It took just ten minutes for the secret of Nadia Comaneci’s extraordinary success at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal to be revealed. Comaneci achieved the first-ever perfect score when she was given a clean sweep of 10s from all the judges for her performance on the uneven bars. ‘What I remember is the dead silence in the stadium,’ recalls Vera Atkinson, a champion gymnast herself who was reporting on the Games for Bulgarian national television. ‘She flew between the bars, performing so many different things with the human body, before landing perfectly still…Yet the routine took barely 30 seconds.’
Comaneci’s feat of perfection was so unusual and so unexpected that the scoreboard was not set up to show a ‘10’ but could only manage ‘1.00’. How did she do it? ‘I always did for two or three more times whatever I was asked by the coach,’ says Comaneci. ‘I always wanted to do more than I was asked to do.’
She was featured last Sunday on Sporting Witness, a new BBC World Service series of ten-minute shorts highlighting key moments in sporting history as a prelude to the London Olympics next year. Comaneci was just 14 when she showed the world that such a degree of perfection is achievable. Go check it out on YouTube if you’re not convinced. She is astonishing on that day, and she still inspires with her modest appraisal of what she did.
‘I had no idea of the history I made in that moment,’ she recalls now. ‘I was too young to understand what I’d done.’ She went back home to Bucharest and worked even harder, winning two more golds and two silvers in Moscow four years later. What made her so determined? ‘I’m not sure…’ she giggles. ‘I was born like that, I guess.’
So much was packed into this ten minutes of radio, analysing Comaneci’s performance from an expert professional angle, her own personal sense of what she had done, and the perspective of hindsight. This takes careful editing, a skill which, like Comaneci’s own, involves industry and persistence to acquire and perfect.
The strike on Monday by BBC journalists was an attempt by them to highlight what is happening to the BBC and especially to the World Service, which since its establishment in 1932 has become the byword for professionalism, as a news organisation but also for the calibre of its science, arts, history programming. Valuable personnel are losing their jobs, which means teams of professionals are being broken up, their expertise lost for ever. At the World Service so much has been thrown away in the past decade or so, particularly in its drama output, now virtually abolished. No more plays from around the world, no more British-led productions being heard across the globe from Christchurch to Kathmandu. No more Proms broadcast on the World Service either; one of our most valuable cultural exports thrown away not because of a lack of funding but from an absence of mind, a gap in understanding.
It’s hard to justify strikes in the public sector when so many of those working for private companies are being made redundant without due notice, but these cuts at the BBC — 387 jobs in the latest round, with 1,000 more in prospect — are hitting hard and are worth making a fuss about. With so little being achieved by the UK now in terms of GNP, we need the BBC more than ever as a justification for our disproportionate significance on the global stage. It’s something we’ve perfected after years of hard work.
It took rather longer than ten minutes for us to discover why the soul singer Aretha Franklin is such a musical genius. Queen of Soul: The Legend of Aretha Franklin was a two-part documentary on Radio 2, produced and presented by Paul Sexton (who last week gave us a lengthy profile of jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong). This was none the worse for being so much longer than the average documentary feature. It meant we could luxuriate in two hours’ worth of Aretha specials from ‘Who’s zoomin’ who’ to her extraordinary performance of ‘I had a dream’ at Bill Clinton’s inauguration as President of the USA.
No time was wasted on talking about Aretha’s personal life; the focus was all on her artistry, her incredible gift for singing a line, the way she takes a song and makes it inimitably her own. George Michael, formerly of Wham!, recalled the studio session he had with her while they were recording ‘I knew you were waiting for me’. He told us how she arrived ‘with a whole side of rib wrapped in tin foil’. Michael does not eat meat so Aretha ate the whole thing herself, throwing away each rib as she finished it by chucking it across the studio into the bin at the other side. She never missed. ‘I knew then,’ said Michael, ‘that she had spent half her life in that studio.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 6, 2011