‘Miracle with pigtails’ – a story of the USSR’s diplomatic relations with Cuba


I have a large red poster on my wall at home – I love it.  For you to get an idea, it measures about 3 feet high by 2 feet across.  It’s bright red with a striking graphic image, a poster for a film.  The film’s title and details are written in Spanish, and the graphic is of a girl with pigtails performing a one-armed handstand on a balance beam.

The poster is a historical record of the Soviet Union’s policy to use sport as a political influence, and in this case in particular to forge diplomatic relations with a part of the world that was very important to them from a strategic defence position – Cuba.  This film, ‘Maravilla Con Trenzas Largas’ or ‘Miracle with Pigtails’ was a Russian language, Soviet produced film based on the competitive career of Olga Korbut.  The poster records the 1977 release of the film in Cuba.  This was within 15 years of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the USSR and USA locked horns and the world was within a red button or two of  nuclear holocaust.  

The graphic shows Olga’s distinctive pigtails, but the skill it depicts is actually Natalia Shaposhnikova’s one armed handstand into a planche, which was the latest gymnastics sensation in 1977.  The gymnast’s hair is blonde; Olga’s hair was brown at the 1972 Olympics, right through till 1976, after which she retired,  (For some reason, Olga is often depicted and described as blonde in accounts of her exploits.  It doesn’t really matter, but I can’t imagine a film about Dmitri Bilozerchev or Valeri Borzov suddenly changing a detail of their physical appearance.  Korbut’s hair was blonde when she was a child but grew darker as she matured.  This is a feminist matter of the representation of female athletes in the media; to be an athlete, you must be glamourous and to be glamourous you have to have blond hair.  Pigtails infantilize a woman; she can’t be a woman when she’s in thrall to her powerful, controlling coach and portrays child like movements, even if she is at risk of breaking her neck in the process.  The pigtails just emphasise her submissive, inferior position to the Svengali figure, the male coach.  Still, she must have blonde hair, in order to satisfy our idea of females as essentially there for the way they look.) 

The film itself, which you can find on Youtube in the Russian language (‘Чудо с косичками‘) is a reasonably factual dramatic rendering of Olga’s appearances at the 1973 European Championships and 1974 World Championships, based on Olga’s autobiography (it says in the film description).   The names of the gymnasts and coaches are changed, but it’s fairly easy to recognise who is supposed to be whom.  There are lots of flashback moments to Olga’s carefree childhood in Belarus, and Ludmilla’s gruelling training, and the coaches Rotstorotsky and Knysh are depicted as passionate, driven geniuses, all wrapped up in the art of their science as they propel ‘their’ gymnasts to ever greater efforts.  Olga has a brief dalliance with a handsome member of the audience, who writes her a letter; she drifts off into a dream of boys back home in Grodno; how she would love to have a normal life and a boyfriend, the film implies.  ‘What’s that?’ asks the hawk-eyed Knysh as Olga reads the three lines of her billet doux.  ‘Nothing’, she replies.  Boyfriends not allowed, we immediately assume, and no hint is made of the abusive relationship between Knysh and Korbut, even if by 1977 it must have been a fairly open secret in Soviet gymnastics circles.  Korbut had stopped training with Knysh by 1975.  

Knysh argued that Korbut’s great innovations – the tuck back somersault on the beam, the Korbut loop on the bars, the bars dismount from the same root move, various moves in her floor exercises – all stemmed from the heritage of gymnastics.  They were nothing new, merely movements that gymnastics hadn’t seen for a long time, they looked a lot different to what people were used to, and so the judges and coaches and fans were surprised and shocked by them.  Korbut’s big technical contribution was the full on handspring vault – there were real technical and biomechanical issues that meant that this vault was next to impossible.  

In her autobiography Korbut talks at length of the challenges of overcoming resistance to accepting her radical moves into the battery of the sport, and the film does a good job of recording these historic struggles.  The Soviet establishment were slow to recognise her contributions (although this is played down in the film, which prefers to emphasise the theme of Soviet Union versus the Western world that we see echoed so often today in the developing history of Russia); and the FIG threatened various deductions, but in the end largely accepted and rewarded the moves.  At the 1974 Varna World Championships, which Korbut considers to have been her best competition, she won gold for her controversial vault; this victory is recorded in the film.  The dramatic scenes are intercut with video of the actual competitions.  For its era, this is well handled technically. 

As for Cuba, the release of the film (which, as far as I know has never been made available in the English language) was part of a programme of diplomatic assistance offered to the Cuban gymnastics programme.  Soviet coaches worked with the team, and they tried to inject a spirit of adventure and innovation into their programme.  Casimiro Suarez, a high bar specialist and remarkable tumbler, competed for Cuba at the 1980 Olympics where he qualified to the high bar final; his last international appearance was at the Pan American Games in 1991, where he finished second on vault, and he now works as a coach in the USA.  His compatriot Jorge Cuervo competed at the 1972 Olympics and created the handspring half, back salto vault that is still named to him in the Code of Points.  

Did any of you see the film when it was released in Cuba?  I would be interested to hear your memories.  

Miracle in Pigtails is just one Soviet language film that records some of the history of Soviet gymnastics; these films are popping up on Youtube all the time.

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