By People Staff
March 04, 1991 12:00 PM

She was little-girl pigtails and 85 lbs. of energy when she first appeared at the Munich Olympics in 1972, captivating the world with her acrobatic grace and halogen smile while winning three gold medals and a silver for the Soviet Union. In the process, 17-year-old Olga Korbut helped turn Olympic gymnastics, once an esoteric sideshow to American audiences, into a quadrennial prime-time attraction.

Today the impish grin that charmed the world has all but vanished, a casualty of one of the bitterest realities of life in the Soviet Union. Korbut, now 35 and living in Minsk, Byelorussia, is suffering from thyroid problems and exhaustion related to radiation poisoning following the April 26, 1986, nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, 180 miles from her home. In desperation, Korbut and her husband, Leonid Bortkevich, 41, a folk-rock star, have sent their only child, Richard, 12, to live with friends in East Brunswick, N.J., while they stay in Minsk to help with relief efforts.

For Korbut, that means using her celebrity to publicize an insidious problem that won’t go away—and which much of the world has all but forgotten. Although nearly five years have passed since the accident, cities, villages, farmlands and food remain contaminated through much of the Soviet republic of Byelorussia. With a region roughly the size of Maine most heavily affected, 50,000 people have already been relocated, and another 150,000 urgently need to be moved but cannot find housing. Lack of information and distrust of the government have made people acutely anxious. Many fear that the water they drink and the food they eat will eventually kill them. Indeed, overburdened hospitals testify to the radiation’s effects: increases in leukemia, twice as many thyroid-related ailments in children, a 700 percent increase in anemia and twice as many birth defects. Korbut recently visited the U.S. on behalf of the Emergency Help for Children Foundation, a child-oriented relief organization set up by Victoria Farahan, a 27-year-old Soviet émigré who teaches Russian at Indiana University. With Farahan interpreting, Korbut spoke to correspondent Bill Shaw about her deteriorating health and the frightening future that she and her people now face.

I was at my home in Minsk when Chernobyl happened, and they didn’t tell us for three or four days. You in the West knew first. When people began hearing bits of information, they felt panicky. They were afraid to drink the water, breathe the air, afraid of everything. We were all outdoors, because it was close to the May 1 celebration, and we were planting gardens and enjoying the spring. If they had told us Chernobyl had exploded, we would have stayed inside and maybe avoided those early heavy doses of radiation.

We first were told only about the accident. Then there were articles in the paper saying the radiation levels were safe, but many people heard news from the West and felt our authorities were not telling the truth. We’ve only been told the real extent of the damage within the past year.

It has been five years since the Chernobyl explosion, but people are still very frightened, very scared and very angry. Our food and water supply is contaminated, and we suffer sicknesses from radiation. Many Byelorussians have enlarged thyroid glands, and we feel weak and dispirited. At first people had a lot of vomiting and diarrhea; now we have headaches all the time, and we always feel tired and weary. When it rains, we cover our heads, because we’re afraid it will rain more radiation on us.

A regional hospital in Minsk has records of 7,000 children with leukemia, which they think resulted from radiation poisoning. I asked the chief administrator, what is it that you need? She said everything. They don’t have such elementary things as the equipment to test bone marrow or to be able to read the condition of each child. They don’t even have enough infant formula and vitamins.

When I went to the hospital myself last spring for liver problems [unrelated to radiation], even with my connections I could not get disposable syringes. We found a needle, and we boiled it and boiled it. It was so dull I couldn’t finish the therapy to improve my liver function. Some dentists don’t allow their own families to have dental care because of the lack of disposable needles and the fear of AIDS. And I am relatively privileged; imagine how it is for the other people of Byelorussia. It’s like Japan after the atomic bomb, when people were dying and suffering for years. You learn to accept people dying.

It’s strange that people used to tell me that I was always smiling, but now I don’t much. I’m luckier than most, because I don’t mind doing without meat and milk. Those are the most contaminated foods. We try to eat foods that are brought into Byelorussia rather than those grown there, but there are food shortages throughout the Soviet Union. And this used to be the feeding ground of the Soviet Union. Now it is poisoned.

When I went into the schools in Byelorussia, I learned that the first graders have never been in the forest. Byelorussia used to be the republic of mushroom-gathering, berry-hunting, flower-gathering. Now people don’t go into the woods, because the trees are so contaminated. In some schools, when children want to see what nature used to be like, they go into a little courtyard inside the building, and the teacher says, “This is a bird and this is a tree,” and they are plastic. Isn’t that sad? Plastic birds and plastic trees.

