When Perfection Happened
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Analyzing perfection is just too irrestible.
It is one of those classic moments in sports that is universal for those of a certain age. Actually, it was more than a classic moment. It was a perfect moment.
It was 1976, at the Olympic Games in Montreal, and Cold War politics were being played out through sport every four years on the grandest of stages. There, vaulting onto the uneven bars was a tiny Romanian, Nadia Comaneci, with a ponytail in ribbons, dressed in a mostly white leotard with the number 73 pinned on the back. Flip after spin, she seemed to effortlessly fly through the air for 17 breathless seconds before dismounting in a swan dive. She landed expertly on her feet, and the crowd erupted. “I remember being awestruck,” says former gymnast and NBC sports commentator Elfi Schlegel, who was just 12 at the time. She was in the audience that day, and she remembers, “It was perfection as I understood it.”
And so it was. Moments passed as the judges tallied Comaneci’s score, and then the orange-yellow bulbs of the scoreboard illuminated: 1.00. Puzzled, the crowd went silent. “[It] was very confusing for everybody,” Comaneci recalled in an interview later. That is, until an announcer clarified the score — a perfect 10.0 — the first of its kind for a female competitor. So unexpected was it that members of the International Olympic Committee had previously told scoreboard manufacturer Omega not to bother making a display to support four digits, because such a score was unobtainable.
The “Barbie doll with bangs,” as she was labeled at the time, was all of 4 feet 11 inches and 86 pounds. Today, she is 53, but she is still committed to our collective memory. How did she get started? At the age of 6, she was training six hours a day most days of the week. Named United Press International’s Female Athlete of the Year 40 years ago, in 1975, the young girl from the Carpathian Mountains exploded onto the scene a year later to grab five Olympic medals, three of them gold. While the Soviet women — the dominant force of the era — still took top prize as a team, Comaneci became the youngest individual all-around Olympic champion at age 14.
Her illustrious coach at the time was almost as famous. Do you remember Bela Karolyi? “Wow, wow, wow,” Karolyi would tell interviewers later. “You could not believe that fire, that explosion.” Interestingly, Comaneci herself didn’t think her performance was without fault. “I didn’t feel that it was quite perfect,” she has said. But the judges didn’t seem to notice, and Comaneci garnered a total of seven perfect scores in Montreal between the bars and balance beam. Suddenly, the pinnacle was tangible, and perfect scores — while still uncommon — started cropping up more and more.
She will always be “the person who defined our sport.”
In the end, her performance would change the sport and, ultimately, in some ways the Olympics. There were repeated allegations over many Games that Eastern Bloc judges favored their own, allegations that ran through the Cold War to more recent disputes at the 2004 Games. Other scoring controversies occurred as well, so in 2006 the sport’s international governing body changed the scoring system. Today, a perfect 10 is no longer part of gymnastics. “And many of us miss it. We miss what it stood for,” says Schlegel.
As for the young star, after Montreal, Comaneci returned to communist Romania under the brutal dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who reportedly had her watched by security forces for fear that she might defect. Still, she took just two days off before returning to the gym. Comaneci eventually was given asylum in the U.S. in 1989, just ahead of the Romanian Revolution that led to Ceausescu’s execution, but not before capturing four more medals, two gold and two silver, at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Today, Comaneci lives with her husband, former American gymnast Bart Conner, and their 8-year-old son in Norman, Okla., near the University of Oklahoma, where they run a gymnastics academy. Wherever she goes, she is remembered “as the person who defined our sport,” says Schlegel. But defining a sport is one thing, defining perfection another. To this day, folks still like to ask Comaneci about what perfection means. She says there is no exact definition. It’s simply “a ladder that you climb in life,” she says, “and I got there first.”