Olga Korbut sells Olympic medals
Former Soviet gymnast has fallen into financial difficulty
Olga Korbut, the Russian gymnast doing a chest roll on the beam. Photograph: Graham Wood/Getty Images
Olga Korbut, the former Soviet gymnast whose performances dazzled the world at the 1972 Munich games, has sold her Olympic medals and other memorabilia after apparently falling into financial difficulty.
The US auction house Heritage Auctions confirmed that 32 lots, including two gold medals and a silver from the Munich games, changed hands for $333,500 in an online sale at the weekend.
“Medals saved Korbut from hunger,” the Russian news outlet gazeta.ru reported, adding that Korbut, who moved in 1991 to the US where she became a gymnastics teacher, had in recent years become almost destitute.
The top item was the gymnast’s 1972 team gold medal, which went for $66,000. Korbut also sold her Munich floor exercise gold, the silver won on the asymmetric bars, and a team gold and balance beam silver from the 1976 Montreal games.
Among other items in the sale were performance leotards, Korbut’s 1972 BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, and assorted Soviet and World Championship medals. A third Munich gold, on the balance beam, was stolen some years ago.
Now 61 and living in Scottsdale, Arizona, Korbut, who was born in Belarus, captivated audiences at the 1972 games with a string of acrobatic performances hailed as both charismatic and technically brilliant.
Known as “the Sparrow from Minsk”, the 17-year-old - just 4’11” tall and weighing 6 stone - won three golds and a silver, followed by another gold and silver in Montreal where she ran up against the Romanian prodigy Nadia Comaneci.
The auction house said in its pre-sale publicity that Korbut “single-handedly upended the stereotype of the Soviet athlete as a stone-faced automaton” and there was “hardly a gymnast alive who doesn’t credit this tiny force of nature for the explosion of the sport’s popularity on a global level”.
She pioneered a spectacular move on the asymmetric bars, a back flip from standing on top of the high bar to regrasp the bar, that became known as the Korbut Flip and has now been outlawed from the Olympics as too dangerous.
From 1978 to 2000, Korbut was married to Leonid Bortkevich, a Belarusian folk singer, with whom she had a son, Richard, born in 1979. A naturalised US citizen, Korbut now teaches privately and celebrated the 40th anniversary of her Munich victories with an appearance at the 2012 London Olympics. Guardian News and Media