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Tears turn to joy for phenomenal gymnast Korbut

The popular star of these Games was someone with a tiny frame but a huge talent. Olga Korbut had started training to be a gymnast at the age of eight. She grew up in Belarus, then part of the USSR, and it was clear from a young age that she was capable of moves that other gymnasts simply couldn't perform.

She competed in the national championships at the age of just 15 but a combination of illness and injury often prevented her from entering competitions over the next couple of years. When she arrived in Munich for the 1972 Olympic Games, Korbut was something of an unknown quantity, unaccustomed to the glare of global attention.

What charmed the crowds, though, were two things – firstly her sheer sporting brilliance, but also her air of vulnerability. Soviet athletes were often characterised as being cold and unemotional; Korbut was anything but – during the all-around section, she slipped off the bars, scuffed her feet and missed a simple remount. When the judges gave her a mark of just 7.5, she wept and the world wanted to hug her.

Instead, fate gave her a better reward - gold medals on the balance beam, where her exuberant routine brought in viewers who had never watched gymnastics before, the floor exercises, and also a gold with the Soviet team as well.

Korbut was one of the few people who didn't know about her rise to fame. The Soviet gymnasts were kept isolated during competition, and it was only when she returned to the Olympic village that she found her room full of gifts, flowers and fan-mail. She was mobbed wherever she went, and ended up buying a disguise so she could go for a walk undisturbed.

She brought a whole generation of new fans to gymnastics, although injury and the rise of Nadia Comaneci were to prevent a similar performance four years later. At her height, though, Korbut was a phenomenon – 20,000 fan letters arrived in the year following her performances in Munich and the post office in her home town in Belarus had to appoint a clerk just to look after her mail

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