Korbut Still in the Gym But out of the Spotlight

The darling of the '72 Games now teaches in the US

A young girl runs into the gym at the Mountain Park Elementary School, in Roswell, Ga., sporting a pageboy haircut and a fashionable leotard. She drops to the floor and quickly yanks off her shoes and socks, then runs over to a group of girls chatting excitedly.

Their teacher is Olga Korbut, winner of three gold medals and much fanfare during the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Korbut gets the girls' attention, and for an hour, has them running races, and leaping over a small vault. This is Korbut's third year teaching after-school gymnastics at multiple Fulton County schools four days a week. She says she sometimes shows her students - the oldest of whom is under 10 years of age - video tapes of herself competing, in the Olympic Games. The children, she says, look at her incredulously.

Just under five feet tall, and with her medium brown hair pulled back in a barrette, the middle-aged Korbut is still very active and fit. She speaks energetically, in somewhat broken English, about her current projects.

Korbut spends much of her time setting up her own nonprofit gymnastics school to teach children - some of whom are future Olympic hopefuls as well as those simply there for the fun, exercise, and discipline.

For students who will take lessons and then move on to something else, Korbut has her own agenda.

"I don't think a lot of people have a goal," she says. "When you finish gymnastics or another sport, you will be very happy because you have [had] a goal. And you have to have a goal to be somebody."

One large hurdle in setting up the school has been finding investors willing to put their money in a nonprofit business.

According to her attorney and manager, Mark Schaeffer, "Her goal and her dream is to teach. To give. Not the financial rewards," he says.

An upcoming event likely to increase Korbut's visibility, and which may positively impact her plans to set up a school, is the l996 Games now going on in Atlanta.

Korbut and her family moved to a suburb of Atlanta from Minsk, Belarus several years ago, after she and her husband of 18 years, Leonid Bortkevich, a Belarussian rock musician, decided the environment there was no longer a place to raise their son, Richard.

Chernobyl, in neighboring Ukraine is near Belarus. In April 1986, the core of a reactor in Chernobyl's nuclear power plant overheated and exploded. The accident has been the worst of its kind in history, and has heavily contaminated Ukraine and Belarus with radiation.

"People in Minsk are being bombarded with radiation since Chernobyl still is operating. They can't shut it down because they need the power," Mr. Schaeffer says.

Before they moved, Korbut and her husband decided to send their teenage son to live with friends in New Jersey. The couple later followed their son to the United States, and then purchased a home in a quiet neighborhood in Duluth, Ga.

"We've lived here just four years. We came here without [knowing the English] language. This is not easy to us, but we're doing very good," Korbut says.

Since last September, Korbut has been the official Olympic attache for Belarus, and helped raise money to send its athletes to the Games in Atlanta.

Belarus has long been known for its fine athletes. The Soviet gymnastics team in the 1972 Olympics, comprised six women, three of whom were from Belarus.

"This is a new country, and I am afraid they have a very big problem now. First of all, Chernobyl. This is why I moved to Atlanta with my family. And secondly, [there] is a big problem economically," Korbut says.

When Belarus became independent in 1991, "everything changed very fast. The people weren't ready for that," says Korbut. A major problem has been high prices, which she hears about from her father, Valentin, a retired engineer, and her three older sisters, who live in Belarus.

"She would like to see them come to the United States, but they have to make that decision," Schaeffer says. "It's obviously a difficult thing to just pick up and move, especially to the United States. It is a very difficult country to establish your roots, especially if you are a scientist, a doctor, a lawyer. You're giving up everything just to come to another country."

Another way Korbut is helping Belarus is as president of the Belarussian/American Child Health Foundation. The nonprofit organization works on projects that will ultimately improve the health of children in eastern and central Europe. The foundation gives special care to children in Belarus.

"One of the new projects they're trying to do is bring in ... medical supplies that we take for granted. Things that we have an overabundance of. Down in Belarus, they're just incredibly low on these supplies," says Schaeffer. During her free time, Korbut enjoys the lakes around Atlanta, and occasionally rents a boat and spends the afternoon fishing. She also enjoys cooking, going to the movies, and inviting friends over.

One of her goals is to coach a competitor in the 2000 Games in Sydney. The Olympics will come 35 years after Korbut entered Renald Knysh's elite gymnastics school in Belarus. She later went on to charm the 1972 Olympic judges becoming a star, and heightening the sport's popularity. Now as a coach, her life in gymnastics has come full circle.

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