passes on floor. On beam, athletes were doing multiple aerial elements in a row and on vault, Natalia Yurchenko introduced the now common (for both men and women) roundoff-back handspring entry vault.

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Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She has written about religion, arts, and culture for the New York Times, Tablet, and Salon. She is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess.

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