Vintage “Complete Book of Gymnastics” (1978) hardback features Olga Korbut & Other Gymnastics Legends of the 1960s & 1970s

Olga Korbut on FX at 1972 Olympics
David Hunn's caption for this picture: "Munich's Olympic floor champion, Olga Korbut, held by the camera in the middle of a splendid splits leap. But who knows whether she is coming or going?"

Book cover photo "The Complete Book of Gymnastics" by David Hunn
David Hunn’s 1978 book, “The Complete Book of Gymnastics”, cover photo is USSR’s Maria Filatova
For the next few days, I will be totally focused on the gymnastics of today and tomorrow, as in less than twenty-four hours I will be leaving for Columbus, Ohio for the GK US Classic to watch today’s top stars, along with the GK Hopes Championships, which is all about the future of the sport. This promises to be an exciting and memorable event, as it should be. But before I sally forth into the present and future of US women’s gymnastics, here is something about the gymnastics of yesteryear, a period when the sport exploded in popularity and visibility. For those of us old enough to remember back to 1972 (or farther), it is probably past our bedtime right now — no, no, only kidding!– this should bring back a few vivid memories.
Olga Korbut back bend on balance beam
One of Korbut’s signature moves, indelibly etched into the memory of millions (along with that crashing ski jumper) from the opening of ABC’s Wide World of Sports for much of the 1970s. Hunn’s caption: “Nobody in the history of gymnastics has captured as many hearts as Olga Korbut, who caused many to forget that she never won a major all-around title.” Ouch! Was that really necessary?

Long out of print, David Hunn’s 1978 “The Complete Book of Gymnastics” is a treasure trove of history and information from the golden age of artistic gymnastics. It devotes as much space to men’s gymnastics as women’s, and features most of the legendary names of the ’60s and ’70s. It clearly aims beyond the casual fan with much discussion of tumbling and illustrations of common skills, along with a chapter on judging, and is forward-thinking enough to also have chapters on the then-new sports of acro and rhythmic gymnastics. It is also teeming with great photographs.

Not surprisingly, Olga Korbut features prominently in both text and photos, showcasing her legendary skill, grace and charisma. Olga is a Facebook friend of mine, so I scanned all of the photos in the book that depict her, and posted them to my personal page on FB almost five years ago, with tags that would send her a notification. To my delight, Olga herself liked and shared most of them, and even made a comment or two, and to this day I still occasionally get FB notices of people who like and share the photos when are visiting Olga’s FB page and come across them. For those who might not have seen some of these photos, or who don’t mind seeing them again, I will share them here, as well. They are just about the best scans I could get from the pages of a mass market book, though I reduced the resolution a lot to make them suitable for sharing Facebook, and my original scans are on the hard drive of a computer that died two years ago.

Olga Korbut on BB
Hunn’s caption: “On the beam and on the floor, the gymnast must be a bit of an exhibitionist. One of Korbut’s priceless talents was to look so happy while she showed off.”

Originally published in 1978 in Britain by Ward Lock, the photo scans here & following are from the 1979 first US edition published by Chartwell Books (my copy was found about seven years ago in Books Galore, a simply splendid used bookstore and comics shop in Erie, PA.); I have watermarked each photo with the original source/credit, and hope this humble usage is permissible as fair use.] I did not take the time to scan any more of the photos beyond Olga (and the color dust jacket), though I might at some future date.

This book was published just as the age of the tiny, pixie-like gymnasts with the physique of a little girl — ushered in chiefly by Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci — had firmly taken hold of the sport, and as such the cover depicts tiny Maria Filatova of the Soviet Union, a very talented athlete but one who was emblematic of the direction the sport had gone in the 1970s, a trend that would persist more or less for another twenty years.

Olga Korbut balancing her body on the high bar
Another of Korbut’s signature moves, and just one of several that would be illegal in the current FIG Code of Points. Hunn’s caption: “One of the most famous sights in gymnastics — Olga Korbut poised illogically over the top bar. It is the superb arch of the body that preserves balance.”
The text is occasionally uneven and even tedious at times when it comes to presenting technical information, but Hunn makes an admirable effort to explain the basics of the sport, and includes much more technical information than most books aimed at a general mass audience. He is more effective at storytelling, when he presents an overview of the history of the sport (men’s and women’s equally, it is nice to see) through the end of the 1970s.

But it is the cornucopia of pictures (some in color, but most in black and white, unfortunately) that really make this book a treasure. For good measure, there is a partial listing of results from World Championships and Olympic Games for many years, a bibliography and substantial index, all of which surely must have made this book a rare treat for casual and serious fans back in the day.

Of course, in the internet age, many or most of these photos can be found online, but there’s nothing quite like a vintage book you can hold in your hands. For those who still have any use for real books on paper, and remember those days fondly (or have an interest in learning about them), I highly recommend seeking it out. Hunn does an extraordinary job describing a sport that was changing dramatically even as he wrote about it. If this book interests you, it can probably be found on eBay or other online sources for used books, and I don’t suspect it is particularly collectible, so you shouldn’t have to pay a lot for it.

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