"The following is a complete, unedited, unverified interview, portions of which were utilized in the Red Files PBS broadcast. Statements therein are the sole opinion of the interviewee, and do not reflect the views of PBS, DDE or Series and Web Site producer Abamedia, which are not Responsible for the interview content."


Interview with Olga Korbut
Olympic Gold Medal Gymnast
Spoken in her own English

Olga Korbut on the balance beam

Interviewer: When you were young, was gymnastics fun?

Olga Korbut: Yes, I still am in gymnastics fun before and now for me. When I was gymnast first I couldn't live without gymnastics. Now I can't live without to give my feeling to small kids. This is fun.

Interviewer: Since, when you began training in gymnastics what was it about the sport that appealed to you? What, what did you like about it when you were young?

Olga Korbut: Um, just do it for sizes. That's all, I didn't understand what's like Olympic Games and why big competition and small competition. For me this was same. To show your to present yourself. To show what you can do with it, and um, you know to feel like all people like you. This is very important in gymnastics.

Interviewer: When you were a young girl and saw the nineteen sixty four Olympics on the television, what impression did you have, what did you think about this?.

Olga Korbut: First of all I was jealous because for both things, today, because I didn't doubt yet, because I, I can go to Olympic Games. And it is the first Olympic Games where I have watched. And from that nineteen sixty four, this was my goal to go to Olympic Games. And I realized what does it mean, Olympic Games, like big celebration.

Interviewer: And what did you have to do to convince your coach that you were a good enough gymnast to take you under his, under his future his team?

Olga Korbut: This is was not easy part to go to the team, to Soviet team. Because in that time a Soviet team was very strong. But I was ready ninety sixty eight Olympic Games, but I was fourteen years old, thirteen even and you couldn't compete because, you're not sixteen. This is good and not good. And in nineteen seventy two I almost wasn't, on the team, but I knew about it just before Olympic Games for three months before this why this is was not very good for me. I'd been ready to go, you know. And, in nineteen seventy two Olympic Games I wasn't really going to be a star, and overnight I became a star. I'd been ready too, because before Olympic Games, I wasn't compete in big competition like, World Championship, like European Championship. I just competed in national competition. This is different. This is probably why I fought, and from the bars. But probably this is helps to win, to win, to gold, more gold medals, and to win most my important medal, heart of people. This is most important for me.

Interviewer: Do you remember when you were crying after you fell?

Olga Korbut: Yes, but I cried not because I've fell from the equipment, (laughing) I crying because I did everything where I could but I think people was not, people public is how to say in English, I did everything for public and I felt you know, not because I get scores not so high. For me that was doesn't matter. Cause I always compete for somebody. From my heart, so they will like me. You know what I mean, would like to say. Something like that. Not because I felt. No, they said I don't care. This is why I like my coach, because of that she never said oh that's not good. He just told, we need to work more, harder, that's all.

Interviewer: And when you found out that you were a star, how did that make you feel?

Olga Korbut: I never thought of this, in Russia. When they start to do exhibition in England, United States, Australia, Germany, everywhere. And I saw how people, you know, see me and start to cry, or laugh, you know. But I, actually I never felt this. But still when I left in living in um Russia, when I moved to the United States, finally I understood that. But, may be this is not so very excited because this is from nineteen seventy two is, long time. You know this is very good when, yesterday is, and tomorrow, everybody ask you, you know, buy a little bit, and after right after nineteen seventy was, they were still in Munich and I told him before I bought a sunglasses, and a wig and a long dress, and was to shopping, so I could spend my money because all shop owners they present me everything what I would like to buy. And why I changed my style to spend my money.

Interviewer: In the late sixties when you and your coach were developing a new kind of gymnastics, what was the reaction from the Sports Committee to your new styles.

Olga Korbut: First of all they didn't like that because um this is you know like a revolution in gymnastics. And nobody was ready for that. But, I couldn't live without creation gymnastics. This is very interesting to practising every day to create something and, when they start to say no you can't do it because gymnastics. But let me do I will show the world what gymnastics looks like. Well may be this is a future gymnastics. Finally I almost dropped gymnastics because I couldn't live without create, and you know, and then, all public in the world start to say, we don't want to see gymnastics without OLGA. You know, this is helps. To change mind, Olympic Committee and Dellaris Latina.

Interviewer: Did they not like athletes like yourself who had personalities that were too strong and too individualistic.

