Monday, July 18, 2011

A Perfect 10

On this day in 1976, something happened that had never before happened in Olympic gymnastic competition.

A perfect score — 10.00 — was recorded.

Thirty–five years ago, these were uncharted waters. The scoreboards in Montreal (where the Summer Games were being played) weren't set up to display a four–digit score so they showed 1.00 instead.

Who achieved this milestone? Nadia Comaneci of Romania, a 14–year–old dynamo of a pixie who instantly replaced Olga Korbut, the star of the 1972 Games, as the world's favorite gymnast.

Korbut was back in 1976, but she was almost an afterthought. She wasn't even the best Russian gymnast, let alone the best in the world. For that matter, she wasn't even the second–best Russian gymnast.

In Montreal, Korbut was treated more like a celebrity who was recognized for past achievements than a serious competitor. There was a vacuum in women's gymnastics, at least as far as ordinary viewers of the Olympics (such as myself) were concerned. There was no clear star.

And then Comaneci shot across the gymnastics firmament.

Maybe the folks who followed gymnastics closely in those days had heard about Comaneci before the Olympics, but my memory is that almost no one knew who she was. Certainly, I had never heard of her before.

In all, Comaneci recorded seven perfect scores in the Montreal Games. Mind you, that did not mean seven gold medals.

Some of those perfect scores were recorded in competition for the team all–around medals — as a team, the Romanians finished second — and the others propelled Comaneci to three individual gold medals.

No doubt about it. She was a sensation that summer, the new center of the international gymnastics universe. Whenever the female gymnasts were competing, TV ratings went through the roof. People were tuning in to see if Comaneci would record another perfect score — and, most of the time, they got what they wanted.

In a decade that saw three Triple Crown winners in horse racing, Jack Nicklaus flirt with golf's Grand Slam a couple of times, Hank Aaron replace Babe Ruth as baseball's home run king and swimmer Mark Spitz win seven gold medals at the '72 Olympics, individual accomplishments were practically expected — even in team sports.

Perfect scores are somewhat commonplace in gymnastics today — at least when compared to 1976 and all that had come before. In fact, only eight years later, in 1984, 16–year–old Mary Lou Retton became the first American to do it.

That was pretty remarkable in many ways — but especially for Americans, who had been longing for a gymnastics champion of their own for many years. The sport had been the domain of Russian and Eastern European women for decades.

The fact that the Russians and Eastern Europeans did not participate in the '84 Games didn't seem to matter much to Americans — but it might have cheapened the achievement in the eyes of the rest of the world.

(Anyway, to show how far things had come technologically since Comaneci's day in Montreal, the scoreboards in Los Angeles were equipped to handle four–digit scores when Retton recorded her 10.)

Perfect scores were sort of regarded as impossible dreams when Nadia Comaneci burst onto the scene in 1976 — and her name was hardly a household word. Before the Olympics, most Americans probably had never heard of her.

The anchors of the Olympic TV coverage didn't know how to pronounce her last name when the Games began. They mispronounced it throughout the competition and only began pronouncing it correctly when the closing ceremonies were about to begin on August 1.

Initially, it was pronounced in an almost Italian sort of way, with the "i" spoken. But, in fact, it rhymes with "peach" — with a "ch" sound, not a "y" sound, at the end.

Someone from the Romanian Olympic team brought it to the announcers' attention. My memory is that they corrected themselves with little, if any, fanfare.

I'm told they were pronouncing it correctly four years later, when Comaneci participated in the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. But I didn't see those Games. Because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter ordered a boycott by American athletes and athletes representing countries that sympathized with the United States.

In that atmosphere, Comaneci won two more gold medals — but she had retired from competition when Retton scored her perfect 10 in Los Angeles. (And, because the Romanians didn't come to Los Angeles in 1984, it hardly mattered.)

The torch had been passed.

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