The 1976 Olympics hadn’t gotten off to a particularly auspicious start. On the eve of the Games, twenty-two African nations had withdrawn their athletes from Montreal in protest of New Zealand’s inclusion in the competition. It was at the height of apartheid in South Africa, and the Kiwi rugby team was touring the pariah nation, in defiance of a worldwide sporting boycott.
Once a symbol of global unity, the Olympic Games were feeling a bit tarnished and tired in 1976. It was, after all, just four years after the camaraderie was marred by the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Which came four years after Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two American track and field stars, had raised their fists in a black power salute to protest racism in the United States and human rights abuses abroad in Mexico City, 1968. Smith and Carlos were thrown out of the Games for this act of defiance by Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Brundage harbored well-documented anti-Semitic and racist sentiments; in addition to tossing Smith and Carlos out of the Mexico City Games, he had made the controversial decision four years later not to cancel the Munich Games after the massacre, declaring, “The Games must go on.” In fact, he had decried the politicization of sports at the memorial service for the slain Israelis. So Brundage had overseen two consecutive Olympic Games where protest, politics, and terrorism dominated the headlines—and in 1976, with the South Africa/New Zealand controversy, it looked like a third was heading down the same path.
Then on the first night of competition in Montreal, Nadia Comaneci, a fourteen-year-old gymnast from Romania, stepped onto the podium. Comaneci stood at just four feet eleven and weighed little more than 80 pounds. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail and tied with ribbons. She wore a white leotard with a V-neck that exposed her sharp clavicle and drew the eye to a medallion in the middle of her chest. There was piping on the sides of her leotard, one stripe for each of the colors of the Romanian flag—red, yellow, and blue. Her look was all about lines—from stripes on her leotard to the shape of her legs, to her perfect handstands. No curves disrupted the lines. With her body, she could create perfect geometric shapes, different angles depending on the skill.
Standing at a distance from the uneven bars, Comaneci saluted the judges and ran toward the apparatus. She jumped on the springboard to vault herself over the low bar and grab the high rail. Bela Karolyi, the Romanian national team coach, pulled the board out of the way and jumped down from the podium.
Comaneci casted up to a handstand, stretching all the way to vertical, a straight line from her wrists to her toes. Then she swung down and beat her hips against the low bar, the force of which propelled her body back up until she was almost in a handstand once again. Comaneci then switched her grip and moved to the low and back to the high, before casting up for the final handstand of the routine. When she hit the peak again, the crowd audibly gasped.
“It was not such a big deal,” the Olympic gold medalist recalled in a Sky Sports documentary about her life. “It was the A, B, C, D of gymnastics.” These were the compulsory exercises, so the routine Comaneci was performing was identical to the five teammates who preceded her and to the rest of the female gymnastics competitors in Montreal. The skills were all basic; the point was to show how well you could perform the ABCs of mid-’70s women’s gymnastics. If you had sat through the entire competition in 1976, you would’ve watched this routine eighty-six times. Depending on the spectator, this sort of repetition might have been boring or it could have been challenging, like a sommelier trying to discern the variations between a range of cabernet sauvignons produced in different regions and in different years and then ranking them.
From the last handstand, Comaneci swung down, wrapping her hips around the low bar and circling underneath, hands free, before landing on the mat several feet in front of the apparatus, almost exactly where the springboard had been less than a minute earlier. Comaneci threw her arms up overhead, arching her back, the side piping on her leotard clearly visible, creating an arc of sinew and spandex. The crowd cheered wildly, but the gymnast didn’t bask in it—she jogged off the podium and rejoined her team.
“Then I heard a huge amount of noise,” Comaneci recalled. The digital scoreboard had flashed “1.00” below her bib number, 073. Karolyi and Comaneci were confused. A score of only 1 out of 10? How could this be? She had performed to her usual standard. The coach started to wander over to the officials’ table to find out if some bizarre penalty had been levied against his gymnast. Suddenly, the announcer’s voice came on the loudspeaker, to explain the confusion over Comaneci’s score. The announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in Olympic history, Nadia Comaneci has received the score of a Perfect 10.” As with the early computer programmers who left only two spaces to denote the year, prompting the Y2K panic, the gymnastics organizers failed to anticipate the possibility of a Perfect 10 when they ordered the scoreboard for the event. The audience, the gymnastics community, and the scoreboard—none were quite prepared for Nadia Comaneci.
The gymnast came out for a curtain call, remounting the podium and waving to the crowd, not once, but twice. Then she marched to her next event. This scene would repeat itself six more times in Montreal. By the time the gymnastics competition was over in 1976, Comaneci would have earned seven perfect scores, three gold medals, one silver, and a bronze. Comaneci had become the new face of women’s gymnastics.
Nearly forty years later in late 2014, Comaneci was attending the LA premiere of Unbroken, an Angelina Jolie–directed film, with her husband, 1984 Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner, when she approached the actress Kirsten Dunst. The legendary Olympic champion was a fan of Dunst and wanted to introduce herself. Standing alongside the actress at the soiree was a young woman, presumably Dunst’s friend. Ever polite, Comaneci introduced herself to her too.
“Hi, I’m Nadia Comaneci,” she said to the woman.
