Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Olympic Perfection—Why We Watch

With the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games more barrels of ink and television time have been wasted fretting over the United States Team’s made in China Ralph Loren uniforms than on the athletes themselves.  In Britain they seem to be in a tizzy about a shortage of security guards that caused the government to scramble and mobilize troops to take their place, protests by Taxi drivers and general angst about an archaic transportation system, and the monsoon rains that have been drenching the country for weeks.
But when the pageantry erupts on July 27 billions, around the world will be glued to their televisions and will remain so for the 19 day run of the extravaganza.
I will be one of those viewers.  I admit I am hooked on the Olympics, even obscure sports I don’t understand—maybe especially those sports where stadiums are empty and Americans perplexed.  The athletes in those events can never hope to really profit, even if they take home the gold. 
A lot of that passion started 32 years ago today.
Like most Americans I had a passing interest in the 1976 Montreal Olympics as a kind of quadrennial spectacle back but knew next to nothing about the fine points of most of the events.  Women’s gymnastics was as foreign to me as water polo.  But I followed the Games on television anyhow. 
On July 18 I saw something that got my attention.  A diminutive dark haired 14 year old from Romania with big brown eyes and a shy smile mounted the uneven parallel bars and performed a routine so extraordinary even I knew that something special had occurred.  Nadia Comaneci had earned the first perfect score of 10 from notoriously picky Olympic judges.  The automatic scoreboard was not even programmed to show such a score.  It flashed 1.0. 
Comaneci would go on to be awarded six more perfect scores during the competition and win Gold for All around performance and for the parallel bars and balance beam; a Bronze Medal in floor exercises; and single handedly propelled the Rumanian team to a Silver behind the mighty and traditionally dominant USSR team.  It was one of the most commanding athletic performances in any sport in history. 
She was an instant worldwide celebrity and inspired countless young girls from Portland to Prague to take up the sport.  Gymnastics, which had received a boost four years earlier with the performance of another teenage phenom—Olga Korbut, was elevated to a place as the central glamour event of subsequent Olympiads.   
Comaneci was born November 12, 1961 in Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (now Oneşti), Romania.  The country was one of the grimmest of the Eastern European states where dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, attempted a North Korean style overhaul of the culture.  The result was an impoverished nation, the abandonment  of huge number of children to state orphanages,  and the dislocation of the traditional Romanian rural culture with demolition of villages and forced relocation to numbingly identical urban apartment complexes. 
Comaneci’s natural ability and agility were spotted early and she was enrolled in gymnastics by the time she was six when she was chosen to attend Béla Károlyi's experimental gymnastics school.  Her early success as a gymnast shielded her and her family from the worst of the Ceauşescu regime.  Because her parents lived in the same town as Károlyi's school she was even allowed to live at home with her parents most of the time instead of being confined to barracks-like dormitories. 
By 1970 she was able to win the Romanian Nationals and was successfully competing internationally by 1972 at the age of 11.  She nearly swept the 1975 European Championships in Skien, Norway, winning the all-around and gold medals on every event but the floor exercise, in which she placed second.  By the run-up to the ’76 Olympics it was clear that she would be a major challenge to the USSR team that included Korbut and a rising young star,  Nellie Kim. 
In March she earned her first perfect 10 at the American Cup at Madison Square Garden in New York, games that were televised in the U.S. and Europe.  She followed with perfect scores in meets in Japan and elsewhere.  So her Olympic triumph was not unexpected among followers of the sport. 
She returned from Montreal to Romania as a national heroine.  She was personally greeted by President Ceauşescu and became the youngest person every named Hero of Socialist Labor. 
But the government began to interfere in her career. As she was successfully defending her European Championship Ceauşescu abruptly ordered the Romanian team to leave the competition over a scoring controversy.  Back home she was ordered to leave her long-time coach Béla Károlyi and his wife Marta and placed with a politically reliable coach in Bucharest.  Miserable and lonely, Comaneci began gaining weight and slacking at practice  causing her to place 4th in the 1978 World Championships  After that she was allowed to return to the Károlyis.  
In 1979, slimmed down and disciplined, she won an unprecedented third consecutive European championship despite competing with an infected hand.  At the 1980 Moscow Games, unseen by most Americans because of the President Jimmy Carter’s boycott, she placed second, by a small margin, to Soviet Yelena Davydova in the all around, defended her Olympic title in the balance beam, and tied with Nellie Kim for the gold medal in the floor exercise. 
After a 1981 exhibition tour of the United States during which the Károlyis defected, Comaneci officially retired from competition.  Although allowed to accompany the Romanian team to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles under heavy surveillance, she was banned from most international travel except to Moscow and Cuba. 
She was given prestigious positions with the Romanian Gymnastics Federation and took up coaching, but later said her life in the ‘80’s as “took on a new bleakness.”  In 1989, shortly before the revolution that deposed and executed Ceauşescu, she made a daring escape with a group of other young Romanians and eventually came to the United States in the company of Constantin Panait, a shady character and married father of 4.  She shocked Americans who remembered her as a young girl by wearing highly revealing clothing over a curvaceous figure and slathered in thick, gaudy make-up.  She was trashed in the press for “looking like a whore.” 
She fled to Montreal, the city of her greatest triumph, where she took up coaching gymnastics and doing occasional modeling. 
Former American Olympian Bart Conner invited her to join the staff of his gym in Oklahoma City and the two became engaged in 1994.  The couple wed in Bucharest in 1996 on Comaneci’s first visit to her homeland since fleeing.  In 2010 she became a naturalized American Citizen, while retaining dual Romanian citizenship. 
Comaneci now acts as her homeland’s Honorary Consul General to the United States.  She and Connor continue to operate their gym as well as a string of athletic stores.   She is active in numerous charitable causes including Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of the International Special Olympics and Vice President of the Board of Directors of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.  She has also personally funded the construction and operation of the Nadia Comăneci Children's Clinic in Bucharest to provide medical care and social services to Romanian children. 
In 2006 at the age of 45 she gave birth to her first child, a son. 
She and Conner can be expected to provide expert commentary on Olympic broadcasts as they did from Beijing four years ago. 
 The little Romanian waif is all grown up now and doing very well, thank you.

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