The Perfect 10

A talent under regime: Nadia Comaneci

When she received the perfect 10, Nadia Comaneci made the impossible become attainable in the world of artistic gymnastics. The young and perfect lady was the darling of her sport after her burst to fame at the 1976 Olympic Games. Her story is one of incredible highs, literally and figuratively, and also one of profound lows and strong blues. 

Comaneci’s introduction to gymnastics began at a tender age. Bela Karolyi invited her and her friend to join his company after he saw them playing and doing cartwheels in school. At 6, she joined Karolyi’s gymnastics school, which was still in its young years. Bela Karolyi and his wife Marta had started the school to develop local gymnasts from a young age. Comaneci being a very active child, was allowed to join the company by her mother as her mother thought it a good way to use up her energy. As a young girl, Comaneci enjoyed the opportunity to do things that she couldn’t try at home.

She participated in her first competition, the Romanian National Junior Championships, in 1969. She finished in 13th place but used her disappointment to fuel her preparation for the nationals a year later. The next year, she became the Romanian Junior Champion and was the youngest gymnast to have ever won the title. Comaneci’s talent was very evident from the beginning of her career. At ten years of age, she began competing internationally and quickly found success. She won her first all-around title in a junior meet for gymnasts held as a dual event between Romania and Yugoslavia.

At the 1975 European Championships in Skien, Norway, she won 4 gold medals in the all-around, vault, parallel bars and beam. It was only in the floor exercise that she didn’t win a gold medal. She won the silver medal instead for her floor routine. She also won two golds and three silvers in the Pre-Olympic test event in Montreal that year.

Comaneci competed in the 1976 American Cup and won a silver cup. Although she obtained her first perfect score here, it is not considered as her official first perfect 10 because it was not obtained in an international federation competition. This was also the inaugural edition of the American Cup. 

She was selected into the Romanian team for the Olympic Games, which were to hold in Montreal. As part of the team competition, she performed her routine on the uneven bars and waited patiently for her results. There was a delay. After a while, the scoreboard displayed 1.00. It didn’t quite make sense at first as she had performed a good routine with no glaring disasters. This was the only way the scoreboard could display that she had scored a perfect 10. A perfect 10. Was this even really possible? Not only was it possible for her, but it was also repeatable. This was unheard of. She received six more perfect scores during the rest of the Games. Before the 1976 Games, no one had recorded a perfect score, so Omega SA, who manufactured the scoreboards, had not programmed the board to display a 10; a 9.99 was assumed as the best one could get. Altogether, she received seven perfect scores and won the gold medals for the balance beam, the uneven bars, and the all-around. She didn’t stop there. She won a bronze medal for her floor exercises and a silver as part of the team all-around. Comaneci’s performance somewhat opened a new page for gymnasts; the Soviet Union’s Nellie Kim then became the second gymnast to earn a perfect ten at the Olympic Games after her own performance on the vault.

When Comaneci competed at the Olympics, she had not yet turned 15. She remains the record holder for the youngest ever Olympic gymnastics all-around champion. Nowadays, to compete at the Olympics, gymnasts must be 16 in the year they want to compete. Considering the little scandals scattered around gymnastics and national federations, this definitely had to happen at some point. 

Comaneci’s perfection catapulted her to massive international fame. The sport grew its following because everyone wanted to find out more about the perfect girl. She received many awards both home and abroad. Back home in Romania, she was named a Hero of Socialist Labour and was the youngest recipient of the award. The Associated Press named her the Female Athlete of the Year, while she also received the BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year award. The musical piece which accompanied ABC’s TV montages of her floor routine was smartly retitled “Nadia’s Theme” by the composers after it became unmistakably associated with the young star. It was also the theme for the popular soap opera, The Young and the Restless. It gained popularity internationally and went on to earn a Grammy Award in 1977.

Comaneci continued to have success. She defended her all-around title at the 1977 European Championships. However, during the event, the Romanian team were ordered back home by Nicolae Ceausescu after there were some questions regarding the scoring in the competition. 

During all of this period of success for Comaneci, Romania was under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, and his government did all it could to use Comaneci as a propaganda tool to show how great the country was. Comaneci would then be forced into a weird and abusive relationship with Ceausescu’s son. Nadia became a prisoner in a golden cage. With the Romanian federation wanting to get more success out of Comaneci, they sent her away from Karolyi’s group to Bucharest to train more seriously. After this change of environment, Comaneci didn’t seem to be having as much fun as she did before when competing. Evidence of double-mindedness showed in her routines. She tried to end it all in a suicide attempt by drinking bleach. She, however, survived and continued competing because despite her fame as a great gymnast made her life hell she realized that gymnastics was the only way she could express herself freely, it was her way to freedom.

At the next World Championships in 1978, she won the world title on beam and a silver on vault. In what some would have regarded as her best event, the uneven bars, Comaneci placed fourth behind three Soviet gymnasts. In her routine, she lost her grip and had a shocking fall.

After all of this, she was permitted to return to her old coach, Karolyi. Next year, she went ahead to win the all-around title for the third time at the European Championships. This made her the first person ever to accomplish such a record. 

The Romanian Gymnastics Federation conducted an official tour of the United States in 1981. The tour, which was named Nadia ’81, was led by the Karolyis. By this time, Bela Karolyi had other ideas in mind. Life for him in Romania had become a bit difficult because the federation and the government were controlling things. He made statements to Comaneci, which hinted that he would not return to Romania after the tour. Indeed, on the last day of the tour, the Karolyis defected, along with the Romanian team choreographer. Comaneci returned to Romania. 

Life in Romania began to feel like a prison sentence for her after her return. The government monitored her actions, who she could speak to, and where she could go. As the Karolyis had defected to the USA, this felt like a direct punishment for their actions. She was not allowed to participate in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Though she flew to the US with the Romanian delegation, she didn’t take part in the competition and wasn’t allowed to contact Karolyi. She was there to observe and act more like a coaching staff for the team. She wasn’t allowed to travel out of the country like other citizens were as the government felt she could defect like her coaches did. They did not want that as they thought her popularity was an asset to the country, and a defection by a popular figure like Comaneci would make things seem bad for them. She later officially retired that year.

With the cover of night on the 27th of November, 1989, Comaneci escaped out of Romania through the Hungary-Romania border around Cenad after trekking for many hours. The group of Romanians she moved with travelled through Hungary and Russia before they were finally able to fly to the United States. 

After settling in the US, Comaneci helped Bart Conner with his gymnastics school. The friends had known each other previously and met a number of times at gymnastics competitions through the years, especially during the Nadia ’81 tour. They first met in 1976 at the American Cup event. After working together for four years, they eventually got engaged. Comaneci returned to Romania in 1996 for her wedding to Bart Conner. This time, she was welcomed as a national treasure, and her marriage was broadcast live throughout the country. She became a naturalised US citizen in 2001 and still holds Romanian citizenship. 

Comaneci has been honoured, not just in her home country of Romania but in different places around the world. She serves as the honorary president of the Romanian Gymnastics Federation and as a member of the International Gymnastics Federation. In 1993, she was inducted into the Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Also, the entrance area of Madison Square Garden shows Comaneci presenting her perfect beam exercise while an area of the Montreal Olympic Park was renamed in her honour as Place Nadia Comaneci.

Comaneci’s story has all of it, success, growth, pain, abuse, determination and strength. It can serve as a case study for many who dream and aspire to excellence in their endeavours. It shows that many things don’t come easily, but impossible is something that is just yet to be cracked. Today, Comaneci remains active in the sport and runs her gymnastics school with her Conner.


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