“I’m Nellie Kim,” Dunst’s friend responded, invoking the name of the former Soviet champion who had been Comaneci’s fiercest rival throughout much of her career in the ’70s. The Romanian expat thought this young woman was being sarcastic, that she didn’t believe that Comaneci was who she claimed to be and was responding to the Olympian with a rhetorical eye roll. “I thought she knew the story,” Comaneci told me outside her office in Norman, Oklahoma. We were sitting at the conference table at Paul Ziert & Associates, an unassuming but neat building nestled off Bart Conner Drive, right across from the gym that shares its name with the street and the 1984 Olympic gold medalist. Though Conner hails from Illinois, he won the majority of his titles, including his Olympic gold, as a Sooner with Ziert as his coach. Now that Ziert and Conner have retired from coaching and competing, respectively, the two produce gymnastics shows and other forms of gymtertainment. Ziert, along with Conner, is also the publisher of International Gymnast magazine. Its production is housed inside the complex, as are its archives dating all the way back to the 1950s, just as the modern sport of gymnastics was taking shape.
Comaneci first met Conner back in 1976, when they both won their respective divisions at the inaugural American Cup in Madison Square Garden. He was a high school senior and she was fourteen—her grade in school was indeterminate. They shared a childish peck on the cheek on the winner’s podium. This kiss had been Comaneci’s first. Nearly thirty years later in 1994, the pair married in Romania in a celebrated state affair. Despite her defection to the United States in 1989, Comaneci remains a beloved figure in her native country.
Their courtship and romance is the sort of implausible plot line that Hollywood routinely packages into romantic comedies starring Katherine Heigl or whichever actress is the rom-com queen of the moment. It feels as scripted as an episode of reality TV. The princess of modern gymnastics grows up to marry the crown price of the sport—really!? But Comaneci’s life often feels like it is being masterminded by something other than fate—from her meeting and marrying Conner all those years later, to her harrowing defection from Communist-controlled Romania, to her bib number, 073 in 1976 (its digits added up to 10), to her seven Perfect 10s at age fourteen at the Olympics.
To the story that Comaneci was telling me about the movie premiere and meeting a woman named Nellie Kim. I asked Comaneci how many times this gymnastics “Who’s on first?” routine—“I’m Nadia” and “I’m Nellie”—went back and forth. “A couple of times,” she said. Eventually, the younger Kim proved her earnestness. Her name actually was Nellie Kim. And she knew all about her namesake.
“She said, ‘I got a 10, too,’ ” Comaneci recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah I know.’ ”
Kim, an explosive athlete who competed with more difficulty than just about anyone on floor and vault, received her first 10 (of two) a couple of days after Comaneci earned hers in that iconic performance on the uneven bars. Kim would also go on to earn another “perfect” mark on the floor exercise whereas all of Comaneci’s subsequent 10s were on bars or beam. Kim put her reaction to her own milestones succinctly. “I was just happy,” she told me after the women’s competition at the 2015 World Gymnastics Championships had finished. Kim is the current president of the Women’s Technical Committee, which oversees the rules and judging on the women’s side of the sport. Kim, with her chin-length, straight dark hair, was still wearing her official judging blazer and sipping from a glass of wine. After ten days of competition, it was job done for her at these championships. And after a relatively smoothly run meet with few glitches, she was happy yet again. Though perhaps not as happy as she was on the day she received her 10s as a gymnast. “I was rewarded for my work and innovation,” she added. That was all she had to say about her 10s.
Perhaps this is because the Perfect 10 didn’t change Kim’s life the way it had changed Comaneci’s. Most casual Olympic fans don’t even remember her. It was Comaneci, not Kim, who became the star of the 1976 Olympics, whose life was turned into a melodramatic made-for-TV movie in 1984, and who graced a Jockey for Her billboard in Times Square in the early ’90s wearing only her bra, underwear, and thigh highs. “10 Years of Perfect Fit on a Perfect 10” was the tagline, nearly ten feet high.
The Comaneci sitting in front of me more closely resembled her billboard in Times Square than she did the fourteen-year-old who had become the star of the Montreal Olympics. Her brown hair was set in cascading waves, the same style she wore to the movie premiere. She had posted photos of herself and Conner with various celebrities, including Brad Pitt, to her Facebook fan page. She cut a slim figure in a white pantsuit over a black off-the-shoulder top. As a young teen, Comaneci’s large brown eyes, framed by brown bangs seemingly combed forward from the middle of her head, were her most salient feature. Forty years later, her cheekbones are the most prominent. They jut out as though the cheek flesh underneath had been scooped out by a small spoon. The Comaneci of 2014 would have a difficult time passing as her fourteen-year-old self.
When asked why she had come to symbolize the 10 in a way that her nearest rival never had, Comaneci was pragmatic. She got there first.
“That’s how society works, I think. Who was the second person who went to the moon?” she asked. “It could’ve been anybody else. It had to do with [being] the first. What if the orders were different, if they [the Soviets] had competed [first]? If things had been different, Kim would’ve scored a 10 because she did,” Comaneci added.
