Prior to the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada, the Swiss watchmakers Omega, who were responsible for scoring and timing all the events, contacted the International Olympic Committee to check if the gymnastics scoreboards should go up to 10.00 rather than 9.99. According to Omega’s Daniel Baumat, “I was told a 10.00 is not possible, so we only did three digits.”
However, on Sunday 18 July 1976, only the second day of the games, teenage Romanian athlete Nadia Comaneci achieved a flawless performance on the uneven bars and was awarded a perfect 10; the first in Olympic gymnastics history. The scoreboard, of course, could only display her “10.00” as “1.00,” so at first the crowd was confused. Then they burst into applause, as did the watching competitors.
That summer Comaneci was only 14 years old, 4′ 11″ tall, and 86 pounds (39 kilograms) in weight. She went on to achieve seven perfect 10s at the Olympics—four on the uneven bars, and three on the beam—and won gold medals on the bars, the beam, and the all-around competition. She had a captivating style, swinging so tantalisingly slowly and smoothly that at times it seemed impossible for her to continue her momentum. Strangely, she showed few signs of enjoyment, and according to The Guardian, “She seemed almost inhuman in her exactness.”
Comaneci was born in 1961 in Onesti, in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, to a car mechanic Gheorghe and a factory-worker Stefania-Alexandrina. She started gymnastics in kindergarten, and at the age of six she was spotted turning cartwheels in the playground by Bela Karolyi, who was running an experimental boarding academy for young gymnasts. Karolyi was a former boxing champion and hammer thrower, and he became one of the most accomplished coaches in gymnastics; in 1981 he defected to the United States, and there he trained the 1984 Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton to another perfect 10 on the vault.
Karolyi was also a very controversial coach, known for his hardness and brutality. In 2002, another Romanian who had trained alongside Comaneci at the academy, Rodica Dunca, complained, “On certain days we were hit until blood was pouring out of our nose. You can say it was a concentration camp, or even a prison.” Certainly, there was one incident when a young Comaneci was rushed to hospital while under his care, after drinking a bottle of bleach. Although the circumstances in which this occurred are unclear, she has insisted, “I didn’t try to die…I drank shampoo by mistake.”
In 1989, only weeks prior to the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, Nadia Comaneci defected to the US. She trekked six hours through the forest at night into Hungary, onwards into Austria, and then took the Pan-Am Liberty Bell across the Atlantic. Nowadays she lives in Oklahoma and runs a gymnastics academy. Her extraordinary achievements are unsurpassable, as these days it is illegal to compete in Olympics gymnastic under the age of 16, and impossible to score a perfect 10.
Credit: Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Caption: Nadia Comaneci on the uneven bars at the 1976 Summer Olympics.