ON THIS DATE (August 31) in 1972, seventeen-year-old Olga Korbut of the Soviet Union won two gold and one silver medal in individual competition at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.
Four years later, fourteen-year-old Nadia Comaneci did even better, winning three gold medals, a silver, and a bronze at the Montreal Olympics. In the process, Comaneci introduced gymnastic perfection, receiving the first-ever perfect scores (seven in all).
Who was the better gymnast? Comaneci. Who made the greater cultural impact? I say Korbut because she was the first teenage pixie (4-foot-11, 84-pounds) gymnast, and her exuberance made a lot of us re-think the dehumanizing stereotype of cold, calculating Soviets.
Comaneci, a Romanian, also belonged to a Soviet bloc country, but despite her bangs and big brown eyes, she was as precise and deadly as an AK-47.
That’s no knock on Comaneci. She had a job to do in the 1976 Olympics, and she did it brilliantly. It’s just, she dazzled us through sheer athletic genius, where Korbut was more about joy and tears and passion. We admired Comaneci, but we connected with Korbut, who seemed as emotionally vulnerable as any American of her age, if not more so.
Americans tend, I believe, to overrate the effect of athletics on politics — did Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in 1938 really humble Nazi Germany? (As a nation, they didn’t act too humble). So maybe I’m wrong here. But I think it did Westerners good to watch and love Olga Korbut during the fourth decade of the Cold War. It’s hard to hate an enemy when you suspect that they’re a lot like us.