But was it simply a matter of timing? Would Kim even have scored a 10 had she not competed after Comaneci? Did Comaneci’s mark create an appetite for perfect scores that the judges and officials sought to satisfy? Or did the Soviets, who exerted tremendous influence over the judging panels, pressure the judges to reward one of their gymnasts a 10, too?
“Do you think it’s possible that you created momentum for her 10?” I asked Comaneci.
“I don’t think I created momentum for the 10,” she responded flatly, refusing to take credit for another gymnast’s scores. Kim earned her 10s just as Comaneci had earned her own.
Even if that is true, it is undeniable that the 10 transformed Comaneci’s life in a way that it didn’t for Kim. Comaneci became the physical embodiment of perfection. She and the 10 have become interchangeable. It’s unlikely you even remember Nellie Kim’s 10s.
Unless, of course, you’re also named Nellie Kim.
For most, the history of the Perfect 10 begins with Comaneci, since she was the first Olympic gymnast to earn it at the Games. But just because no one had been awarded a perfect score in modern Olympic competition before Comaneci doesn’t mean that no one else merited this mark. Going through archival gymnastics footage, you can find many examples of “perfect” routines—if “perfect” is defined as “without flaw”—that predated the Romanian in Montreal.
Comaneci’s milestone could have belonged to the graceful Ludmilla Tourischeva or Vera Caslavska, the Czechoslovakian superstar who won the all-around at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. Each had done routines that appeared to be flawless several times during the Olympics, yet they weren’t anointed the way Comaneci was. Perfection in gymnastics existed before Comaneci. This begs the question: Why was she singled out the way she was for her performance in Montreal?
Olga Korbut, the darling of the 1972 Olympics, has frequently asserted that she deserved to be awarded a perfect mark for her work in Munich. In her autobiography, she wrote about her routine on the uneven bars in the event finals, “The judges gave me a 9.85. . . . [B]ut my routine had been perfect and the crowd wanted more. They shouted and cheered and stamped their feet until the Games had to be stopped . . . I had made no mistake, so I think my routine really deserved a 10, but they never gave out 10s in those days. Clearly, the crowd thought it was time to break that unwritten rule.”
At that time, the Code of Points was quite short—just a handful of pages—and there were probably more unwritten rules than the ones that had been jotted down. Korbut was the breakout star of the 1972 Olympics, yes, but she was not favored by the Soviet gymnastics establishment. It is likely that they didn’t throw their full weight and influence behind her to sway the judging panels. In her memoir, Korbut posited that her silver on the bars in that final was the result of behind-the-scenes deal making and that all of the individual winners were predetermined.
This, like most allegations of cheating in gymnastics judging, is both highly plausible but also impossible to prove. And few would argue against Tourischeva’s all-around win in 1972, except perhaps Korbut, who was often compared to the older gymnast and found lacking. Tourischeva was everything that a purist would want in a gymnast—athletic, powerful yet elegant. Shapely too—she cut a womanly figure in a leotard with a noticeable widening below her waist as compared to her upper body. Tourischeva was also famously stoic. At the World Cup Finals in 1975, the uneven bars completely collapsed as she was dismounting. Tourischeva stuck her dismount, saluted the judges, and never glanced behind her at the wreckage of the apparatus as meet officials scrambled to see what went wrong. She was just like the action hero who blows up a building and doesn’t even deign to look behind him.
Korbut, by contrast, was too short to be truly elegant. Her body was androgynous instead of curvy. And her brand of gymnastics favored complex acrobatics at the expense of the balletic style that the Russians had brought to the sport. As Roslyn Kerr pointed out in her history of women’s gymnastics, Korbut’s coach, Renald Knysh, was something of a renegade. He believed that any skill that you could do on the floor—such as a back flip—could be done up on the apparatus. So Korbut famously stood on the high rail of the uneven bars and did a back flip over it to catch the bar. She became the first woman to do a back tuck somersault on the four-inch wide balance beam. Korbut won gold medals in Munich but not the overall title, owing to her major error in the all-around finals. And she didn’t get any of the 10s she believed she deserved.
As recently as 2012, Korbut was asserting her claims about the injustice of her bar score in Munich. In an interview with a gymnastics fan site, she said, “Not to brag, but in 1972, in Munich my bar routine wasn’t judged properly and the sixteen thousand fans knew it was the first ‘unofficial Perfect 10.’ . . . There was nothing wrong with my routine. It should have been the first Perfect 10,” Korbut said.
But it was Kim, not Korbut, who became the first Soviet to earn perfect scores in Olympic competition. She received 10s in 1976—two to Nadia’s seven—and picked up the gold medals that the Romanian had missed. (The two divvied up all of the individual titles at the 1976 Olympics among themselves, leaving only silver and bronzes for everyone else.) They were clearly the most dominant gymnasts of the Games.
