Montreal produced one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history when a determined 14-year old Romanian girl, Nadia Comaneci, became the first gymnast ever to score a perfect 10 – in a breakthrough similar to the first sub-four-minute mile or sub-10-second 100m.
At the time, Comaneci, who was noted for her emotional toughness and her seeming physical fragility, took the score in her stride. She claims she barely looked at the scoreboard and at the press conference afterwards refused to be impressed: “I’ve had 19 10s in my career. It’s nothing new,” she told reporters. She went on to score six more perfect 10s and take three gold medals.
Today, aged 50, Comaneci is living in Oklahoma and is married to fellow Olympic gymnast Bart Conner. They have a six-year-old son and Comaneci spends most of her time touring the world on speaking engagements and promoting lines of gymnastics apparel and aerobic equipment. She also runs a television production company called Perfect 10. Talking to the FT from her American home, Comaneci says, “Looking back, I had no idea that moment in time would define everything I am today and am able to do today. I’ve had a lot of opportunities because of what I did when I was 14. But at the time, I didn’t realise it was such a big deal. Afterwards, I went back to the Olympic Village, went to sleep and competed again, then I went home and there were 10,000 people at the airport.”
However, she says it wasn’t natural talent that got her to the Olympics but determination. Comaneci was discovered by legendary coach Béla Károlyi at the age of six. Other students of Karolyi’s have since claimed that he trained them until they bled, but Comaneci denies any hardship. She also says six hours a day of training didn’t mean she missed out on a childhood. “What was I missing? Going to the mall? Doing gymnastics was more interesting than seeing two movies a day and going shopping,” she says.
After the 1976 Olympics, Comaneci continued to compete. In Moscow in 1980, she won her second Olympic gold medal on beam, and took home another gold on floor and a silver medal in the all-round.
But life changed in 1981 when she did the state-organised “Nadia tour” in the US. Her coach Karolyi disappeared from his hotel room and defected but despite going home herself, Comaneci was banned from ever leaving Romania again. “Even though I didn’t defect, I went back to Romania … from that point on I was not allowed to leave the country to compete. It was frustrating,” she says. “I took it for a while but then I thought, I can do something.”
In November 1989, Comaneci decided to defect. She was given her way out by a people smuggler. “I had no idea where I was going,” she says. She walked through the night across frozen lakes and forests into Hungary where she was driven to Austria. From there, she caught a flight to America.
Her arrival in America was fraught with rumours of suicide attempts and ill-advised love affairs. She was even accused of having romanced Ceauşescu himself – all of which Comaneci denies. Today, she returns to Romania six times a year and still considers it home. This year, she met all the young Romanian gymnasts who will be competing in London. “I feel for the gymnasts because I know them and I want them to do well. It’s hard to sit there and watch them compete. I know what it means to train for eight or nine years and have to be the best.”
And how does she find the Olympics these days? “The Olympics is more commercial now. Gymnasts make money, which is great. I worked so hard but I couldn’t make money. It’s good for athletes now. They stay longer in competition and make money. And so they should.”