Nadia Comăneci’s impact on the history of gymnastics was probably greater than that of gymnastics on the life of the Romanian champion. Which, however, was huge.
Comăneci turned the tide of gymnastic history when, at 14, she became the first athlete ever whose Olympic performance was worth a 10, the perfect score. Perfection, though, has a price. And the enormous price Comăneci had to pay was set by politics, which could not help taking advantage of her victory to construct its own.
Road towards perfection
Nadia was born in Romania in 1961, a few years before Nicolae Ceaușescu became general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party and President of the Republic.
Since her earliest years, Nadia Comăneci sought perfection. In school, in life, in sports. She became a gymnast when she was in kindergarten and started training with Béla Károlyi when she was only six. At nine, she already was the youngest gymnast to have won the Romanian Nationals. Her first international success came in 1975, when she won almost every gold medal she could in the European Championship in Norway.
Perfection was one year away.
1976 Montreal Olympics
In 1976 Nadia Comăneci showed the whole world what perfection is.
It is a 155cm girl staring at the parallel bars in front of her. A girl with so much determination that she barely looks 14 years old. Perfection is her hands grabbing the bars as if there is nothing else she would like to hold on to. It is her body flying and floating as if it were the easiest thing on Earth.
Nadia Comăneci’s performance was flawless and the jury could not help but giving her a ten. The first ten in the history of the Olympics. No one was expecting such a score. Not even the computer that was programmed to show one decimal place only and displayed a 1.00 instead.
Comăneci became the youngest Olympic gymnastics all-around champion. She left Montreal with seven 1.00s that equalled 70, four medals, a manoeuvre named after her and a bunch of new records.
Nadia Comăneci belonged to Romania
Nicolae Ceaușescu regime immediately saw the potential of Comăneci success. She was a product of Romania and her country had to turn her prestige into its own.
A lot is said about Comăneci’s life after the 1976 Olympics games. Along with recognition and prestige, Comăneci’s freedom was highly limited. She could not travel, eat what she wanted and, of course, be with who she wanted. Some say she could not deal with her butterfly body becoming that of a woman. Some say she was forced into a violent relationship with Nicu Ceaușescu, Nicolae son, who bragged about his trophy for years.
Paying the price
After two gold medals and a silver one in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Comăneci took part in the “Nadia 81” tour in the USA. From that trip, her coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi never came back. They decided to defect causing the regime to tighten its grip on Comăneci even more.
She owed perfection her freedom. She owed her country her life.
Nadia could not bare it anymore and one night in November 1989 she decided to flee. She, once more, followed Béla Károlyi’s path and sought political asylum in the USA, which is now her proud, new, home.