(Reuters) - At the 1972 Munich Olympics, an unheralded 17-year-old gymnast broke the Cold War stereotype that the Soviets were stone faced performers who displayed no emotions as she sobbed on the bench after her performance on the uneven bars went horribly wrong.
In the final a day later, she broke the glass ceiling with a pioneering move that shocked the world, transforming the sport and ushering in a new era in gymnastics, a move that would be named after her — the Korbut Flip.
Olga Korbut had endeared herself to the crowd in the floor exercise and on the balance beam — where she performed a backflip — a move that was common in the floor exercise but had never been performed on the four-inch wide apparatus.
So when Korbut stepped up to the uneven bars in the final in front of 11,000 people, there was an air of expectation even though a shot at a medal seemed out of reach.
As the diminutive ‘Sparrow from Minsk’ started her routine, she suddenly perched herself precariously on the upper bar, more than eight feet off the ground, and one commentator sensed something special coming.
“Watch this,” he said as Korbut stood up and launched herself into the air with a backflip, rotating 360 degrees before catching the bar and swinging forwards.
As jaws dropped in the arena, she continued swinging onto the lower bar, using nothing but her momentum and her abdomen to perform one revolution around the bar before flying backwards to the upper bar, skilfully catching it with her arms behind her.
“Has that been done before by a girl,” his co-commentator asked in utter disbelief. “Never! Never,” was the response. “Not by any human that I know of.”
Four years before Nadia Comaneci earned the first ever perfect 10 at the Olympics, Korbut came agonisingly close but the judges awarded her 9.8 — enough only for a silver medal.
Incredulous fans voiced their displeasure, whistling and booing the judges, but they did not budge.
Competing in an international event for the first time, Korbut went home with four medals, including three golds.
But it was her everlasting impact on the sport having captivated millions worldwide with her wide smile, her steely resolve and graceful acrobatics that defined her legacy.
“I came to the Olympic Games completely unknown. Nobody knew who Olga Korbut was,” she said in an interview in 2017. “And overnight I became a big star.”
Sadly, much to her frustration, the risky move was made illegal in the Olympic gymnastics Code of Points when standing on the bar was banned.
While Korbut would go on to win two more medals at the 1976 Olympics, she retired at 22, considered far too young for gymnasts at the time.
Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru, editing by Pritha Sarkar