Comăneci Receives the First Perfect Score in Olympic Gymnastics Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When fourteen-year-old Romanian Nadia Comăneci delivered unprecedented performances in gymnastics at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, scoring seven perfect tens and taking three gold medals, her achievement gained additional attention for the popular sport of women’s gymnastics, particularly in the United States.

Summary of Event

In the 1960’s, gymnastics languished as an obscure sport in much of the world despite the fact that gymnastic events were part of the Olympic Games. The Olympic status of gymnastics, however, prompted Eastern European nations to finance the development of gymnasts as part of their effort to show the superiority of the Communist political system. Sports;gymnastics Gymnastics Olympic Games;1976 [kw]Comăneci Receives the First Perfect Score in Olympic Gymnastics (July 18, 1976) [kw]First Perfect Score in Olympic Gymnastics, Comăneci Receives the (July 18, 1976) [kw]Perfect Score in Olympic Gymnastics, Comăneci Receives the First (July 18, 1976) [kw]Olympic Gymnastics, Comăneci Receives the First Perfect Score in (July 18, 1976) [kw]Gymnastics, Comăneci Receives the First Perfect Score in Olympic (July 18, 1976) Sports;gymnastics Gymnastics Olympic Games;1976 [g]North America;July 18, 1976: Comăneci Receives the First Perfect Score in Olympic Gymnastics[02460] [g]Canada;July 18, 1976: Comăneci Receives the First Perfect Score in Olympic Gymnastics[02460] [c]Sports;July 18, 1976: Comăneci Receives the First Perfect Score in Olympic Gymnastics[02460] Comăneci, Nadia Károlyi, Béla

Nadia Comăneci was a six-year-old kindergarten student in Onesti, Romania—a poverty-stricken village with no running water—when she met famed Romanian gymnastics coach Béla Károlyi. Károlyi tested Comăneci in the fifteen-meter sprint, the long jump, and the balance beam to determine her potential. Convinced that she had the necessary talent and intensity to become a gymnast, he began training the child. For the next few years, Comăneci focused on gymnastics and lived on a strict diet of fruit, milk, cheese, and protein imposed by Károlyi. Such a routine was typical for athletes from Eastern European nations during the Cold War.

By the time of the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, held in Montreal, Comăneci stood four feet, eleven inches tall and weighed eighty-six pounds. With long legs and a thin frame, she had the perfect physique for a gymnast. Although Comăneci clearly showed promise, Olga Korbut Korbut, Olga of Belarus in the Soviet Union was considered to be the favorite in women’s gymnastics as the Montreal Olympics began. Korbut had won three gold medals at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, and had been named Athlete of the Year by ABC Sports. Her combination of skill, charm, and attractive appearance had done much to increase the popularity of women’s gymnastics, which by 1976 had become one of the most popular spectator sports in the world.

When the relatively unknown Comăneci began her routine on the uneven bars at the Olympics on July 18, 1976, a capacity crowd of sixteen thousand had gathered in the Forum stadium in Montreal for the first day of Olympic competition. Only the sounds of hundreds of cameras clicking pierced the silence as Comăneci performed. At one point, it appeared that her right foot might slip, but she glided through the routine almost effortlessly, finishing up with a dramatic series of somersaults. The judges from Canada, West Germany, Bulgaria, and France gave her a perfect score of 10.00. Such a score had been considered impossible to achieve; it was so unexpected that the scoreboard had not been programmed to register more than three digits. When the number 1.00 flashed on the four-sided scoreboard, however, the spectators immediately understood what had happened. Comăneci had earned the first perfect score in gymnastics in Olympic history; she received a standing ovation.

On the second day of competition, Comăneci did not have complete victory assured. Korbut remained in the running for the all-around gold medal, and Ludmilla Tourischeva Tourischeva, Ludmilla of the Soviet Union’s team had scored no lower than 9.8 in her routines. Coached by Károlyi, the Romanian national women’s coach, Comăneci kept her all-around score high with a floor exercise routine that had the crowd clapping along to her music, “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” Her score on the vault phase of the optional program was 9.85.