Kim’s first perfect mark came during the all-around competition on the vault. After running and jumping onto the springboard, she did a half twist onto the horse and then blocked from her hands to propel herself backward into a full twisting tuck flip. This vault was years ahead of its time. Everyone else in the competition was doing the same approach but with just a straight flip off, no twist. Kim stuck this vault cold. Despite taking a literal giant leap forward on the vault, Kim’s 10 did not leap ahead of the field on the event. “The distance between my vault and all other vaults was almost nothing. It was maybe 0.1 or 0.15,” she pointed out. Even in that magical Olympic Games when those first 10s were electrifying the audience, the limits of the perfect mark were already in evidence. If everyone’s vaults are worth a 10, then how do you reward a gymnast who has pushed the envelope? Of course, (almost) no one was thinking about that back then. It was only forty years later, as the president of the Women’s Technical Committee who oversaw the transition to a points-based scoring system, did she note the problems with her vault score—that it didn’t reflect the true distance between her and the other competitors on the apparatus—in the language of open-ended scoring.
Back then, the best the judges could do was give Kim a 10. Unlike Comaneci’s first 10, which was awarded for performing elementary moves flawlessly, the Soviet’s score was given for striking the right balance between difficulty and execution. It wasn’t about the purity of her technique or the lines of her body. It was a very hard vault done extremely well. For Kim, the 10 was more score than symbol. It didn’t necessarily signify anything about her as a gymnast. For some reason, Kim’s 10 somehow didn’t express perfection as much as a lack of missteps; but in the eyes of viewers, Comaneci’s wasn’t the errorless 10, it was the perfect 10—but, why?
With the exception of Korbut, most of the champions who came before Comaneci were women in both age and appearance. They were esteemed as paragons of beauty and grace. They were feminine according to the standards of their times, curves and all. Their athleticism was almost secondary. At the time of many of her triumphs, Tourischeva was in her late teens and early twenties. Larisa Latynina—whose Olympic medal record of eighteen medals (fourteen individual, four team) was surpassed only recently, by Michael Phelps in 2012—was actually pregnant at the 1958 World Championships. But by 1976, Comaneci modeled a new look for an Olympic champion. She wasn’t a woman yet in age or appearance. She was a child. Is it a coincidence that this new type of pre-woman champion was also the first to achieve “perfection”?
And it wasn’t just about body type. The “perfect” champion must also be free of compromised (adult) associations like politics. Consider Caslavska, often considered gymnastics’ last “feminine” star. She famously protested the Soviet domination of her homeland by turning her head down and to the side while the USSR anthem played during the medal ceremony. Before the 1968 Olympics, Caslavska had openly supported the Prague Spring, putting her name on a petition. When the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, she was forced into hiding and actually had to train on makeshift apparatuses in the woods. It’s hard to imagine Comaneci or any other young teenage girls voicing strong political opinions or bringing more to the table than just her acrobatics and performance. Politics are messy and often violent. They are, by definition, imperfect, and to be involved in the process is to sully oneself. In politics, there is very little consensus. But in Comaneci, the world finally had someone who was free of sex and politics: in other words, the perfect female champion.
Awarding a Perfect 10, however, is an exercise in near-complete consensus. After the high and low scores are tossed out, the average of the remaining marks is what determines the final score. And for that mark to be a 10, the remaining judges need to be in agreement that they all saw the same thing and that the thing was without flaw. Or to award a Perfect 10 to an imperfect routine, the judges need to mutually agree that they’re going to ignore the same obvious mistake. It’s either collusion or collective human error.
Latynina, who was the Soviet head coach in 1976, commented at the time, “Nobody is perfect. Comaneci has her faults, too.”
Korbut chalked up Comaneci’s 10s to politics. “Politics made it a Perfect 10. The routine had mistakes, but that’s how the cookie crumbles,” she said. Cookies in gymnastics, of course, are for crumbling, not eating.
Cathy Rigby, who won the first World Championship medal for the American women—a silver on the balance beam—in 1970, was in Montreal in 1976 as an analyst for ABC. She, like Korbut and Latynina, also questioned the validity of some of these high scores to Newsweek. “The judges are in a box,” Rigby said. “They started out giving high scores, and Nadia is so superior to every girl here that they have no choice but to give her 10s.”
When asked if that meant that Comaneci was undeserving of those marks, she backtracked a little. “If Nadia were doing what she’s been doing, all alone in an empty room, I’d still have to say that she would get the 10s,” she said.
But Korbut and Latynina were correct. Comaneci was not absolutely perfect. There was a slight flaw in Comaneci’s first routine—a small slide forward on the landing of her dismount that she herself acknowledged in her own memoir. Yet she still might have deserved the 10 anyway. The score, not the designation of “perfect.” The Romanian gymnast who went before her on the apparatus received a 9.90 and Comaneci was demonstrably better than her teammate. That 10 was the judges’ way of ranking her correctly. It wasn’t perfect; it was better than.
Abie Grossfeld, an American gymnast from the ’50s and ’60s, who watched Comaneci perform in Montreal, also noted the imperfection on the dismount but acknowledged that she was superior to her competitors. “She was an eleven compared to those girls,” he told me. Grossfeld wished that “perfect” had not been used as a modifier for the ten. “You know what’s the proper term? Maximum score,” he observed.
Following the 1976 Olympics, one annoyed fan sent a letter to International Gymnast that expressed this idea. “After watching in person and on TV the competition in Montreal, I think that the International Federation should consider some changes in the judging of World level competition. Videotape replay of Nadia’s first, imperfect 10.0 compulsory uneven bars routine illustrated the dangers inherent to a flurry of perfect scores. Perhaps the scoring of all routines over 9.9 could be done in 1/100ths or 3/100ths of points to allow for better ranking of performances,” he wrote. Perhaps if the judges had been able to award 9.975s, Comaneci wouldn’t have been awarded that first 10. This would reduce Comaneci’s first 10—and all of the fame that came with it—to what is essentially a rounding error.
Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford said as much at the time. “It is quite obvious that perfect scores are a great hype. Comaneci could have won 9.95s across the board, earned just as many gold medals, been every bit as good, and attracted about one half the publicity for herself and women’s gymnastics.” He also noted that a small, yet noticeable contingent of fans in the audience had started chanting “No more 10s!” as Comaneci continued racking up more perfect scores.
Comaneci had scored 10s before the Olympics, but those don’t really count either. “They care about the Super Bowl, the Olympics,” Comaneci said when I brought up her previous perfect marks to her.
Her legend status may have been cemented in Montreal, but the hype around the young teen had been growing steadily for at least a year before the Olympics when the Romanian turned thirteen and was old enough to compete internationally at the senior level. In 1975, Comaneci won the European all-around title in Skien, Norway, defeating Tourischeva. The European Championships ranked just behind the World Championships and Olympics in terms of prestige, especially back in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, when the strongest gymnastics powers still hailed from Europe. A win at the Europeans was usually considered a harbinger of future Olympic success. Many a European champion has gone on to win the all-around at the subsequent Games.
But it was more than simply winning the European title that got everyone talking about this talented teen. It was the way that she performed her skills. Comaneci demonstrated a technical perfection that had heretofore not been seen in the sport. And to that, she added an ease of performance. Comaneci gave the impression that not only could she do the extremely difficult skill perfectly but also that she could do it repeatedly without error. Her perfection was not spectacular—it was mundane.
This ability to perform flawlessly repeatedly was likely borne out of the intense conditioning that Bela Karolyi subjected his gymnasts to. Karolyi had known little of gymnastics until he met his future wife, Martha, who had been a gymnast, but he had been an accomplished track and field athlete as well as a boxer during his youth. He brought this expertise to gymnastics.
Comaneci wrote about the conditioning regimen. “Bela had a vision of bringing all of his experience in boxing, rugby, handball, and general athletics to gymnastics . . . We spent a few hours a day working with weights and ropes and did lots of jumping, running, and other training.”
She reiterated this idea when I asked her about the impact her coaches had on the sport. “I think conditioning was something that people didn’t know how important it is to do conditioning in gymnastics. You can’t do tricks unless you’re really prepared and fit.”
Rod Hill, the U.S. Olympic team manager in 1976, recalled being on tour with the young Romanian squad and wrote about it. “She could throw ten, twenty, or thirty routines and score a 9.8 or better in each of them. I have seen her throw six consecutive bar routines and hit every one of them and not be breathing hard.”
But it’s more than the fact that Comaneci was incredibly consistent in her routines. “When she hits a position, she does not ease into it, she HITS it. It is crisp and to the point,” Hill marveled in his magazine account. This description speaks of more than not missing but of taking skills, even the seemingly easy ones, to the limit. At the Olympics, the crowd gasped, not just at the spectacular release moves—she had been the first woman to release, flip, and regrasp the same bar—but at a simple handstand in Comaneci’s compulsory bar routine. Their collective awe was not in error. The way in which Comaneci performed the most basic of elements such as that handstand was to take it to absolute vertical. It was so close to the edge it was reasonable to fear that she might tip over and fall off the other side. But she always managed to stay in control, right on top of the sweet spot. Comaneci made no errors while leaving no margin for errors.
“Not every gymnast can do everything technically correct,” Ziert asserted. “There are limitations to some with their bodies, but that’s why Nadia was so good. She had done so many repetitions that her body had the aptitude to do it correctly and it taught itself that.” Ziert didn’t seem to put much stock into Karolyi’s ability as a technical teacher. “It wasn’t a coach that taught her that. The coach made her do so much, her body taught herself that.”
Ziert’s theory imbues Comaneci with almost magical qualities—she had so much talent that she learned proper technique almost without instruction. It’s gymnastics’ equivalent of little Abe Lincoln teaching himself how to read all alone in a log cabin.
Ioan Chirila, a Romanian writer who had been chronicling Comaneci, the Karolyis, and the Romanian gymnastics effort since the early ’70s, quoted a Romanian professor, Gheorghe Brasoveanu, who also minimized the role that Karolyi played in the gymnast’s success. Brasoveanu was the principal of a high school in Comaneci’s hometown of Onesti, where the experimental gymnastics school that the Karolyis established was located. “For anybody, even for those who don’t know a lot about gymnastics, it would have been apparent that the girl was made for sports in general, gymnastics in particular. I am convinced that if our city would have been a place for fencing and not gymnastics, the selector would have discovered in Nadia Comaneci a big champion of the foil.” According to Ziert and Brasoveanu, finding Comaneci was more than half the battle.
And for Latynina, it was not finding a Russian Nadia that proved to be her undoing. She resigned from her post as the head coach of the USSR team after it lost the majority of the individual titles to the Romanians in 1976. She reportedly said at the time, “I don’t know why I should be blamed that Nadia was born in Romania, not Russia.”