Leonid and I always wanted another child, but now we can’t have one. When we were tested, our doctor said the radioactivity levels in our bodies were probably above normal. They told us the chances would be high that we would produce a genetically unhealthy child. Radiation damages the gene structure of the unborn. How high our radiation is, they don’t tell us. They can’t say because medical technology in Byelorussia is at such rudimentary levels, and the radiation-measuring gadgets are so crude they can’t give us exact numbers. There is nothing we can do anyway, so why have a panic?

There are many young people dying from cancers. There are some people who were perfectly healthy and all of a sudden come down with severe illnesses we haven’t heard of. On the streets of Minsk there used to be many pregnant women, but now you see fewer and fewer. They are scared and cautious.

If I were 20 and didn’t have any kids, I would probably take a chance and get pregnant, but I’m not willing to risk conceiving or delivering a child in Byelorussia. It’s so hard, because if we stay away, my chances of having a healthy child are better. But it is our home, all our families are here, so it makes us torn.

I’ve even had to send my young son away to save his health. Most of the doctors say the biggest thing you can do for kids is take them out of the country. But so many people can’t do that. How do you take them out? Where do you take them to?

I have never dreamed in the past of leaving my son behind in the U.S. He’s an only child, and the three of us were always together. He has only been there since July, but when I visited him in October, he looked healthier already. He is now receiving all the foods and vitamins a growing child needs. My most firm wish is that other Byelorussian children could be receiving it as well. We try to call as often as possible and hope to visit him again in the spring. He is growing up. but he understands it is better for him to be in the U.S. The only way to reduce radiation levels in your body is to get away from the source.

I would like everyone in the world to be aware of how terrible it is in Byelorussia. Maybe we can only save one child or two children. I hope there are people in this world who want to help. No matter how little or how large, it will count.

When I visit hospitals, doctors beg me to do something, because I know people in the West. There are no machines for chemotherapy or drug therapy, so children who might have a chance to be put into remission are getting progressively worse. The whole Soviet Union is going through a difficult time. We can’t find produce or meat or anything you need for a normal existence. It seems as if the economy is on a roller coaster and is going down and nobody knows when it will stop. I’ve never seen in my entire life such a lack of everything.

Let’s be frank. Although I’ve retired from gymnastics, I enjoy a privileged position compared with others in the Soviet Union. In the past when I would come to the Slates, I would buy blue jeans and shoes. Now you see what I buy. I buy dry goods, chicken bouillon cubes and dry fruit juices. When I go home, it’s hard to even walk outside, because I see the suffering of people and it hurts me. But I feel I must stay, because I have the responsibility to help my people with my contacts in the West.

We are trying to raise funds to build a pediatric center in the Soviet Union to care for children hurt by Chernobyl. But that is so far away, because now we don’t even have disposable needles. We need radiation detectors, prenatal vitamins, baby food. We have files of hundreds of children who need help, but we can help so few. How do you look at pictures of adorable children of equal desperation and make a decision which one to help? People come up to me in Minsk and beg me to get help in the U.S. for their children. Minsk doesn’t even have a pediatric hospital to treat the children of Chernobyl.

I feel guilty drawing attention to my problems when others have it much worse. But because people in the U.S. know me, maybe my position will make people pay attention to what’s happening. I think if the children of America were sick and dying, the people of the Soviet Union would try to help. It’s very sad in my country. We don’t smile anymore, and we used to be a happy people.

Although the lack of pre-Chernobyl data makes precise measurement of Chernobyl’s medical effects impossible, Victor Sokolovsky, spokesman for the Byelorussian Mission to the UN, says that one-fifth of Byelorussia’s 11 million inhabitants are now suffering varying degrees of radiation contamination and that one-third of these are children. “The peak of these cancer-related diseases will be in 1993-94, because it takes from eight to 10 years for the cancers to develop in full,” he says. “So we expect an explosion of diseases then. At the hospital in our capital of Minsk, children are dying of the cancers every day.”

Since its founding last July, the Emergency Help for Children Foundation has been soliciting medical supplies and financial aid for those children. Contributions may be sent to its headquarters at P.O. Box 435, Carmel, Ind., 46032.