Reaffirming that her perfect score on the uneven bars on opening day was not a fluke, Comăneci again achieved perfect marks on the uneven bars on the night of July 19. Comăneci’s two-day all-around total was 79.05. Tourischeva and Soviet Nellie Kim Kim, Nellie were tied for second at 73.25, and Korbut came in fifth with 77.95. Comăneci’s feats helped Romania to win a silver medal, behind the Soviet Union, in the two-day team phase of the women’s competition. It also established her as the favorite for top honors in the all-around and in several individual events she had also entered.

The overall title is determined on the basis of half of the points carried over from the compulsory and optional programs and half of the final four events. Comăneci registered her fourth and fifth perfect marks of the competition in the uneven parallel bars and the balance beam. She was close to perfection with a 9.85 in the horse vault and wound up her exhibition with a floor exercise that produced a 9.9, her best showing thus far in that event. Kim earned a perfect score in the vault—the first ever in Olympic competition—to overtake Tourischeva for the silver medal. Comăneci earned three gold medals, including the all-around title, a silver for the Romanian team performance, a bronze in the floor exercise, and fourth place in the horse vault. In all, she received seven perfect scores.

Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci dismounts from the uneven parallel bars at the Summer Olympic Games in Montreal on July 18, 1976. Comăneci received an unprecedented perfect score of ten in this and six other performances.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Comăneci narrowly failed to retain her overall title in Moscow at the 1980 Olympic Games. Needing to score 9.9 on the balance beam to beat Soviet Yelena Davydova, Davydova, Yelena she went away with a 9.8 after the judges debated for twenty-eight minutes. Comăneci shared her last Olympic gold medal with her rival from the Soviet Union, Nellie Kim, in 1980. The two had been battling each other since the European Championships in 1975. Comăneci carried on for another year before finally bowing out of competition after her victory at the 1981 World Student Games.

Between 1984 and 1989, Comăneci worked as a coach for the Romanian Gymnastics Federation. In 1989, she defected to the United States by walking across the Romanian border to Hungary and then contacting the American government. She subsequently toured the United States promoting lines of gymnastics apparel, underwear, and aerobic equipment. In 1996, Comăneci married American Olympic gymnast Bart Conner in Bucharest, Romania, the first time she had returned home since her defection. The couple opened a gymnastics academy in Norman, Oklahoma. In 2001, Comăneci became an American citizen.

Significance

In 1976, international experts in the sport of gymnastics proclaimed Comăneci to be the best gymnast the world had ever produced. In technique, form, and execution, she took the basic points of a routine and elevated them to a level never before seen. Comăneci never faltered. Her poise, especially remarkable for such a young girl, left observers stunned. Comăneci’s achievements in the Olympic Games led to a gymnastics craze in the United States that was then further fed by the successes of American gymnasts in the Olympics. As more American girls began to enter sports competition in the wake of the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, Education Amendments Act (1972) Title IX of the Education Amendments Act (1972)[Title 09 of the Education Amendments Act] many chose gymnastics, which for many—in large part thanks to Comăneci—had a greater allure than basketball or volleyball. Many girls saw Comăneci as the face of gymnastics and wanted to emulate her.

At the same time that Comăneci’s achievements added a chapter to the history of women’s sports, they gave support to the Eastern Bloc countries. During the Cold War, Eastern European countries viewed winning in sports competitions against the nations of the West as a way to demonstrate the superiority of their particular political philosophy. Comăneci’s perfect scores gave a propaganda boost to the Communist nations. Sports;gymnastics Gymnastics Olympic Games;1976

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Joel L. Superstars of Women’s Gymnastics. New York: Chelsea House, 1997. Volume aimed at youthful readers provides an introduction to Comăneci and her peers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Comăneci, Nadia. Letters to a Young Gymnast. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Memoir intended to inspire young gymnasts describes Comăneci’s early training and provides some insight into the mind of the athlete.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Nadia: The Autobiography of Nadia Comăneci. New York: X-S Books, 1981. Provides an overview of Comăneci’s life, with a focus on the challenges of choosing a life in gymnastics.

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