Olga Korbut, the first world superstar of gymnastics, has sold her Olympic medals with conflicting reports on why she called in the auctioneers.

Korbut, aged 61, was the darling of the 1972 Olympic Games, when the tiny Soviet gymnast charmed a world audience as she won three golds and a silver. Korbut won a further gold and silver at the Montreal Olympics four years later.

Korbut, who lives in Arizona, told AAP: "This is Olympic history, and I would like to share with the whole world. They helped to make it history and make it live forever. This is how I wanted to share with the people."

Korbut's 1972 balance beam gold was reportedly stolen from a Moscow museum but the other five medals were among items which fetched about $330,000 in total.

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NBC described Korbut as " (springing) onto the Olympic scene like a bottle rocket, a 4-foot-11 (1.49m) pigtailed waif who turned gymnastics on its head".

Russia's Gazeta.ru.news reported Korbut had financial difficulties.

"Medals saved Korbut from hunger," a headline claimed.

Heritage Auctions said there was "hardly a gymnast alive who doesn't credit this tiny force of nature for the explosion of the sport's popularity on a global level".

The trophies sold included the 1972 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award, various Soviet medals and a signed magazine cover.