Comaneci, for her part, didn’t downplay the role of her coaches. The day after our conversation, she and Conner were headed to New York for a U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) luncheon honoring Bela and Martha. “Bela called me two months ago and of course, we have to be there. Time goes by so fast. Bela is in his seventies. I’m in my fifties,” she said, her tone wistful. We were talking about her youthful accomplishments, something she was often asked to do, and yet the fact was neither she nor Bela were young anymore.
Perhaps it was age and distance that have freed Comaneci to deconstruct some of the apocryphal stories that had been told about her, especially that of her discovery by Karolyi. He has frequently spoken of finding her and Viorica Dumitru, who went on to become one of Romania’s premiere ballerinas, doing cartwheels on the playground. (It was a simpler time—a grown man could lurk around playgrounds without arousing suspicion.) They had run off before he could get their names. Then, the story goes, he went from classroom to classroom, searching for the two little girls he had seen, asking the students if they enjoyed gymnastics.
But Karolyi hadn’t actually “discovered” the young girl’s innate athletic talent. Comaneci had already been taking gymnastics for about a year before the famed coach spotted her and invited her to train at the experimental gymnastics school. “I had other coaches before them [the Karolyis],” she said. “Actually, Martha was coaching me before Bela got involved.”
“I think I was in kindergarten when she came and visited the school and put together a ballet routine for us. I think we met her first and then Bela,” she told me. This revelation doesn’t diminish the impact the Karolyis had on Comaneci’s career. They were her primary coaches throughout most of her time as a gymnast and contributed significantly to her greatest athletic achievements. But it does tweak the fairy tale a bit. The clarification of this timeline makes Comaneci’s story seem slightly less constructed, less “perfect” if you will.
And as many of Karolyi’s past gymnasts have pointed out, he was an excellent motivator and knew how to get his athletes to do more than they thought possible. Sometimes he pushed his athletes too far, but he could never quite crack Comaneci. In her memoir, she recalled, “I’ve heard my old coach Bela Karolyi say that I was the only young gymnast he could never break.”
Later in the book, she delved into this idea in greater detail. “Throughout my years of training and competition, I always kept a reserve of energy,” she wrote. “Let’s say that I knew that I could do fifteen laps of the stadium. I’d tell Bela I could do ten and give myself some reserve, some padding . . . Bela pushed me hard, but the reason he could never break me is because he never truly knew my limits.”
I asked Comaneci about those passages, about what it felt like to know that she could not be broken by a coach who was known for his toughness. I wanted to know if this realization came later or if she recognized it at the time.
“I don’t even know how to explain it,” she said. “Bela was challenging us all the time, ‘I bet you can’t do twelve.’ And I was like, ‘I bet I can do more than twelve.’ I always did two more, and I realized I could do more than that, but that’s okay, I’ll keep it for next time . . . I didn’t know how much more but I felt that I could do more . . . I don’t think I’ve ever pushed to the point where [I thought] ‘This is it, I don’t think I can do more.’ ”
As I listened to her, I wondered if the story she told herself about her own limits was the key, if that belief was what we talk about when we talk about perfection. Maybe twelve or fourteen really was her limit. But because she believed she could do more, she didn’t feel broken down at twelve. This begs the question, is believing you have more in the tank the same thing as actually having more in the tank? Does not pushing yourself too hard create a padding, as Comaneci called it, that allowed her to not determine her limits and thus to believe in her own limitlessness? Like Latynina, I tend to doubt the existence of perfection, but I do share in the belief that Comaneci seemed to cultivate in the endlessness of her abilities—maybe that’s the closest approximation we have to perfection. Maybe conditioning that belief is what, under the bright lights of the Olympic Games, creates about as flawless a performance as possible.
Even if Korbut, Comaneci’s petite predecessor, had indeed merited 10s in her career, she didn’t communicate cool perfection like Comaneci did. Korbut, in her daring tricks, conveyed risk and danger. She paused dramatically before her hardest elements, telegraphing them for the audience. You gasped because you thought she might actually hurt herself. That she made mistakes endeared her to the audience, especially when she wept openly in disappointment, which subverted the stereotype of the cold, unemotional Soviet athlete. She was seen as talented yet human and fallible. Perfection is distancing, and Korbut wasn’t distant—she was eminently relatable, especially to the Western audiences who fell in love with her.
On the other hand, Comaneci, despite doing skills far more difficult than the Belarusian (and more of them), never made you feel ill at ease. She was even keeled on the apparatus and barely wobbled on the narrow beam in all of her Olympic performances in 1976. In Everybody’s Gymnastics Book, Dr. William Sands and Mike Conklin observed, “The Romanians provided the public with real beauty, but it is a beauty of fine engineering than that of the more esoteric forms of art such as dance, ability to emote and ability to communicate a message.” The Romanian style of beauty wasn’t expressive. That brand is highly unpredictable, as it was with Korbut. Rather, Comaneci’s was consistent. It was the sort of sameness you’d expect from assembly-line construction. Comaneci and the Romanians were more Henry Ford than runway couture.
Korbut retired after the 1976 Olympics. It was now Comaneci’s turn to shoulder unfathomable pressure to continue to excel. “After those Olympics, everything I had to go to, I had to win,” she told Sky Sports.