Olga Korbut: Yes, I think so. I'm too strong. Too honest. They don't like people like this because I always telling them the truth. Nobody they scared, they're afraid because this is why I'm here. I'm not in Nuninsk, I'm not in Moscow. Because you know some people can lie. I can't. You can see my eyes, right away, if I. And I will say it like this if I will lie to you. This is probably why, my life is easier, and my family is very happy, because we never lie each other. This is probably all people supposed to feel each other, so be always in all of the world they'll be peace.

Interviewer: And how much were they trying to control you and other athletes.

Olga Korbut: I think if I wasn't in very high level, I never will be in the team. Cause I was high, in very high level. If I was the same like, Tonichava, the same, I'd never been in the team. Because I'm different. I'm like, you know. They will say one things, I will say different thing. This how supposed to be.

Interviewer: What's wrong with being different?

Olga Korbut: Different this is. I would like to do what I want to do. I don't want to do what do you tell me to do. You know, what I feeling I would like to do. It's something like that. You know because this is. How many people in the world is, each of them is individual. And I like to eat bread, somebody don't like that. You know this is the same in gymnastics.

Interviewer: In your book you said that before seventy two when you would perform, often many of the, the judges and also like Sovietsky Sport would, would criticise you and say, well you know. Would criticise your routine to. Why, why were people opposed to the way you were performing gymnastics.

Olga Korbut: Oh, because this is, was new. And nobody ready for that. First. And second I. No. This was new elements, new style, a new body. Remember before nineteen seventy two Olympic Games I was total skinny, I was small, very strong, they may be don't like to see a gymnastics like that. I don't know but, gymnastics, might. Nineteen seventy two supposed to be change somewhere. Because this is was, not spectacular, not grace. And now I think gymnastic needs to change, because it's a long way to stay in same position. We need to change. And I suggested to change very simple way to Olympic Games, in one competition, two different levels. Separate from, until sixteen, and after sixteen years old. Because up to sixteen years old you feel gymnastics more. You can show your emotion, grace, like woman gymnastics, not kid's gymnastics. I feel I have good shape, and I can do it elements everything, but, it's not competition for me. And we lost a lot because of that, and I think this is future gymnastics to separate ages. Because kids can do it more than adult. A woman and adult woman can show more than the small kids.

Interviewer: I thought it was helping if you can talk about how permission in your book, how some of the, the other coaches and the journalists and the sports officials were afraid to say they liked what you were doing, because it was against the official position. Can you talk about that. Why were they afraid to. If the audience liked what you do, liked what you were doing. Why were the officials afraid to like it.

Olga Korbut: Because they didn't know. They didn't try and chance it. This is, you know this is like revolution. Yes, I, went to gymnastic destroy their routine, you know. And start new gymnastic. They were not ready for that. But they had a very good gymnast, very good position. They always won in gymnastics. They want no change gymnastics. This is probably answered correct. And they don't want the, they sit in the, this chair, they, who's a seller, a good seller, they don't want to change, that's all. I think. That's the answer.

Interviewer: How much of your life, when you were training. How much of your life did you have to give to gymnastics?

Olga Korbut: I think this is all my life. Because if I was split gymnastics and something else like far, fun or to go with friends. No, this, you're supposed to one go, one straight road and to do every day. And touch the wall, of the goal. I think I spent all my life in gymnastics. And if you will ask me I want to change something in your past life, no. I will go same. I will do the same, and even know somebody doesn't like that, don't like to, they will hate me. Anyway I will go same road because I, I was born in gymnastics. This is my, how to say, my life and my duty.

Interviewer: And what affect did this very hard training have on your own body?

Olga Korbut: I feel great. I feel younger. And I don't feel anything at all. I don't know who knows, but right now I'm, how, how many years have I, fifty five, something like that. Forty three years old. And I feel like seventeen, like twenty five years ago. Per, particularly when I start to work with kids and they started to feel like I'm a kid. I start to play with them, to have fun, or something like that.

Interviewer: And how about in the, you know, I think you said in your book in the mid seventies you were told you could never have a child, and, and you know you had you know basically starved yourself for, for years. At that time, what impact did all that training have on your, on your body? The fact that now I know you obviously had a family.

Olga Korbut: Up to nineteen seventy six when I quit gymnastics I was very, disappointed because I didn't have anything which is, live with. I didn't have a friend so I didn't have a coach anymore. I didn't have a practising, I mean, you know. It's completely different life. Then I was lucky I met with my future husband, and I started new life with my husband, and I was happy again. He was a musician. I start to travel with him through Europe also and around the former Soviet Union. And then Richard was, my son was born, and this is another new deed to take care of him and I very happy I have a very good family. Thank god, and now all I have are, twenty one years together, in January and, you know, I, you know I forgot this all about things. And anyway the first place is good thing.

