The Essential Olympic Stories: Nadia Comaneci's odyssey and the perfect 10
THE ESSENTIAL OLYMPIC STORIES – At the age of just 14, the revolutionary gymnast Nadia Comăneci captured the Olympic imagination by achieving the impossible with a perfect and unprecedented 10 during the Montréal Games. If the Romanian phenomenon stunned the entire world in Canada, her story reached far beyond that magical summer of 1976. Laurent Vergne details her brilliance.
The Essential Olympic Stories: The Comăneci phenomenon and the perfect 10
Nadia Comăneci was confused. She thought she had been forgotten, her achievements stored away in the boxes of a glorious but tarnished history. Her country had now changed. There was no more dictatorship; Nicolae Ceauşescu was long gone, along with the suffocating Securitate, the secret police of his communist regime. It had been five years since Comăneci had fled Romania in November 1989, when the country was on the cusp of revolution.
"My return after my defection was private and intensely personal, and I didn't think anyone other than my family would be interested," she writes in her autobiography, Letters to a Young Gymnast, which was published in 2003. "I was so wrong."
When she got off the plane in Bucharest in 1994 with her fiancé Bart Conner, the former American gymnast, a delirious welcome awaited her. "There were thousands of Romanians waving signs and tossing bouquets of flowers," she recounts. "Even the new prime minister was there. It was really something. In my life, I have never felt so lucky or loved by so many people."
But such rapturous applause was hardly a new thing for Comăneci. Back in the summer of 1976, during her triumphant return from Montréal, the little fairy from Oneşti had been celebrated as a queen. The confident woman she had become in the Nineties could now savour what eluded the young child of the seventies, for being the centre of attention as a fragile 14-year-old had terrified Comăneci.
"I remembered the fears I had in 1976 when I was greeted by a screaming crowd after the Montréal Olympics," she says. "I hadn't understood, then, what I'd meant to the people of Romania. How could any child conceive of that?" Almost two decades separated these two different incarnations of the same person. If the second no longer felt the weight of the world on her shoulders, it was also, perhaps, because she had since ceased to be a political pawn. She was simply Nadia Comăneci.
Who can do a cartwheel?
Comăneci was born on December 12, 1961 at Oneşti, three months after the construction of the Berlin Wall. This story begins six years later, in the same small city in Western Moldavia, when a big man with a droopy moustache entered her classroom. Béla Károlyi, a 25-year-old former handball player and discus thrower, would become a central character in her life. Károlyi was scouting for young talents for his brand-new gymnasium school. "Who can do a cartwheel?" he asked. Two hands shot up, including Nadia's. Her fate was sealed.
Gymnastics quickly became her life. Seven days a week, all year round, she trained for three hours per day under the steely supervision of Károlyi. The Károlyis, to be more precise, for Béla worked hand in hand with his wife, Márta, as he explains in the documentary, The Gymnast and the Dictator: "We divided the responsibilities. Márta took the artistic preparation, and particularly the beam performance and floor exercises. My responsibilities were always on the vault and the bars, as well as the general physical conditioning."
It was a tough life for the little girl, but Nadia soon found her groove. On top of her obvious ability and extraordinary versatility (from a very young age, she showed herself at ease on all apparatus), she thrived in this rigid framework, where organisation and discipline were the key words. "My childhood showed me that discipline worked," she says. "If I practised, ate well and turned off my lights at 10pm, I'd be rested and ready for the next day."
Fear of being normal
In her book, Comăneci tells a revealing anecdote about her incredible meticulousness, which proved to be an essential skill for progressing in her sport.
My mother was extremely organised and hated things to be out of place in her home. I took after her. In school, I kept blue pens in one place, black in another. It sounds a little weird and compulsive, but to be 'normal' and do normal things doesn't get you anywhere except normal. I always wanted to be extraordinary.
That she was. More talented than the others, Nadia also worked doubly hard. As Béla Károlyi can testify. "I said, 'Girls, ten push-ups!' And how many did she do? Twenty. That's Nadia. That's the fighter. That's the one who was going to be a big star," he recalls in the documentary. "I always wanted to do more than Béla or Márta asked of me. I wanted to be perfect and I was a very determined young girl," Comăneci confirms. In Béla, Nadia found someone who brought out the best in her. Would she have reached the same heights without her spotter? There is no answer, but the role of this coach, who was every bit as extraordinary as his little champion, cannot be overplayed.