“Wherever I go, I am seen as a former gymnast,” Comaneci observed. This statement would probably be just as true coming from Olga Korbut, Mary Lou Retton, or any other female gymnast who won gold and global fame before they were old enough to drive a car. Their predicament is similar to that of child actors. They are expected to move on from their youthful accomplishments while constantly being forced to recall and relive them for fans.
In 2014, Retton, who won the 1984 Olympic all-around at sixteen, managed to slip back into her teen self for a Super Bowl ad for the now-defunct electronics chain Radio Shack. She donned a replica of the Stars and Stripes leotard that she had worn on the cover of the Wheaties box and a wig cut in the same pixie shape her hair had been in thirty years before. And it worked. Though Retton had visibly aged since her triumph, she still mostly looked the part. She’s only marginally larger than she had been at the height of her gymnastics powers, though she probably can’t flip anymore because she’s had hip replacement surgery in recent years. But in appearance and context—being a suburban mother of four in Texas is not a far cry from the image of the wholesome American teenager she projected during her athletic career—she’s remained largely the same. Retton is the rare former child star that you could still plausibly imagine in her younger role, even years after the fact.
Comaneci, who seems to have aged gracefully, would not be able to pull off that same feat. There was far too much time and distance, physical and geographic, between her present and younger selves.
These days, to stay fit she takes Zumba classes or does the dancercise in the privacy of her own home. “It’s really fun,” she said. “I don’t do something that I kill myself.” It is hard to reconcile the image of one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time doing a Jazzercise workout in her living room every morning.
Forty years after her Olympic triumphs, Comaneci is a suburban mom. She lives in a college town in Oklahoma and has a young son, who has a pet lizard named Rocky. Her son, Dylan, named for the rock music legend, favors a less regimented form of acrobatic play—parkour—to the disciplined gymnastics that made both of his parents famous. I’m sure he’s just following his interests, but I wanted to commend him on his decision not to enter the family business. Though certainly possessed of the perfect genes to excel, no child of Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner should do gymnastics. That is simply too much pressure and expectation for any kid to bear. More pressure, perhaps, than being a fourteen-year-old girl expected to win the gold medal at the Olympics.
Comaneci didn’t seem inclined to push her progeny to relive her and her husband’s past glory. If there is any pressure, it seemed to flow from the opposite direction. Dylan forces the Olympic champion to ride roller coasters with him. Comaneci, apparently, is very afraid of roller coasters. When asked why, she said, “I’m in the seat of someone else’s creation.” She can trust her own body and strength—just as she always believed that she had more in reserve when she was training—but she is less certain about these man-made contraptions.
So why does she go on these rides?
“I do it for the fun of Dylan,” she said. “Because he laughs at me because I close my eyes, of how I scream, ‘Is it over?’ ” She spends the entire time on the ride clenching the harness. “You don’t expect that from someone who has done flips and doubles [double twisting somersaults].”
But as she said, Comaneci is done with all of that.
Just as gymnastics is done with the 10 that made her globally famous.
On August 2, 1992, at the Olympics in Barcelona, Lavinia Milosovici was awarded a perfect score on her floor routine in event finals. None of her competitors could match this mark, so she also won the gold medal. The fifteen-year-old was hoisted onto the shoulders of her coach, Octavian Bellu, to wave to the raucous, appreciative crowd. Earlier that same evening, China’s Lu Li had been similarly celebrated by her coaches and the audience when she received a 10 for her performance on the uneven bars. No one in the audience that day knew it, but they were witnessing the end of the score that had dazzled Olympic gymnastics audiences for a mere sixteen years.
Milosovici was not an obvious choice for a Perfect 10, let alone the “last perfect score.” She was daring but didn’t do the highest degree of difficulty in the competition on floor exercise. She was clean enough in her movements, but no one would have held her out as an example of technical perfection. That distinction would have gone to someone like Soviet Svetlana Boginskaya, 1989 World Champion, nicknamed the Belarusian Swan for her elegance, style, and purity of her technique. And of course, there was her height. She was almost five feet five in a sport dominated by the under-five-foot set. Though Boginskaya performed exceptionally well in Barcelona and without error, the nineteen-year-old Olympic veteran didn’t medal individually. She had been surpassed by a bevy of much shorter fifteen-year-old tricksters.
Boginskaya moved languorously, almost with the appearance of slow motion, allowing you to see just how perfectly she did every skill. Milosovici, by contrast, performed loosely but with speed, so fast that it was hard to see the small errors. It was speed as optical illusion.
Milosovici competed early in the floor lineup, the second gymnast out of the eight who qualified to the final. First, the American Shannon Miller, not known for her tumbling prowess, had performed a fine routine to insistent violins. The crowd applauded politely to Miller’s final routine in Barcelona. And then Milosovici took to the mat. She opened with the same tumbling pass Miller had used, but tacked a crowd-pleasing little front-tuck flip onto the end of it. Milosovici hopped forward on the landing of this pass, just a small slide really, the same way Comaneci had landed her bars dismount in 1976. The rest of the routine was fairly standard in terms of the difficulty of the tumbling. What buoyed her to a Perfect 10 was that extra flip in her first line and the energy of her music and dance. Performing to a jazzy number and with choreography reminiscent of Comaneci’s Montreal floor exercise, Milosovici scarcely paused to catch her breath. (Gymnastics is an anaerobic sport anyway.) When she finished and saluted the judges, the audience applauded loudly. But when her score was announced, that’s when crowd went wild. It was as if the audience was more excited by the 10 than by the acrobatics that preceded it.
