Sometimes, the reminders that 44 years have passed since Nadia Comaneci’s seven perfect 10s are blunter than she would like. “Every year at home in Oklahoma, I run a three-day event with my husband for children to try sports for free,” she says. “The posters in the arena are all of me at the 1976 Olympics, at 14 years old. So, I go into the elevator, one of the mothers looks at me and nudges her daughter to say, ‘Look, it’s Nadia in real life’. She stares at me, turns to her mum and says in shock, ‘She’s alive’.”
Comaneci still looks implausibly young at 58, just as she is remembered as the tender, pony-tailed teenager who belied her image of delicacy by electrifying the Montreal Games with routines of pyrotechnic perfection.
For all that a gaping hole has been left, this week, by the absence of Simone Biles’s final performances in Tokyo. Olympic gymnastics, for many, will remain forever defined by Comaneci’s immaculate repertoires. To score one 10, on the uneven bars, was an unparalleled feat, but to do it six more times? It is a moment that will endure far beyond her own lifetime.
These days, Comaneci could be forgiven for growing jaded at seeing her story framed solely by that summer of ’76. On a video call from the family home, she picks up a montage of photographs charting her career and laughs: “I’m still surrounded by these things. I have to sign them all the time.”
And yet she savours the fact that her accomplishments, especially in her native Romania, are safe for posterity.
“I received this phone call to say that Onesti, the little city where I was born, was proclaiming July 18 as a public holiday, because that was the day I achieved my first 10,” she says. “From now on, even when I’m not going to be around, this day will tell the tale of a little girl who flipped around upside down and who, after a few years, became the best in the world. It’s a huge honour for me.”
There have been many efforts to depict Comaneci, born in the Carpathian Mountains to a car mechanic and a factory labourer, as an unwilling pawn in a totalitarian system, coerced through an unyielding training regime into burnishing the greater glory of Romania. It is a portrayal she vigorously disputes. “When I look at all that happened almost half a century ago, I think of the intuition I had to find the right way to manage everything,” she reflects.
“It started with me having too much energy, my mum finding a little place for me to play in a gym, starting to compete, travelling all over the world at nine, 10 years old. Many children in Romania haven’t even seen the other sides of the rivers where they live. But I learnt French, English, I made many friends. I wanted to do it. I never saw myself doing anything else.”
Her distinction as the youngest Olympic all-around champion is unlikely ever to be challenged, given that the gymnasts must now turn 16 in the same calendar year as the Games to be eligible to compete. Comaneci does not believe, though, that as a 14-year-old, she was thrust into the arc lights of global fame before her time. “I was ready,” she says. “I had performed at international level when I was even younger.”
There was an incredulous reception when her dazzling speed on Montreal’s bars was rewarded with a 10, not least because the scoreboard, incapable of registering technical flawlessness, displayed 10.0 as 1.00. “When I landed, I thought a 9.9 would be appropriate,” she recalls. “I was already thinking about the beam, my next apparatus. I heard the noise, I saw a ‘1’ flash up, so I looked at my team-mate and shrugged, ‘What’s going on?’ She smiled, ‘I think it’s a 10’.”
Her capacity for delivering without the tiniest fault is one she ascribes not just to the fearlessness of youth but to her immersion in her craft.
“On bars, I always wanted to create something crazy that no one had done before. When I can do those things, I feel free. “I was not only doing gymnastics, I was studying it. I was thinking: ‘If I do this pirouette on the beam, and all the time I fall on the right side, then what’s the problem?’
“People who go into the details to understand right from wrong are the ones who climb a little faster.”
By the time she flew back to Bucharest, Nadia-mania had reached an overwhelming pitch. “I was supposed to come down the stairs with the entire team,” she says. “But the fact that there were about 10,000 people at the airport made me aware that this was far bigger than I had anticipated. I was shocked by it. So I turned around and got back on the plane.”
Still at school, and knowing that she still had at least one more Olympics left in her, Comaneci wrestled with what she could possibly conjure as an encore. “I’ll tell you something, you can go down fast from there. It takes the same amount of work, or even more work, to stay at that level. You can’t score an 11.”
The tensions surrounding Moscow 1980, styled by the Romanians as the “first all-Communist Olympics”, made her quest for a repeat doubly fraught. “I didn’t see there being a political dimension,” Comaneci insists. “What matters is, ‘Am I prepared enough? Am I good enough?’ It looked like a rivalry, because there always was one between Romania and the Soviet Union, but I thought only of doing what I did better than anybody else.”
Ultimately, Comaneci lost the all-around title to her Soviet rival, Yelena Davydova, sparking histrionic protests from her coach, Bela Karolyi, about the judging. Nine years later, just a few weeks before the revolution that overthrew Nicolae Ceaucescu, she defected from Romania, her escape secured by a six-hour night-time trek across frozen rivers. “I had the sense that I could do more,” she explains. “Plus, it was about the freedom that everybody needed at the time, not knowing how quickly things would change in Romania.”
Life is more peaceful now, as Comaneci couples her work supporting the Special Olympics for Laureus with her role at the gymnastics academy she runs in Oklahoma with her husband, Bart Conner.
But she cannot help but be grieved by the recent abuse scandals that have convulsed the sport in the United States. “A lot of horrible things have happened over the past few years,” she says. “This is the perfect time, not only in gymnastics, where every organisation has to find the best rules and laws to implement safety everywhere.”
She has hope, too, that her son, Dylan, a talented gymnast in his own right, can keep the family flame burning while she savours retirement. “He wants to practise skills that we didn’t do in the Seventies,” she says, proudly. “And he’s 14. That’s an age that resonates with me.”
- Nadia Comaneci is a founding member of the Laureus World Sports Academy