Károlyi was a controversial figure whose excessive demands bordered on cruelty in the eyes of some of his former pupils. But not Comăneci. "If a child just wants to play, then enrol her in a gymnastic program that's designed for play. If she wants to shoot for the moon, then work with Béla," she says. "I don't really understand all the stories that have popped up over the years about Béla's style. I know that he's a good person."
Placing her life in Károlyi's hands
As far as Comăneci is concerned, she remembers Károlyi as a very hard but always fair trainer, someone who was capable of reading her emotions and even cracking the occasional joke. "But in general," she adds, "it's also important to have someone in your life who will challenge you to be your best. Béla did that for me and I feel fortunate that our paths crossed." As a coach, Károlyi was not everyone's cup of tea, but for adia Comăneci, he was the ideal mentor.
Their relationship was based on absolute confidence. In training, from the age of 10, Nadia tried routines of great complexity. But Károlyi was always there to support her. "My life was in Béla's hands," she said, "He quite literally kept me from breaking my neck." The only person who was more exigent with Nadia than the Károlyis was Nadia herself. The slightest error angered her and the admonitions of Béla or Márta were nothing compared to what she inflicted upon herself:
I have always been tough on myself about mistakes.
Talent, work, determination – in all these areas, Comăneci was flying above the competition. Her rise was meteoric. She was only nine years old when she won her first international competition, during a meeting between Romania and Yugoslavia. But her real breakthrough year came in 1975. At 13, Comăneci left her mark on the European Championships with victory in the all-around competition and on all apparatus, except the floor where she only came… runner-up. Just one year away from the Olympics at Montréal, the Romanian was setting out her stall.
Comăneci and the Russian dolls
In Canada, Comăneci would come up against the vanguard of Soviet stars who dominated world gymnastics before her emergence, including Olga Korbut, the so-called Sparrow of Minsk and double gold medallist at the previous Games in Munich; Nellie Kim, the latest little wonder of the Russian school; and Ludmilla Tourischeva, the all-around champion of 1972 and Comăneci's idol.
But within this talented Soviet group, cracks had formed in the months leading up to Montréal. Tourischeva had been angered by the sudden popularity of her younger compatriot Korbut, whom she had outperformed for several seasons but whose charisma was starting to cast her in the shadow. Kim's concurrent rise hardly eased the tensions, either.
Despite Romania's dominance in the European Championships in Skien one year earlier, where Comăneci had won four gold medals, the Soviets remained the benchmark in the eyes of the media. With just the single bronze medal in its entire Olympic history in gymnastics, Romania did not exist on the world stage. Not yet.
Béla Károlyi noticed this bias when he arrived in Montréal and it drove him crazy. "Everyone was excited, it was the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, the media paid zero attention to the Romanian team. The media was kind of directing the attention of the public and the judges, and that happened in Montréal. Arriving, the great Soviet Union team took all the attention. The little Romanian team [went] unnoticed – absolutely ignored. We were doing our regular work out, but the frustration in my heart just accumulated day after day. And I said, 'It's going to come, our time'."
Everything was free
None of this was a concern for Comăneci on arriving in Montréal ahead of the competition. Here, in the West, she discovered a world completely alien to her.
"When I arrived, I was flabbergasted," she recalls in Letters to a Young Gymnast. "The Olympic Village blew my mind – its size and the number of security officials, coaches and athletes in more sports than I'd ever heard of. What I remember most was that everything was free. You were given a badge, and with it, you could see movies in the village's theatre; you could get a soft drink; and you were given matching clothing, bags, hats, and pins. To me, it was so high-tech, so strange and exciting and absolutely wonderful. The first day, I was afraid to close my eyes because I didn't want to miss anything."
Károlyi took it upon himself to keep his star athlete grounded. From the day before the start of the Games, he banned her from going out or even watching television, so as to keep her focused on the task in hand. It was his way of protecting her. He also refused to let his gymnasts attend the opening ceremony because the competition started the next day.
