Best Olympic athletes: Nadia Comaneci's performance in gymnastics remains unparalleled

In the third of our seven-part Best Olympic athletes series we look at the gymnasts, where Nadia Comaneci confounded all — including the scoring machine.

Nadia Comaneci's 23-second routine in Montreal in 1976 confounded the gymnastics world - and its scoring machine - with a perfect 10, writes Paul Oberjuerge

Before the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the expression "perfect 10" had no particular meaning. In other walks of life, a score of 100 could be flawless, but perfection also could mean zero mistakes. It was ali the but powerful 14-year-old girl from Romania who irrevocably linked the words "perfect" and "10".

The best Olympic athletes

No 2 gymnast: Olga Korbut. Read article

No 3 gymnast: Vitaly Scherbo. Read article

The Best Olympic swimmer: Michael Phelps. Read article

The Best Olympic weightlifter: Naim Suleymanoglu. Read article

As Nadia Comaneci grasped the apparatus of the uneven bars in her first appearance in Montreal, a 10 was a theoretical maximum score in gymnastics but no one had been awarded one in the Olympics. Her 23-second routine, however, was so sublime that everything was about to change.

A moment of confusion came shortly after she stuck the landing on her dismount from the bars and the number "1.00" appeared on a scoring machine that topped out at 9.99. Comaneci was temporarily confused by the rock-bottom score. "Because of the gasps around the arena, I looked around and saw the 1.00 on the scoreboard and didn't understand what was happening," Comaneci said during an interview with Reuters in 2004.

"I was wondering whether they were going to change it to a 9.00 or what because everybody was confused and I knew my routine wasn't that bad."

Then a Romanian teammate blurted: "I think that's a 10!"

In that instant, as a beaming Comaneci bounded back up on the mat to let applause wash over her, the legend of "Nadia", as she almost instantly became known, was born. Nadia, the rubbery sprite who scored the first perfect 10.

She was to be awarded six more 10s at Montreal as she won gold in the uneven bars, balance beam and all-around.

Comaneci become the "It Girl" of the 1976 Olympics and still ranks near the top in any discussion of the most influential Olympians.

Frank DeFord of Sports Illustrated one week later wrote: "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."

He added: "Nadia Comaneci 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."

Comaneci had been in training since age 6, and had been coached by the influential Bela Karolyi from the time he had spotted her, age 7, tumbling with a friend in a Romanian school playground. As Karolyi later told it, he lost sight of the two girls as they returned to class, and he began a room-by-room search of the school. Only after entering the third classroom and bellowing, "Who here likes gymnastics?" did Nadia and her friend reply, "We do!"

In 1972, the 17-year-old Olga Korbut had opened the door for teenagers in Olympic gymnastics, and four years later Comaneci, all 4 ft, 11ins and 85 pounds of her, kicked it in.

Karolyi had discovered that young and small women/girls were best prepared to stand out in a new era of fearless tumblers and acrobats, and in Comaneci he had an exemplar.

He said of her, 35 years ago: "She has three qualities. The physical qualities: strength, speed, agility. The intellectual qualities: intelligence and the power to concentrate. And Nadia has courage."

Her fearlessness was particularly evident when she scored a 10 on the beam with a breathtaking performance that looked as if she were performing in an empty room and not on a piece of wood only four inches wide. Her routine included two black flips, two forward aerials, a cartwheel and a double-twisting somersault dismount.

"Everyone is scared on the beam," the Canadian coach Boris Bajin told Sports Illustrated. "It is the most difficult. No matter how good they are, they are all shaking inside."

Except, perhaps, Miss Perfect 10.

Comaneci's gymnastics career continued another five years and included two more Olympic gold medals at Moscow in 1980.

Her life became more difficult once her career ended. Romania was then ruled by Nicolae Ceausescu, an erratic quasi-Communist despot, and his hard-living son, Nicu, became infatuated with the young gymnast, leading to a relationship that began in 1979, Romanian journalists said, and may have lasted until 1983.

She was an honoured guest at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, but she later said agents of the Romania government kept watch on her at all times lest she defect, and when she went home she was barred from leaving the country.

In 1989, barely a month ahead of the Romanian revolution, which would conclude with the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu, Comaneci felt compelled to escape the country.

On November 27 of that year, she was among seven defectors who were driven within a few miles of Hungary and then hiked to the border.

"It was midnight when we started walking through mud and open countryside," she told The Mail on Sunday in 1989. "We were stumbling. Often we crawled through water and ice."

The defectors slipped through a gap in a barbed-wire fence marking the border. She was picked up and soon moved on to Austria and then the United States.

Upon arrival at John F Kennedy Airport in New York, she told reporters that she had first thought of fleeing her country "a long time ago, a few years ago, because I like life. I want to have a free life".

Eventually, she settled into a life of quiet celebrity. In 1994 she was engaged to the US gymnast Bart Conner, whom she had met in 1976, and in 2006 she gave birth to a son, Dylan Paul Conner. "Nadia" continues to make appearances as a television analyst and speaker. She and Conner formed a company appropriately named "Perfect 10 Productions".

Women's gymnastics, unsettled in 1976 by Comaneci's youth and penchant for attracting the maximum score, now mandates a minimum age of 16 in the Olympics and has gone over to reconstructed scoring system. Not only are 14-year-old girls barred from competing in the Olympics, perfect 10s are no longer awarded.

The 10 best Olympic gymnasts

1. Nadia Comaneci, Romania, 1976, 1980 – The first perfect 10, plus three gold medals, at the tender age of 14.

2. Olga Korbut, Russia, 1972, 1976 – Changed the focus of gymnastics from ballet to tumbling and acrobatics.

3. Vitaly Scherbo, Unified Team, 1992, 1996 – Won six golds, at the time a record for the Summer Games.

4. Shun Fujimoto, Japan, 1976 – Competed on the rings with a broken knee cap and scored a 9.75 to give Japan gold, but he was in agony and never competed again.

5. Sawao Kato, Japan, 1968, 1972, 1976 – One of the few gymnasts to take two all-around golds, Kato won eight gold medals, more than any male gymnast in Olympic history.

6. Nicolai Adrianov, Soviet Union, 1972, 1976, 1980 – Won 15 medals, a record for male Olympians until it was broken by Michael Phelps in 2008.

7. Larissa Latynina, Soviet Union, 1956, 1960, 1964 – Won 18 medals, the most in Olympics history, and nine gold, most by a woman athlete.

8. Mary Lou Retton, US, 1984 – Trailing Ekaterina Szabo by 0.15 points with two events left, she scored perfect 10s in both the floor exercise and vault to win the gold.

9. Li Xiaoshuang, China, 1992, 1996 – China's first great male gymnast won all-around gold in 1996 and the floor exercise in 1992 with a rare triple-back somersault.

10. Vera Caslavska, Czechoslovakia, 1964, 1968 – Took seven individual golds, most by a female gymnast, including two all-around titles.

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