In this episode of our Olympic series, we talk about a Romanian teenager who brought laurels to her country at a time when it reels under the weight of Draconian measures. It is also about the conquering the final frontier in a sport where perfection remained for long nothing but a mirage at best.
Nadia Elena Comaneci was barely 14 years of age when she took the Montreal Games by storm in 1976. On a fine Sunday – the very second day of the competition – the Romanian sensation exhibited such artistry in her event that the judges could do all but deduct even a fraction from the 10 point marking scale. So the little girl of just under 5 feet achieved something which till that time no Olympian had ever recorded in gymnastics. A perfect score of 10 – then considered as the ultimate peak in the sports with the bars and the beams – was wrote into the record books under the name of Nadia Comaneci.
Now there is more to that score. The Swiss company Omega which was in charge of the scoreboards since 1932 were helpless to show the score on the display which was one flip-flop (read digit) short. In fact, the company which wanted to make provisions for a 10 was directed by the International Olympic Committee to go ahead with the traditional display units instead of making updated ones, citing a perfect 10 was not achievable. The scoreboard displayed 1.00 instead.
And not only Comaneci broke that myth once but a total seven times – four times on the bars and thrice on the beam. And when the Games concluded, her tally boasted of 3 gold, each silver and bronze a piece – which was an astonishing achievement considering a teenager at her first Games. While she romped off the titles in the all-around, uneven bars and the balance beam events, a star-studded Soviet Union weighed more in front of her individual brilliance – settling herself and her Romanian team mates with silver in the team event. The Little Miss Perfect (as she was fondly called after her gigantic exploits as a small girl) won her the bronze medal in the floor exercise event.
Bela Karolyi who first spotted the gymnastic prowess of Comaneci and took her into his fold was the coach of the Romanian gymnastic team for the Montreal Games. He was a hard task-master which was made public through admittance of many of his apprentices later on accusing him of ill-treatment in his so called boot camps. Under the guidance of Karolyi, Comaneci too was rumoured to have taken up inedibles in mental agony to land up in the hospital which the gymnast later partially admitted. She herself divulged that the training under Karolyi was really very demanding. However, she is also thankful to those ‘hard’ training measures being the stepping stones for her achieving the milestones.
As Comaneci kept winning the European Championships or other significant events in her journey from a teenage sensation to an 18-year old adult, she returned to the Olympics in the politically-polarized Moscow Games in 1980. The judges were accused to be tilted towards the Russian gymnasts who were at home advantage as Comaneci still managed to win gold in two events – the beam balance and the floor exercise. She also took Romania to silver in the team event apart from going down narrowly to Yelena Davydova in the all-around meet.
Comaneci who thought of quitting the sport after a few years post Montreal 1976 was anything but disillusioned and kept on carrying on the bars and the beams until an exhibition tour to the USA which changed the course of her career. On course of the tour, her coach Karolyi and a few of her teammates defected into the American side – Karolyi would go on to coach the US Olympics team in the next Games.
Back at home from the tour, she was kept on close monitoring under the direction of Romanian dictator – Nicolae Ceausescu. In fact, there are many stories which claimed the teenaged Comaneci to have been physically exploited by the dictator’s son Nicu, when she was made the face of sports in Romania followed her feat of perfect 10 – although the gymnast of the century has steered clear through the controversy.
Comaneci who till now remains the only athlete to receive twice the highest Olympic Order from the IOC in 1984 and 2004 respectively never took the the floors post 1981. Later she was associated with the Romanian Gymnastic Federation till she escaped to the USA where she is settled since 1989 – just before the revolts broke out against the Romanian dictator regime. At present, she is a dual citizen of America and Romania.
Forty years have passed since the Romanian’s superhuman feat of scoring the first perfect 10 in a major event. Though nowadays it is neither possible to be an Olympian legally at 14 nor to score a 10 following modifications in scoring format, the feats of Nadia Comaneci will hardly be disturbed statistically – without an iota of doubt regarding its everlasting place on the premier pedestal in the historical timeline.