HRODNO, Belarus -- Though her breathtaking “Korbut flip,” darling smile, and pigtails captivated the sporting world when she won three gold medals as a 17-year-old at the 1972 Munich Olympics, legendary Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut has since said that behind the glory she suffered sexual abuse.
Her longtime coach, Renald Knysh, has consistently denied Korbut’s accusations that he raped her before the Munich games and serially abused her before and after them.
But new accusations have emerged in exclusive interviews with RFE/RL's Belarus Service that lend further credence to Korbut's account, with four of Korbut’s former teammates accusing the iconic coach of sexual assault on rides home from training and other abuses when the women were teens.
"I never thought there would come a time in my life where everyone would know about what [Knysh did to us],” said Halina Chasnouskaya, who was a member of the Soviet gymnastics team, like Korbut, and has alleged abuse during the time she was coached by Knysh.
“He was a scumbag and he mocked us,” she told RFE/RL in an interview at her home in the Belarusian city of Hrodno.
Knysh, who is now 86 and an honorary citizen of Hrodno, where he lives with his current wife, called Korbut's rape accusation "bullshit" and dismissed specific incidents cited by the women as fabrications.
Another gymnast, Halina Karcheuskaya, who was trained by Knysh from about 1958 to 1966, described one incident that she said incurred months of punishment in training when she rebuffed his advances.
“[Knysh] had a Volga car.... I was about 14,” Karcheuskaya told RFE/RL. “At around 6 p.m. you come [to the training], and he will keep you there training until 10:30 p.m. Then shower and it is 11 p.m....[and] time to go home. And he says, ‘Come on, I'll give you a lift.’ And the last passenger he has, he...” she said as her voice trailed off.
“He drops off one girl, then another one, and then drives further with only me in the car,” Karcheuskaya continued. “Then he starts touching me. I, of course, use my hands and legs to stop him -- I was physically strong. I grew up with older brothers and always knew how to protect myself. He drives me further to a forest. We had a thick forest right next to the city. It is almost midnight. He stops the car. I jump out and run into the forest. He turns the car around and leaves me there.
“I absolutely could not stand the darkness...[and] I was not just cold down to my bones, I was shivering. Twenty minutes later, he comes back and says, ‘Get in, you barbell.’ He then had me doing barbell [exercises during our training sessions] for months [for rejecting his advances].”
Karcheuskaya, now 72, said she even managed to jump out of the car as it was moving when she noticed he was turning off toward the forest.
Knysh told RFE/RL that no such incident ever happened.
Lyudmila Rabkova, another member of the Soviet gymnastics team, trained together with Karcheuskaya and Korbut and said she had similar experiences with Knysh.
"Everyone [on the team] was harassed, for sure,” she told RFE/RL in Hrodno. “I started to train at the age of 12...and he started harassing me at age 15.
“I was always shaking when he took me home last. I would come home and my mother would ask, ‘What's the matter with you? Are you hurt?’ And I would answer, ‘No, just tired [from the training].
“If my parents had found out [what he was doing to us], my father, an officer, would have shot him.”
Karcheuskaya and Rabkova told RFE/RL that Knysh's harassment was mild in the beginning but that when gymnasts resisted his advances, he became aggressive.
The former teammates were asked if Knysh had touched their breasts.
"If only just the chest -- I will not tell [where he touched me]. Who would want to talk about that filth?" said Karcheuskaya. "If [Knysh] had not poured dirt on Olga [Korbut], we would not have recalled all of this about him."
RFE/RL also spoke with Korbut's older sister, Lyudmila Bazhko, who also trained in the late 1960s as a gymnast coached by Knysh.
She began to cry as she talked about Knysh's alleged harassment of her sister.
"It's [a] very difficult [issue] for our family," she said. "[It's] very painful."
Karcheuskaya and Rabkova said that Knysh routinely made dirty jokes, recited vulgar poems, and used words with sexual connotations. They refused to repeat them for publication.
The four former Soviet gymnasts also spoke of Knysh awkwardly giving them sex toys and pornographic magazines.
Korbut -- who emigrated with her husband and son to the United States in 1991 -- first spoke publicly of alleged mistreatment by Knysh in 1999. He denied her accusations at the time.
The issue arose again on April 3, when Korbut appeared on the popular Russian First Channel talk show Let Them Have Their Say.
Korbut was in the studio discussing the harassment and other abuse she claims to have suffered under Knysh, who later in the show appeared via Skype, denying her allegations. (See the video below.) They began arguing, with many people in the studio audience seemingly blaming Korbut for any harassment that may have occurred.
Knysh was investigated by Soviet officials in 1981 after a young gymnast in Hrodno overdosed on nitroglycerin in an attempt to kill herself -- leaving behind a suicide note that cited Knysh as the reason she wanted to die.
An investigation was begun, said Mikalay Kuzmich, who was a senior police investigator in Hrodno at the time, after the girl's parents accused Knysh of raping, corrupting, and inciting their daughter to attempt suicide.
The unnamed woman, who survived, said Knysh had begun a relationship with her when she was 14 years old. Knysh denied having a sexual relationship with the girl, who lived in his apartment building.
Although Korbut was questioned during the investigation, she did not mention any sexual assault allegations against Knysh.
The case was eventually dismissed for lack of evidence.
Kuzmich told RFE/RL the dismissal was justifiable -- it was not dropped because of Knysh's status.
Considered one of gymnastics' pioneering coaches, Knysh stopped working in the sport after that case and spent time in various Soviet cities for about a decade before returning to Hrodno, where he now lives with his wife, also named Olga and a former pupil of his.
"This is such bullshit!" Knysh told RFE/RL in response to Korbut's accusations, in an interview at his modest Hrodno apartment. "The horror! How could I?"
He denied assaulting the teens and called the reports that he gave young gymnasts pornographic material and sex toys "a lie and an abomination!"
"Among all Olympic champions, there is a [common thread], in which the more they put down their coach, the more they promote themselves," he said to explain Korbut's motivation for airing the charges against him.
Knysh added that the more the gymnasts "humiliate someone, the more they exalt themselves."
He said that young gymnasts were always trying to "become [the coach's] mistress or wife."
Knysh was Korbut's trainer for nearly 10 years, with the four-time gold-medal winner (three golds in Munich and one in Montreal in 1976) leaving him to train with a former assistant of his in 1974.
Korbut -- whose sale of her medals in 2017 for some $330,000 was widely covered -- now coaches female gymnasts in Scottsdale, Arizona, and is engaged to be married for the third time later this year.
The four gymnasts defend their accusations against Knysh.
"Even if [the abuse] did not end in sexual intercourse in the usual sense of the word," Karcheuskaya told RFE/RL, "I understand that [what he did] is absolutely a crime."
The statute of limitations for rape in Belarus is 15 years, and shorter for less serious charges.
"Everyone knew," she added, "but the first [priority was winning] medals. We paid the price for that."