On Sunday, July 18, in the legendary Forum indoor arena – where the Montréal Canadiens played their NHL matches – the events got started with the team competition. If she was already a name in the confined world of gymnastics, the whole world was soon about to discover Nadia Comăneci. After all, it would only take 19 seconds for her to write herself into Olympic folklore, and to revolutionise her sport by drawing a before and an after line through the sand of her discipline.
Her first routine on the uneven bars was devoid of even the slightest micro-fault before being capped with a dismount of dizzying difficulty. Comăneci saluted the judges, smiled, and waited. After about 30 seconds, and while she was already warming up for her next routine on the beam, her mark flashed up on the scoreboard: 1.00. It would become one of the most famous images in the history of the Olympic Games – and it took a while for everyone to understand what had happened.
"The crowd was silent, confused," she remembers. "No one knew what 1.00 meant. Béla gestured to the judges to ask what my score meant, ready for a fight. A Swedish judge held up ten fingers. The reason my score had shown as 1.00 was that the scoreboard didn't have the programmed ability to flash a 10 because the organisers had never had the need for one before. Béla came over to me, and I asked, 'Mr. Professor, was that really a 10?' He beamed and said yes. It is rare for me to show emotion on the outside, but I did smile then, and when one of my teammates told me to go up and wave to the crowd, I did that, too. Promptly, I forgot about the 10 and moved on to the beam."
Despite this being the first "perfect 10" in Olympic history, the greater consistency of the Soviet team across the board was enough to ensure they took the gold medal. In any case, Comăneci was blown away by Romania's silver medal. What's more, she emerged from the first two days of competition with a substantial lead over Tourischeva and Kim in the individual all-around competition.
The Comăneci salto
After her historic 10 on the uneven bars, Nadia notched two more "perfect 10s" during the team event – on the beam and then on her second outing on the bars. But that first occasion was arguably the greatest moment of these exceptional Games. There, Nadia outdid even herself. The nervous murmurs of the public during each of her sequences reflected both the collective admiration and fear of seeing her fall while performing such a difficult repertoire.
But her command was absolute, capped with a daring a salto, or somersault flip, never before seen on the high bar. From that day forward, it would be called the "Comăneci salto" – one of two moves on the uneven bars named after her. As Nadia herself explains:
To perform a Comăneci salto, the gymnast begins in a support position on the high bar. She casts away from the bar and performs a straddled front somersault and regrasps the same bar. Gymnastics skills are rated from the easiest move to the most difficult. An A move is the easiest, then there are B, C, D, E, and Super E moves. The Super E is the most difficult, and usually, only a few gymnasts in the world can perform one. The Comăneci salto is rated an E move. Even now, many years after the 1976 Olympics, very few gymnasts attempt it because it is so difficult.
Beyond the general public, the experts were terrified by the physically taxing dismount. Joseph Goehler, a German sports historian and gymnastics specialist, would voice his quasi-incredulity after the Games in International Gymnast magazine: "From a biomechanical viewpoint, this is hardly conceivable." And Max Bangerter, the secretary general of the International Gymnastics Federation, led an unsuccessful campaign to ban the move on the grounds that it could lead to pelvic fractures.
Seven "perfect 10s", five medals, three titles
Wednesday, July 21. The Forum had become the epicentre of the Games for the end of the individual all-around competition. All of Montréal's photographers gathered in the hall to observe the new queen of the summer of '76. The day of coronation for Princess Comăneci. With four tenths of an advantage over Kim, the protégé of Károlyi could see it coming. Two new flawless passages on the beam and uneven bars were rewarded with two new scores of 10 which secured her the Olympic title. The Soviets Kim and Tourischeva stood either side of her on the podium, but all eyes were on Comăneci. Not merely at the Forum, but all over the world.
Having qualified for all the individual apparatus finals, Comăneci collected an additional three medals: bronze on the floor, and gold (of course) on the uneven bars and the beam. In less than a week, she had revolutionised gymnastics on both apparatus, upon which all seven of her perfect scores came.
