Sunday, August 14, 2016

Digging the Olympics and Recalling Perfection

The U.S. Women's Gymnastics team proclaimed themselves the Final Five after wining Team Gold in Rio.  A rainbow team.

We are better than half way through the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and despite the doom, gloom, and denunciations that preceded the Games, they seem to have gripped the American imagination and I suspect much of the world.  Before the Torch was lit Friday before last, all we heard was a steady drumbeat of predictions of disaster. 
The press and some athletes were in a panic about the Zeka virus and pollution at some venues so bad that the water was declared poisonous and pathogenic.   The Brazilian economy had collapsed and funds to complete preparations and provide security hat dried up.  Corruption riddled the governments of Rio, its state, and the Federal government.  And just weeks before the games a virtual coup d’etat by the entrenched oligarchy impeached the popularly elected leftist President Dilma Rousseff, replacing her pending trial on dubious corruption charges with the Vice President who turned against her, Michel Temer.  There was political chaos at home and international condemnation. 
Meanwhile there was unrest in the vast slums and spreading protest to the dislocations of communities to make way for the Games and the billions spent to put them on while people literally starve and feral children roam the streets.  Gangs were said to be plotting to attack, rob, and kidnap athletes and tourists.  There were fears of uprisings while unpaid police threatened to strike during the Games.
As if all that were not enough the Russians were engulfed in a massive doping scandal and narrowly avoided having their whole team disqualified.  As it stood high profile athletes were banned and some sport federations banned some teams.  And, of course there were half a dozen other international political controversies threatened protests or disruptions.
There was hardly any time left from all of the hand wringing for NBC and its assorted cable networks to build anticipation, by hyping the backstories of potential stars.
But something semi-magical happened when the Torch was lit.  America, weary to death of an ugly election season became enchanted with the Games and Rio has somehow muddled through with no overt disasters.
Of course Americans, who love themselves when they forget about politics and love winning more, were immediately enthralled by a rapidly growing mountain of medals.  Unlike many host countries, Brazil is not a traditional Olympic power house expected to get a medal boost from home crowds and perhaps lenient judges.  So the USA which is at least in the same hemisphere and has lots of folks rich—and daring—enough for flying down to Rio has almost been the home team with plenty of chanting fans and seas of Red, White, and Blue in the stands.  They have also had jaw dropping starsMichael Phelps back to the games for the fifth time and collecting medals by the fistful, young Katy Ledecky who seems to want to stake out a similar career and won her last race not only shattering a world’s record but leaving the rest of the field at the other end of the pool, and that fabulous Final Five of Women’s Gymnastics including Simone Biles who is being called the greatest female gymnast of all time.

American Simone Manuel and Canadian Penny Oleksiak celebrate their extraordinary tie victory in the 100 Meter Free Style.  Each won Gold.  For Manuel it was the first ever individual swimming Gold for a Black athlete.
And there were plenty of other gripping stories and heroes—Simone Manuel who unexpectedly Gold in the 100-meter freestyle in a tie with 16 year old Canadian Penny Oleksiak, Ibtihaj Muhammad the Bronze winning Muslim fencer in a hajib, and Gold Medalist in shotput Michele Carter.
These American women all shattered traditions and expectations in sports traditionally the province of White athletes.  The gymnastic team alone consisted of two Black women, a Puerto Rican, a Jew, and one blonde.  By in large as Americans are being pitted against each other by race, ethnicity, and religion these athletes have generally been embraced by the public, a feat worthy of celebration in and of itself.  But lest we get too self-congratulatory it is important to note that it was not too hard to turn over a rock and have the overt and covert racists and bigots come slithering out everywhere from Fox News to the on-line comments to your local sports pages.  And they will all return to a country that does not value their lives and folks who go berserk when one dared utter concern for police violence against Blacks.  
For those with patience and curiosity there are also lots of rewarding non-American stories, and the glories of those who labor in obscure sports broadcasts on NBC stepchild networks in odd hours.  In fact these athletes provide a glimpse at the Olympics closest to the often stated but seldom achieved goal of assembling the Youth of the World in peace.
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 36 years ago.
Nadia Comaneci in Montreal.
Like most Americans I had a passing interest in the 1976 Montreal Olympics as a kind of quadrennial spectacle 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 and sometimes suspiciously political 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 phenomOlga 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 Karolyi 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.  

Comaneci was under intense scrutiny when she defected in 1989.

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 four.  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. 

Bart Conner and Nadia on their wedding day in Bucharest.
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 a son. 
The little Romanian waif is all grown up now and doing very well, thank you.

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