Interviewer: Could you describe some of the, the negative side to the training. That you didn't eat very much, that you were, you trained even when you were tired.

Olga Korbut: I would say this is not negative this is h, a hard part in gymnastics. You can't eat, whatever you want to eat. And what kind of meal you're supposed to have, you can't. Actually (laughs) I never was, having this. And you can do it whatever just s simple people do it. Sometimes like you ask me your, you don't have a, you didn't have a youth. No it's wrong, I had different youth, in my position as gymnastics, or so I saw all the world before I was sixteen, seventeen years old. And, but this is hard part in gymnastics. You can't eat, you can't drink, you can't smoke, you can't have a boyfriend. You can go the party, you can stay longer than eleven o'clock, or twelve o'clock tonight, and but this is then giving back all what you didn't have before, because you will have a famous, everybody will like you. Even with boyfriend, everybody will love you. And you will eat wherever you want to eat. You will have more money, you will have a privilege, after when you will give all this is your strength to some girls, you know. Just as a return back. Very fast. But this is. You didn't know before that. This is really or not.

Interviewer: After seventy two, you were. And you and the team were taken on a tour of East Germany. And, now you were very tired then, what was that tour. What was the purpose of that tour?

Olga Korbut: I think this is just Government trying to raise money. But I remember I couldn't move any muscles after that. This is where I thought this is like you, exhausted. Emotional I was empty. And I slept two straight two days, two nights. Forty eight hours straight. I didn't wake up and then somebody thought may be I'm dead (laughs). This is you know, this is what it all looks like, you give everything for, to, to show everybody how beautiful you are. How, what you can do it. You know. This is, I think, person like me born in one time, and one hundred years, because I remember how many strengths in my power I give for that.

Interviewer: When you were forced to go on these tours afterwards, was the, the State using you. Were you being used by the Soviet State?

Olga Korbut: Always. Always after nineteen seventy two, yeah. After seventy two Olympic Games. Nineteen seventy three, four, five, six. I wasn't at home. I always being somewhere, in different countries. We did exhibition, and they raised money. But we have just, you know, we didn't eat. And we always raised money for girl to buy something you know, some present for families or for friends. I think this is not good part in my life. Because I always liked to practising to create and to get gymnastics to learn new elements, to gain, to show me or gymnastics. This has took me ten years before Olympic Games, nineteen seventy two to be with my routines, polished, and to show the world new gymnastics.

Interviewer: And how did it make you feel when you were taken on these tours that you didn't want to go on?

Olga Korbut: Even if I didn't want to do. I must do, because this is like rules. Politics. To show the world former Soviet Union is the best. I think this is politics. More than competition. Exhibition to show United States how strong even in sports Russia is. Probably like they said raise money, this is worth millions. You know what, when I wasn't peak life my strengths, nineteen seventy two, three, four. And everybody wanted to see me. Even I met with all Presidents and England I met with Queen and I met with Counsellor who was Prime Minister, and you know this is takes away my emotion also. And you know this is was funny things when Ambassador of Soviet Union called me when I was in the United State, first time, and told me Richard Nixon would like to meet with you. I said no I can't because I don't have the time. I must practise and today, and he start to .... disapproval and I said so what, I need to practise it today, I will be tired. I need to show public how, what er I need to say, you know. This was funny. At the end I met with Richard Nixon and I. I felt this was another correspondent, you know, because I didn't know him where, you know and so I have requested there be an end of the war and he said oh small girl. I said oh you big boy (laughs). It was funny. You know and my life is very, very funny, and very hard. Very difficult. Everything I, I did, you know.

Interviewer: What kind of education were you given about the rest of the world?

Olga Korbut: What do you mean education?

Interviewer: How focused was your life?

Olga Korbut: I think my life was just in one focus. Gymnastics. Of course we missed a lot of things but this is was not important when you had a goal. And again we always after gymnastic we have a lot of time to do that again. And I think if you wanted to, even if you not talented, but if you want to do it. If you spend all your time to do something, you will get it.

Interviewer: Were you. Was. Were you performing for yourself, your country or your team? What was your motivation?

Olga Korbut: I think I performed, although for myself, for public. If I want to form for the team I will concentrate on the team. If I will perform for the Government, I, I will do it nothing. You know. I think I perform for myself, and for the public. Not even for Judges. You know. I would. I wanted to so public likes me, and I will give them same thing.

