Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Sparrow from Minsk

Most people only think about gymnastics every four years when the summer Olympics come around. It's hard not to be mesmerized by watching these athletes perform tricks that seem beyond human ability. It is a sport of power, and perfection.  With this perfection driving the sport of gymnastics, an athlete does not often go beyond the realm of normal. Creativity is a risk, and your fate lies in the opinions of the judges. This did not stop Olga Korbut, however. Because of her determination and creativity, she not only redefined the sport, but also united the world during the Cold War. 

Born in Grodno, Belarus, Olga was the youngest of four girls. One of her older sisters, Ludmilla, was also a gymnast, winning the Master of Sports title. As a child, Olga was noticed for her innate athletic ability. Running faster and jumping higher than almost all the kids at her elementary school (including boys), from a young age, those who knew her, knew that she was a force to be reckoned with. She was known to constantly be breaking rules by climbing fences or trees. Pushing the limits became a habit throughout her life. Combining this with her natural athletic ability, there is no wonder why she was such a success. 

At the age of eight Olga would enter Renald Knysh's sport's school. This dualistic relationship was key and served as both a collaboration as well as a mentorship. Knysh had a well deserved reputation for being a boldly innovative coach. These two were a dream team. In 1969, Olga competed in her first Soviet National Championship. It was here that she debuted the two unique gymnastic moves she created with Knysh that would have the world talking. Just missing taking home a medal because of a slip on the uneven bars, she was not an instant success, however, people were already talking. 

Widely accepted by the crowd, as evident by the thunderous applause after her routine, the true criticism came from the judges. They felt that her routine was 'not at all keeping with the glorious Soviet gymnastics.' Like many of the creative individuals we have studied, such as Graham or Stravinksy, this comment was just the beginning of the struggle Olga and Knysh would face when it came to gaining the respect of the field. 

Although she was still unable to make it to the podium in the Soviet National Championship, she was beginning to gain the respect she needed. Because of the challenges, she was humbled, yet when she walked onto the floor, you could see the pride she took in her work. 

After winning third in the Soviet National Championship she moved onto the Riga Cup (Olga's first international competition). It was at the Riga Cup that Korbut Salto, the Korbut Slip and the Korbut Flic-Flac would be named after her. At the USSR cup it was clear that she had finally gained the respect of the judges. Judges noted how flawless her technique was despite them being completely novel tricks.  Many of her tricks have yet to be accomplished by other gymnasts today. Others, have been adopted by a number of subsequent gymnasts, each adding their own twist, but Olga was the one who had the truly novel idea and the courage to put it to the test. 

Finally at the Olympic games in Munich, Olga won three golds and the title, Athlete of the Year. She was a hero not only to the Soviets but to the world. She returned home to fan mail from all over the world including America, bridging the conflict due to the Cold War. 

Olga contained many of the personality traits characteristic of many creatives. She had a lack of conventionality as made clear by the ways in which she tested the boundaries of traditional gymnastic abilities. She showed integration and intellectually in the way in which her technique remained flawless despite the fact she was creating her own tricks. Lastly, her drive for accomplishment went unsurpassed. It is said at the age of 17 she had two goals in her life - to graduate secondary school and to win a gold at the Olympics. Both were accomplished. 

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