If the bars were always her favourite exercise – "Bars require a lot of thinking – and I loved the precision, the angles, and the complexity" – it was perhaps on the beam that she could show the true scope of her ability, blending grace, finesse, elegance, speed of execution, technical perfection and physical performance. The great sportswriter Antoine Blondin would describe her as a "ballerina and sylph" who passed from one bar to another "in a flexible flash of a parakeet," who balanced on the beam like "a wood pigeon on the edge of a roof" and whose "touch turns the pommel horse into Pegasus by giving it wings".
Her performances in Montréal certainly ensured that all 14 years, 39 kilos and 150 centimetres of Nadia Comăneci forever associated her name with gymnastics and the Olympics. But both at the time and looking back, it seems that Comăneci experienced those days as if they happened to a character she read about in a book. This detachment from her accomplishments may surprise, but also helps explain her success.
"No one knows when he or she is about to make history," she says of her first perfect 10.
There is no warning and no instruction manual on how to handle the moment. I can only tell you that it was business as usual as I swung onto the uneven bars.
In her Letters to a Young Gymnast, written 27 years after Montréal, Comăneci appears no more astounded at her global impact, summarising her achievements clinically and coldly: "I won the all-around gold medal as well as an individual gold on bars and beams and a bronze on floor… and made history. It was my job. I accomplished my goals, everyone's goals, but winning a competition wasn't an enormous surprise. Very simply, that is what I was supposed to do."
It was those perfect 10s, more than her medals, that really propelled Comăneci into the spotlight. The repetition of those flawless scores of 10 at Montréal (Kim would also achieve them twice, on the floor and on the vault) would eventually tire the public who, in the last days of the Games, cried out, "No more 10! No more 10!". It was a clear case of the exceptional becoming common currency. But without these historic 10s, the explosion of the Comăneci bomb would not have had the same impact. What's more, the glitch with the scoreboard only ended up increasing her mythical status.
If you're not convinced, ask yourself if you have ever heard of Nikolai Andrianov. Nikolai who? Apart from the purists, his name hardly leaps off the page. At Montréal, however, the Soviet gymnast struck even harder than Comăneci with seven medals of which four were gold. But the revolutionary thrust of Oneşti's young gymnast left a far deeper impression.
There was something mysterious and unfathomable about this exceedingly young woman programmed like a computer to win by the Károlyis. But for all Comăneci's exceptional ability, she remained a child – something which gave rise to several funny anecdotes at Montréal.
For instance, when she first entered the Olympic village, the attentive security – four years after the bombings at the Munich Games – refused to let her in, taking her for a kid curious to see the stars. Nadia was not wearing her national tracksuit and it took the intervention of the head of the Romanian delegation, who had been summoned in a panic, to grant her entry. "Believe me, in a few days you will recognise her when she wants to enter the village," he said pointedly to the guards.
More important than Romania itself
Other, more painful, episodes were more testing for Comăneci. In high demand, she was forced to appear at numerous press conferences. She knew a few words of French but did not speak any English and found the pack of reporters upsetting. These obligations turned into an ordeal. When asked, "Right now, what is your greatest wish?", she replied, "To go home." All of a sudden, she seemed much younger than her 14 years.
The Comăneci phenomenon played out on the covers of all the biggest magazines. 'She's Perfect,' said Time Magazine. 'She Stole The Games,' ran Sports Illustrated. 'A Star Is Born,' added Newsweek. It was only when leaving Montréal, at the airport, that she noticed all the newspaper headlines. All this was too much for her to digest. But the biggest shock was awaiting her return to Romania. "It was scary," she admits in her book, "all those years when nobody cared and now, suddenly, everyone was pushing, pulling, and trying to touch me."
At Bucharest, an official ceremony was even organised by the government. From the hands of Nicolae Ceauşescu in person, she received the honour of Hero of Socialist Labour, the most prestigious decoration of the country. Such scenes of jubilation and multiple distinctions would create the sensation in her of "having become more important than Romania itself". It all became more of a burden than an honour.
Glory and setbacks
The post-Montréal period was complicated for Comăneci. Her relationship with Károlyi became strained in 1977. More demanding than ever, her coach and mentor came up against an adolescent who was now ready to face him down. "I was trying to stretch my wings and grow up," she explains, "and like any teenager, I had the desire and need to be on my own. I saw girls my age dating, going to movies, driving cars. I wanted those things, too. All of a sudden, there were other attractions, and because I was sixteen and knew that my career would end sooner, not later, my focus drifted. I started arriving late to training. Béla was not at all used to seeing me so defiant like this."
