SI Vault
Frank Deford
August 02, 1976
Everybody flipped over the 14-year-old Comaneci, as she made gymnastics look like child's play and scored seven 10s
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August 02, 1976

Nadia Awed Ya

Everybody flipped over the 14-year-old Comaneci, as she made gymnastics look like child's play and scored seven 10s

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There are so many athletes at the Olympics, and so many winners, but in the first week there was only one star, a child named Nadia Comaneci. She has a lean boy's body that responds to all her demands and a Valentine face with straight, dark eyebrows that pierce it like Cupid's arrow. Her lips are faint and thin, lost beneath dusky, soulful eyes that caused many of those who studied her to imagine that she must be some brooding, mysterious Carpathian princess.

But those eyes: they could only express the wonder of a child examining grownups acting like children. And mystery? Intrigue? Never did any performer offer less, because all that this innocent little chimney sweep is—every bit of her—was poured out every night over the vault, atop the beam, on the bars and upon the orange mat of the Forum. There could be nothing left for her to conceal. She is, after all, 14, a mechanic's daughter from Onesti, a factory town in the mountains of Romania, who sleeps with a favorite doll, tussles with her younger brother Adrian, and has a life experience beyond her sport no larger than herself. She weighs 86 pounds and stands less than five feet.

But at every chance grown men and women crowded upon her, paying court. It recalled old prints from a children's Bible, showing the youthful Jesus talking to the elders in the temple. The grownups pressed for a glimpse of a smile. Look, there is a mole on her cheek. Which? The left. Thank you. The left. Interpreters, her coaches, microphones, police surrounded her. Sit down. Be quiet over there. No wonder the United Nations rarely works. What is your favorite subject, Nadia? Do you like chocolate? Tell us about your doll collection, please. Nadia, who is your favorite movie star? Oooh, Alain Delon, ahhh. Thank you, Nadia. Miss Comaneci, please, BBC here—can you say something in English for the British audience? Over here, Nadia, over here. Do you have any boyfriends? Nadia, Nadia, please you must say something in French for CBC. Oh thank you, Nadia, merci, merci. One more, one more. Nadia, Nadia, do you miss your childhood?

"No, I don't feel like that. I do it with much pleasure."

Her precision and daring in gymnastics have never been seen before in an Olympics. And few heroines in any sport ever so captivated the Games. She was superbly cast for the moment, bursting upon the world with the first perfect Olympic gymnastic score, a 10.0, on the first day of competition, thereby dramatically ridding Montreal of much of the rancor and turmoil of international politics. Nadia Comaneci (Nad-ya Koh-ma-netch) was brilliant and beguiling, and because of her youth a great sense of hope and history was instantly attached to her. There was at once the chance to see greatness. For the rare privilege of witnessing the birth of a legend, people splurged $100 on a $16 seat.

Aside from the actual gymnastics, what took place at the Forum—the scene, the reality—was altogether different from what was conveyed to the millions of Americans who watched on television. The competition was infinitely fuller. To personalize the drama, Comaneci was largely isolated by ABC. The other competitor receiving elaborate attention was Olga Korbut, who had been created by television in the 1972 Olympics. TV had an investment in Olga, and TV was determined to have her pay it back, and so the effort was made to turn the meet into some kind of heavyweight championship of women's gymnastics. In fact, Olga Korbut was not the champion in Munich, except in terms of publicity, and in Montreal she barely ranked third on her own team.

Instead, she and Comaneci were just part of the glorious cast and setting. First, there were the other Russians: Ludmila Turishcheva, the true champion of Munich, always overshadowed and under-appreciated, ever gracious, only 5' 2�" but seeming almost stately in such tiny company—majestic, a lady. Nelli Kim, who won the two individual golds (floor and vault) that Comaneci didn't. She was hauntingly beautiful, and just as dramatic, scoring two 10s herself when nothing but perfection could clinch her medals. She fell off the uneven bars but afterward blithely provided an explanation that somehow managed to fuse the lyric with the pragmatic: "I was doing it to satisfy my soul, and you should never try to do better than you really can."

And Maria Filatova, a 4' 3�", 66-pound peanut, just turned 15 but still completely a child in physique and temperament. Once she sat on Ludmila's lap and sipped an orange soda. "I read books, I go to the movies, I play with my dolls," she squealed.

Then there was Nadia's teammate and closest friend, Teodora Ungureanu: pixieish, exuberant, the Hollywood sidekick. She and Nadia would always lovingly clean the bars for each other. There was also Carola Dombeck of East Germany, the wide-eyed strawberry blonde ingenue, soaring off the vault, and the elegant Marta Egervari of Hungary.

All had to reckon with Comaneci. She was in every final. She won the gold for all-around, the gold for beam, the gold for bars and led Romania to a silver in the team competition behind the Russian juggernaut. She also took a bronze for floor exercises, and just missed another with a fourth in the vault. Eyes never strayed from her.

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