The USSR’s Olga Korbut, from Belarus, celebrates gold at the 1972 Munich Olympics in West Germany. Photograph: PLP
‘The Sparrow from Minsk’, now a US citizen, who dazzled audiences at Munich in 1972 reported to be ‘almost destitute’
Olga Korbut,a 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 those Games, changed hands for $333,500 (£268,400) in an online sale at the weekend.
Olga Korbut in Scottsdale, Arizona, in February 2017. Photograph: John Marshall/AP
“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 her 1972 team gold medal, which fetched $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 4ft 11in (1.5 metres) tall and weighing 6 stone (38kg) – won three golds and a silver, followed by another gold and silver in Montreal where she ran up against the Romanian prodigy Nadia Comăneci.
The auction house said in its 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 backflip from standing on top of the high bar to regrasp the bar, that became known as the Korbut Flip. The move 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.