One year after the Games, at the European Championships at Prague, she nevertheless won the all-around title again, followed by gold on the uneven bars. But the Romanian delegation, on the orders of the government, walked out on the competition in the middle of the apparatus finals in protest of the score received by Comăneci on the vault. This was how the rest of her career would pan out – shifting between glory and setbacks. Take Moscow 1980, for instance.
Montréal seemed a world away now. Comăneci was now 18 years old and had grown almost six inches and had put on 21 pounds in weight. She had also just come through two nightmarish years after being separated from the Károlyis – who Ceauşescu opposed on the alleged grounds of their Hungarian descent – and was forced to train in a new structure at Bucharest. Struggling with these changes, Nadia sank into depression. There were even rumours of a suicide attempt, which she has always denied.
Sportingly, Romania was no longer untouchable, despite a new European title in 1979 and a team gold medal at the worlds in the same year – a great first for her country. But with the 1980 Olympics in Moscow approaching, Ceauşescu backtracked and ordered Károlyi to train Nadia again, in a bid to get her back to her best.
In the mouth of the lion's den
The Moscow Games started with a drama. Comăneci's new great rival, Elena Mukhina, the world champion in 1978, broke her neck during a training jump two weeks before the opening of the Games. Consequently, the title played out between Comăneci and another Soviet gymnast, Elena Davydova. The destiny of the gold medal in the all-around competition came down to Nadia's final routine on the beam, where she needed a 9.95 to take the victory.
Despite a slight hesitation on a jump, she seemed to have fulfilled her side of the bargain. But it would take the judges a tense 28 minutes to deliver their verdict, their overall score of 9.85 coming down to dual scores of 9.8 from the Soviet and Polish judges. Nadia was forced to accept the silver medal. Károlyi protested and caused a scene. "I sat down and I watched Béla run all over the place," Comăneci recalls.
I have heard that Béla got into a lot of trouble when he returned to Romania for making a scene about the fairness of the judges' scores. He was forced to explain to the central committee why he had insulted our Soviet friends.
"That's when I thought they were going to arrest me and put me away," Károlyi admits in The Gymnast and the Dictator. "But they didn't pick me up. Why, I will never know. Probably because we were too well known."
But deep down, Comăneci knew that she had lost the gold medal two days earlier, during the opening routines, following an uncharacteristic fall on the uneven bars. "Elena had simply been better," she admits. "I'd made a mistake; losing gold was my fault alone. And still, I'd moved from fourth to second, and that was satisfying in its own right. A friend told me that the people believed we'd been cheated and were filled with hate for the Russians. But I just lost my concentration and fell."
Béla takes flight
Moscow would be the queen's last big outing. In 1981, at almost 20 years of age, Comăneci drew the curtain down on her sporting career. The same year, Károlyi fled Romania during a gala event in New York. With tensions increasing at home, he decided to stay in the United States with his wife – temporarily leaving their seven-year-old daughter with relatives in Romania.
Across the Atlantic, Károlyi would apply his methods with identical success: in 1984, at the Los Angeles Games, the American Mary Lou Retton – under Károlyi's tutelage – won the gold medal in the all-around competition. Retton had been eight years old in 1976 when, transfixed in front of the television, she was inspired to take up gymnastics while watching Comăneci at work. Yet another example of Nadia's global reach.
Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton scores a perfect 10 in the vault to win the gold medal, then runs over and hugs her coach Bela Karolyi and another assisting coach who's unidentified
Image credit: Getty Images
When the Károlyis took the plunge, Comăneci could well have joined them. Informed of their decision to stay in the States, she chose, despite everything, to return home to Romania. She was rewarded with the most troubling period of her life. After Károlyi's departure, the shackles grew tighter. Put under constant surveillance, she saw her every act and gesture scrutinised by a regime which could not afford to see its leading national treasure flee the country.
"My life drastically changed after the Károlyis defected," she says.