Interviewer: But a Soviet athlete was supposed to perform for the Soviet, for communism.

Olga Korbut: I don't know you know. For me it was a so strange. How you can be the same, Communist is proposing. You were supposed to be same. No you can be you individual. This is war system, and do we know, life is show us this is wrong.

Interviewer: And some people called you a prima donna, said you were too individual.

Olga Korbut: It's cool. If she said I appease her, you mean I don't like her. (laughs). You know. Because this is what people are supposed to look like. If you too are different. This is what is different. Talented people. Different from non-talented, yes. You very beautiful, you different from non beautiful, you know. If you something, you are different. You are the best.

Interviewer: I think would surprise our audience is that after seventy two, you were probably more popular in the West than in the Soviet Union and many people in the Soviet Union were not so happy with your success. Why was that?

Olga Korbut: I think this is because of the system. The systems propose you to be the same. I was different. This is why they didn't like me and don't like me now. Why I moved to United States, and I'm very happy. I'm free here and I, can do it, what ever I want to do. This is my not call my, my life. And who still there, they afraid to say on this, to do, what they want to do. Because you know they afraid something. I don't know, may be this is time, is bid them like this. I was free always but left to different country. May be this is, was mistake. I was born not in correct country. I was to born here. Because I understands so good American people when I've been in London. I understand everybody. I don't speak English well. I don't speak Arabic. I don't speak French. But I don't want to say that I understand them, because, I individual. I would like to be different. I don't want to be same. I would like to be rich. I would like to be a star. I would like to be a beautiful. I would like to be whatever, you know. And this is why I'm different from another gymnast. This is why may be so easy to talk with me. I will tell you everything where I have to tell you, you know. Because I'm not lying. I tell you the truth. If I don't like the people in Russia, why I supposed to tell them I don't know. I don't. I don't like system. I don't like people. I don't like, because they don't smile. Because they wear local strings. Because they are poor. I don't like this! I would like to see them rich, and happy and smiling. This is the future our world and this is why they, I hope.

Interviewer: I understand. Yes. Keep up the smile. Because you smile as always.

Olga Korbut: This is why I have a lines.

Interviewer: But you, in your book you said, you look at the smile and you, you hoped that that belongs to you. Because you were taught how to smile

Olga Korbut: This is mine yes. You know, sometimes I look in my mirror and no it's no good if I'm not smile. You know this is, this is now my personality and I know that. And you feel better when I smile. Yes. Because we live for each other, basically, yes. And we need to do for you so you will be happy. You know this is what, what for this world, for fun. Every day we need to have a fun. No just working, if you don't want to work. Yes. We need to work, to love this job. This is why I laugh. I have a fun of work with kids. I still younger then. Even sometimes I hate my job because they, I spoil, they lazy. But next day you turn round and you look around, this is different. Okay, I will try like this. Now I always creating my work. Even when I start to cook in my kitchen. I start to think, maybe I will put something different. Will be delicious, you know. This is all our life, you can play with that.

Interviewer: Earlier this week I was at Kransnagorsk, and I was watching some of, some footage from Montreal. In seventy six. And sometimes you looked so. You looked in pain. You looked so sad. What happened in seventy six.

Olga Korbut: Because from ninety seventy two I didn't do it what ever I want to do. I didn't practicing enough to learn new elements. I didn't spot, spend enough time to, to earn elements, and I wasn't to worthy enough to again to show there what I could do it. I didn't have enough time to show them new elements. I did have. I had elements. But this is not polished enough. I couldn't show public that. And why I was disappointed to be in the Olympic Games because I wasn't ready. I wasn't same Olga. You know I was older and I was tired, and I did understand what that mean for Government to what I did. This is probably it. I started to understand why I compete for the Government, for the Soviet Union. Probably it, this is why I wasn't happy to go to Montreal.

Interviewer: So you, you're saying that you. In Montreal you realised that you.

Olga Korbut: I realised I competed for the Government. Not for myself. Not for public. For money, for publicity, Russia you know. For, to be best again. Not myself. For Soviet Union. For the Government. This is why I was disappointed.

Interviewer: In our interview with Larissa Latynina,

Olga Korbut: Yes.

Interviewer: She talks about Nadia Komanechi, and

Olga Korbut: They was upset because not from us, she is not from Soviet Union. A star I think so, they was upset. But I was happy. Because you know I didn't like Government. I didn't like my country because of this is bad things what they did it for me. They didn't let me do my element. They didn't let me go to the competition. And they didn't let me do anything. Believe me. I was in, big prison. Because you can't live without freedom. You can't live without. You can't move anywhere. I mean this is ridiculous.

