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Bob Ottum
November 19, 1979
The author plunges into the mists of Transylvania in quest of the world's favorite gymnast, Nadia Comaneci. She had been perfect. Then she had faded from view. Now, it develops, there is a new Nadia
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November 19, 1979

The Search For Nadia

The author plunges into the mists of Transylvania in quest of the world's favorite gymnast, Nadia Comaneci. She had been perfect. Then she had faded from view. Now, it develops, there is a new Nadia

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The taxicab is bombing along the autostrada, full bore, when the driver lifts both hands from the wheel. He puts his thumbs and forefingers together to form little circles in the air. A gun emplacement is looming up fast on the right, the muzzles pointed skyward and draped with camouflage netting. A soldier is standing in the grass wearing a uniform of the same flat green as the guns. The cab driver swings around and looks back over his shoulder, holding the circled fingers up to his eyes, peeking through. He smiles, and a pewter eyetooth flashes. His expression completes the message: You are always being watched in Romania. You get it, stranger? You are always....

Now the taxi careens around a horse-drawn wagon loaded with hay. This is more like it, even if the quick tableau is too perfect—a prop horse and prop wagon, stationed by the tourist department to clomp forever along this lonely stretch of road to Bucharest. Still, a more relaxed feeling slowly sets in after the military shakedowns of the airport. Gradually, more cars and more people appear. Finally, the cab is threading its way through city traffic to the Athenee Palace.

This is still a luxe hotel, complete with a shadowy ornate lobby inhabited by Otto Preminger rejects; off to one side is the Versailles Ballroom, whose ceiling is a magnificent stained-glass dome. However, in the current social order, the room is no longer used for fancy dress balls. There are three couches and a few chairs in the vastness, where guests sit drinking coffee and talking in hushed tones. As they talk, they watch the others in the room.

There is a message waiting from the translator-guide assigned to this case: Be ready to catch the midnight train to Deva, a town 190 miles to the northwest. The message adds that it would be a good idea to take along a sweater, as it will likely be cold and damp in Deva. Inquiries are made in the Versailles room, where voices ring hollowly. Deva? Ah, Deva. It is always cold and damp in Deva. It is in Transylvania. And it is there, according to the plan, that one will find the elusive Nadia.

There was a time, not too long ago, when women's gymnastics was more of an art form than a sport. It was a lyrical exercise somewhere this side of ballet, an activity pursued by serene young ladies with swanlike necks. There was some bouncing around, sure, but the gymnasts cut elegant arcs with their bounces, even on the bars, and one could persuade oneself that a clutch of nymphs had wandered out of L'Aprèsmidi d'un faune. Audiences were polite, judges were immovable, a perfect 10 was out of the question, and there was always the chance to sneak a quick nap during the floor exercises. All of this was before the attack of the mini-monsters.

Then, in 1972, Olga Korbut came flying out of Russia, probably without a plane, and laid some moves on the Munich Olympics that sent shock waves through the sport. Korbut was Instant Athlete, a tiny explosive force at age 17. She was, in that era, all the wrong things at the right time. She had an inelegant, stringy body, with the hint of knotted-steel calf muscles, and a go-to-hell hairdo barely controlled in horsetails. But she could do flips and twists never before attempted by girls, and between events the Russians had to put rocks in her pockets to hold her down. Korbut swung the focus of the sport toward athleticism, and probably can be said to have spawned the bigger shock to come: Romania's Nadia Comaneci, then 10 years old.

The world in general didn't awaken to the Nadia phenomenon until she brought down the house at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, but insiders in the sport had foreseen her inevitable arrival. She had become Romania's junior champ in 1971, three years after taking up gymnastics; she was national champion at 11, in 1973—and in 1975, at 13½, she became the youngest gymnast ever to win the European championship. She was 14 when the Romanians turned her loose at Montreal.

From that point, the story is more familiar. Nadia came on with an unprecedented repertoire of double twists and somersaults to win the first perfect 10 ever awarded in an Olympics. That was on opening day. She added six more perfect marks, and came out the other end with three gold medals, one silver and a bronze. She was the new queen of her sport and, without saying more than 20 words or so, had become a worldwide TV celebrity.

Western Europeans and Americans, particularly Americans, found the silence puzzling. Americans tend to fret when they can't immediately grasp a sense of personality, when their sports heroes don't speak in sweeping, heroic utterances, a la Bruce Jenner, who has to be dragged off stage with a hook. Weighted down with medals, small and somber, Nadia turned her sad, dark eyes on the world and said:

"Olga Korbut is just another gymnast." And:

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