I remember it perfectly clearly. Come in here. “Come and look at this,” Dad shouted to us from the living room. “Come and see this little Russian girl! She stood on the top bar and flipped backwards!”
It was 1972 and Dad was watching the Soviet gymnastics team performing at the Munich Olympics. The little girl was, of course, 17-year old (though she looked 12) Olga Korbut, doing her now infamous, surely-it-must-be-impossible back flip from the top of the uneven bars. Olga Korbut. With her untidy, half-hearted pigtails and her big, beaming smile. She was enchanting and amazing. She moved like mercury. We all wanted to be her. Maybe not for long, but for a few weeks afterwards we all wanted to be gymnasts at my school. Some hope.
I’ve watched that routine since on YouTube and it’s still scintillating. How the hell did she do it? She really did stand on that shimmering top bar. I’ve never forgotten it. I never will forget it. You see dazzling, profound physical genius like that just once in a lifetime.
It’s worth remembering that the Soviet Union, the USSR, was a big, bad place back then, a closed, hostile country of dissidents and chilly imprisonment and labour camps. Olga, cheeky little Olga, was a sensation, a glorious ambassador. Until we read, many years later, of her allegedly ruthless and abusive training.
The 1972 Olympics in Munich, the year of Olga Korbut and of Mark Spitz, upon whom I had an instant crush. Spitz, a handsome American swimmer with a big, black moustache, who won seven gold medals in the Olympic pool. He was gorgeous. He displaced David Cassidy in my affections within a beat of my fickle, girlish heart.
Of course, those Games were to live on in infamy for the bloodiest of reasons, the massacre of Israeli athletes after the storming of the Olympic village by members of the Black September movement. My grandad and I watched it all unfold on television. It was the first time I was ever aware of a breaking news story happening before my eyes and I couldn’t look away. This was history and, for 12-year-old me, an unlooked-for early lesson in the politics of the Middle East.
All of these recollections are in my memory vault. Those were my Olympics and they resonate still for the best of reasons and for the worst of reasons. It’s thrilling to think that London 2012 will be the Olympics for someone else, maybe another 12-year-old somewhere, although obviously only for the very best of reasons. I would love to think that this someone will find their Olga Korbut, their Mark Spitz, those remarkable human beings who come along so rarely in a lifetime, whose spirit and sheer physical greatness push them just that little bit above the rest of us. Human beings who have just one chance to get it right in the greatest of all reality shows.