Interviewer: I would imagine I think that after the success that you brought your country that your country would have treated you very well and given you freedom. Lots of benefits. And a nice house. And, and some money. What were you given in return for, for what you contributed.

Olga Korbut: Who give me money? I didn't have anything (laughs).

Interviewer: That's what I'm asking, what did they give you?

Olga Korbut: I was lucky I was born in Bellows, this is different from Russia. We had a very good Government in Bellows and I, when I was, became a star after ninety seventy six, two Olympic Games they gave me apartment. But everybody's supposed to have apartment. And this is what's privilege. I had a car I bought for my money. This is was a privilege. This is good. No. Everybody. If you have money you can buy the car yes. But I couldn't. But when I was this star you can buy the car. This is ridiculous, this is not right. You know, and the former Soviet Union, I been not very famous. My husband is a very famous singer in Russia. I wasn't (laughs), on a floor lower because I wasn't like everybody else. Again, I'm different. This is what Russian Government looks like. Used and throw it away.

Interviewer: You felt used.

Olga Korbut: They want to use you and throw it away when they don't need any more.

Interviewer: Did the KGB follow you when you were going abroad?

Olga Korbut: Yes, of course they followed me. I didn't know about that, but, when I finished gymnastics I start to write a book. You know I was young. I didn't pay attention because my focus was on gymnastics. But how many people on the team, same the same as KGB. Like six athletes. Six KGB. This is was no good because sometimes I would like to be in underwear you know and I was shy with my Bill, but she was nice. I was just very you know, shy. And KGB wants for one moment I will remember for all my life, last exhibition in United States, and always when we finished exhibition, or tours, we always meeting in one room or in my room, or in Nicola Banjana' room or whatever. And we stayed until two o'clock in the morning. Three o'clock in the morning. Just talk about tour and everything and when I went to sleep to my room and I met with KGB, and he was drunk, and said what are you doing two o'clock in the, in the morning. I said get away from me. And he told about that when we get back to Russia. Then, and I never. They never let me go another exhibition. And this is why I was in England now. They ask me why you didn't come nineteen seventy six. And all newspaper said I was sick. No, I wasn't. I felt very good, but they didn't let me go because of no accident at all. But, you know I just told KGB the truth. Nothing, I am going to my own room. That's it.

Interviewer: I want to ask you one question that's not about gymnastics. In nineteen seventy two around the same time as the Olympic Games, the Soviet hockey team was playing in Canada.

Olga Korbut: The public was crazy about hockey and Russian football, and mini soccer, and I think this is well Russian hockey was on high level and I'm very good friends of all players. At that time. And I think you know this is, again this politics between hockey and Government and between countries. In Montreal, you know, Canada, hockey is very good there, and Russian too. No I don't know. But before you know this. You know anyway, even you didn't compete for your country or something like that, you still feel this is your country and you always will think about the different sport, but this is from your country.

I think if you would like to be the best you must lose something. I don't know best system or no best system. But for those time I think this is a good system. For the sport. Just for the sport. I don't know how to say another different kind of sedation, but in sport, you must and coach must freshen you because you can't work so hard and do be alone. I mean this is how talented you are, this doesn't matter. This is, a lot of pressure is forced to do by yourself and you will sometimes coach pressure you but this is okay for a big goal. For gold medals, yes. For Olympic Games, yes. I think this is a good system for sport.

Interviewer: As a young girl of eighteen, what was your first impression of America?

Olga Korbut: Ah, first impression this is for me since I been here for all my life. This is first. Second everybody smiles. You know I, I would like in this country for, I born in this country and I miss something in my life. I shall miss people who smiled a lot. That's it.

Interviewer: In this film we'll show some of your performances and I think in your book you said that the bars were your favourite. I remember seeing you on the bars. And I always wondered what it was like when you were, when you were performing like that, what goes through your mind. It seems like you're flying. I wonder if you could just describe for us what it's like to fly.

Olga Korbut: You know when you touch the equipment before you afraid all the time like you are shaking. But when you touch, this is mine. Look at me. This is mine. This is. I'm flying and I show what I can do. This is the best bit. You actress. You're a athlete. You're most beautiful. You're everything. And all of the world's yours. Something like that.

Return to Sports Interviews

horizontal line

© 1999 Abamedia, unless otherwise indicated.