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.