I was no longer allowed to travel outside Romania because the government feared I would defect as well. There was no one to talk to about how I was feeling. In Romania at the time, two out of three people were informants. A person couldn't even trust her own shadow. I started to feel like a prisoner. In reality, I had always been one. I was forbidden from travelling, I had no intimate relationships, and I had to fight every month to have enough to eat. One day, I realised that I'd reached a dead end.
A plan to leave germinated in her head, as it had done with Károlyi. The danger and the logistical difficulty of such a project was compounded by the fear of leaving her family – her parents and her brother, Adrian. But in 1989, she decided to take the plunge. "We heard everywhere else in Eastern Europe that there were signs of change. But I was still behind the curtain. When I began to fantasise about my defection, my mind came alive and it almost seemed like anything was possible. Freedom was there if I was willing to risk everything to obtain it. But was I?"
Fleeing from what, exactly?
Her escape, at the end of November 1989, was worthy of a novel in itself. It was organised by Constantin Panait, a Romanian who was madly in love with Comăneci. A notorious crook, Panait would line his pockets once his mission was accomplished and he had become a naturalised American living in the United States. In fleeing, Nadia left behind her relatives and her Olympic medals, which her brother hid in a wall so that the regime couldn't take them away.
With Panait and five other companions, she walked six hours through the night to reach the Hungarian border from a house at which she had attended a party. The terrain was icy and at one point they reached a frozen lake.
As soon as we all put our weight on the ice, it cracked and we fell into knee-deep water. It was cold as hell. Please, God, I thought, just let me make it to the other side without the bottom of the lake getting deeper and the water going over my head.
But they got to the other side. And after another six hours in a car, they reached Austria, where she entered the American Embassy in Vienna. On December 1, Comăneci arrived in New York, where a press conference was organised at JFK Airport. Her life after Romania could finally begin. Just over six years later, Comăneci would return to Romania under happier circumstances – to marry Bart Conner in Bucharest in a ceremony at the former presidential palace that was televised live throughout Romania.
But what exactly was Comăneci fleeing from in those final days of dictatorship? For thirty years now, this escape – worthy of any blockbuster film – has been the subject of speculation and rumour. Did she flee the regime or possible reprisals from opponents of Ceauşescu? Why did she leave it so late to escape? When she fled Romania, the Berlin Wall had already fallen three weeks previously. The days of the "Conducator" seemed numbered. Indeed, Ceauşescu and his wife Elena fell from their pedestal that Christmas and were unceremoniously executed in a courtyard following a trial.
"There will always be discussions about the moment she chose to defect and leave the country," the Romanian sports journalist Luminita Paul says in The Gymnast and the Dictator. "If there was something she knew, if there was something she anticipated…"
Comăneci's Ceauşescu complex
For some, Nadia Comăneci was a privileged person with close ties to Ceauşescu. There were even rumours from her time as a champion during the supposedly idyllic period of the 80s that linked her romantically to the dictator's womanising son, Nicusor. She always denied this alleged status. "I was living on 100 dollars a month – it wasn't enough to pay the heating bill," she stresses.
Gaby Geiculescu, a former teammate in the national team, did not believe in this notion of Comăneci swimming in the regime's wealth: "I don't think Romania, during that time, was treating her a lot different from someone working in a factory. She was always invited in front of international personalities, she was a big token, but how much did they really care about her? I doubt about it. Ceauşescu did not like that she had so much attention from the international world."
If a certain veil of doubt has remained, it is clearly because Comăneci has never wanted to talk about this period. Not out of fear, but pride. She felt that justifying herself was beneath her. "I think to this day that many Romanians still have misconceptions about exactly what I left behind," she admits in her book. "They assumed I sacrificed wealth, an enormous home, expensive cars, jewellery, and luxurious comfort. It makes me uncomfortable to correct those misconceptions about me, even today, because I still find the entire situation humiliating. I have fierce pride, and sometimes it can get in the way."
Nadia Comăneci preserves her past and her secrets. In her autobiography, she writes: "Do you know what they say about stories? That there are always three versions – yours, mine, and the truth. This is mine." One thing is certain, from Oneşti to the United States, from child superstar to fulfilled woman, from Bela Károlyi to Bart Conner, Nadia Comăneci's is a story unlike any other.
Written by Laurent Vergne, translated by Felix Lowe