The 1992 Games were the first Olympics where the “new life” rule applied. In the previous 1988 Games, the gymnasts carried their scores with them from session to session, like bad relationship baggage. But beginning in 1989, gymnasts started from scratch in the medal rounds. The first beneficiary of this renewed lease on scoring was Boginskaya, who won the World all-around title in 1989 despite qualifying into the finals behind two of her Soviet teammates. In years past, she would have brought that point deficit with her, but with “new life,” she started the all-around final with a clean slate. Nineteen-ninety-two was the first time this new rule was introduced at the Olympic Games. In the event finals in Barcelona, every gymnast started from zero and could climb as high as 10. The 10 Milosovici earned early in the floor rotation was all that mattered. And since you couldn’t get higher than a 10, Milosovici was guaranteed a gold medal, her second of the Games.
If they wanted a share of that title, the remaining six competitors would have to try to match her. Next up was the 1991 co–World Champion on the floor exercise, Oksana Chusovitina of the Unified Team. She performed a full twisting double layout, which was by far the most difficult tumbling pass in the women’s competition, but she landed it out of bounds, a mandatory one-tenth deduction. A 10 was now impossible, and the commentators and even the audience seemed to lose interest in her routine. Next! they seem to be saying through their apparent lack of enthusiasm.
The commentators also seemed to nitpick a bit more in their discussion of the gymnasts’ performances. Once a 10 had been awarded—whether deserved or dubious—the subsequent routines would really have to be perfect. When the Hungarian Henrietta Onodi, the co–gold medalist on vault (with Milosovici), paused slightly after landing her extremely difficult and rare triple twist on floor before going into her next pass, the commentator noted it as though it were a deduction. But it wasn’t. There was no rule that you had to link tumbling passes as Onodi (and American Dominique Dawes) often did. Plus, she completed four passes to Milosovici’s three. She had performed an arguably more difficult exercise, but she didn’t receive a 10. Perhaps the judges agreed with the commentators that the pause was indeed a deduction. The Hungarian had created an expectation of seamlessness from her previous routines and didn’t do it in the final round. She had overpromised and underdelivered. Onodi placed second behind the Romanian.
The other challengers also failed to get a perfect score. Two lurched forward on their tumbling passes; another placed her hands on the mat. And Kim Zmeskal, the defending World all-around champion from the United States, didn’t make any noticeable mistakes except that she came close to going out of bounds—which is not a deduction—but it probably reminded the judges that she had, in fact, taken a large step out of bounds during the all-around. Though scores were technically no longer supposed to be carried over, the judges’ memories are a bit trickier.
At the end of the night, no one managed to tie Milosovici for top honors on the floor (though three gymnasts tied for the bronze, making the third medal tier quite crowded). Little did the audience at the Palau Sant Jordi and viewers at home realize that Milosovici’s 10 would be the last perfect score they would ever witness in Olympic competition.
A scoring revolution that had started with a Romanian ended with one. From 1976 to 1992, judges awarded more than 100 perfect scores in internationally sanctioned competition. The era of the Perfect 10 lasted less than twenty years.
“I always said that the 10 belonged to gymnastics,” Comaneci told me.
And after 1992, it belonged to history.
The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics’ Top Score —from Nadia to Now
The End of the Perfect 10
The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics’ Top Score —from Nadia to Now
It was the team finals of women’s gymnastics in the 2012 London Olympics and McKayla Maroney was on top of her game. The sixteen-year-old US gymnast was performing arguably the best vault of all time, launching herself unimaginably high into the air and sticking a flawless landing. But when her score came, many were baffled: 16.233. Three tenths of a point in deductions stood between her and a perfect score. But if that vault wasn’t perfection, what was?
For years, gymnastics was scored on a 10.0 scale. During this era, more than 100 “perfect” scores were awarded in major international competitions. But when the 10.0 scoring system caused major judging controversies at the 2004 Olympics, international elite gymnastics made the switch to the open-ended scoring system it uses today, making perfect scores a thing of the past—and forever altering the sport in the process.
Gymnastics insider Dvora Meyers examines the evolution of elite women’s gymnastics over the last few decades. With insight, flair, and a boundless love for the sport, Meyers answers questions that gymnastics fans have been asking since the last perfect score was handed out over twenty years ago. She reveals why successful female gymnasts are older and more athletic than they have ever been before, how the United States became a gymnastics powerhouse, and what the future of gymnastics will hold.
Bolstered by dozens of exclusive interviews with professionals representing every aspect of the sport, The End of the Perfect 10 explores a crucial change in one of the most popular Olympic sports, and is a captivating account of elite gymnastics’ entry into the uncharted world of imperfection.
- Touchstone |
- 336 pages |
- ISBN 9781501101366 |
- July 2016