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Nadia Comaneci: The Romanian Gymnast Who Set the Bar

In the duration of the course “Romanian Culture from a Semiotic Perspective”, I have discovered so much about the rich culture, customs, people and history of Romania. As a class we have explored art from the absurdist era, theatre, literature, music and films as well as significant moments in history that have carefully constructed Romania into the ‘Latin isle in the Slavic sea’ that it is today. Romania is well known around the world for its wondrous landscape consisting of the Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania; the home of the one and only Dracula, the avant-garde sculptor Constantin Brancusi, but also for the monumental event that took place during the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montréal- native Romanian Nadia Comaneci became the first gymnast to ever receive a score of a perfect 10.00.

Nadia Elena Comaneci was born November 12th of 1961 to Gheorghe and Stefania in Onesti, a town in the Bacau County, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, historically known as Western Moldavia. She grew up fishing with her grandmother, playing outside at her grandmother’s farm and helping her parents around the house. She was a child full of energy who proved difficult to manage as she was always on the go. Her mother enrolled her in gymnastics classes when she was in kindergarten in hopes to harness her energy into something positive. She was a part of a local team called Flacăra, or ‘the flame’ until age 6, when she was found cartwheeling on the school playground with her friend Viorica Dumitru by Béla Károlyi who had been scouting the playground for young gymnasts to join his experimental school of gymnastics. Nadia and Viorica were two of the first members of Béla’s school and both women are now important athletic figures for Romania. Nadia continued under Béla and his wife Márta’s training and became an Olympic Champion who has two salto skills named after her, while Viorica left and became one of Romania’s top ballerinas.

Nadia started competing through Béla’s school at age 9 in 1970 and became the youngest gymnast to ever win Romanian National Championships. In 1971, Nadia won all around gold in her first international competition against Yugoslavia, then proceeded to collect gold medals for Romania in competitions against gymnasts from Baltic and European countries before winning all around gold at Druzhba, the competition for Olympic hopefuls for the East Bloc (Communist states of Europe and Asia under leadership of the Soviet Union during the cold war). The competition ran until the Iron Curtain fell in 1991 and has seen many high-level gymnasts including Romanian athletes Danielia Silivaș, Cristina Bontaș and Teodora Ungureanu, who competed with Comaneci in the 1976 Olympics.

In her memoir, The art of mentoring: letters to a young gymnast, Nadia states that she refused to give people the satisfaction of seeing her cry. She was the only athlete Béla could not break. Her determination, bold mentality and refusal to let anyone stand in her way or break her helped her flourish as a gymnast. In 1975 at the European Women’s Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Norway, 13-year-old Nadia won gold on every event but floor; marking the beginning her international successes. Her winning streak continued through the Romanian National Championships and the Olympic Trials that took place in Montréal, Quebec. It was in Montréal that Nadia won all-around, earning gold on the balance beam and silver on all of the other apparatuses behind Soviet Nellie Kim, a gymnast against whom Nadia would compete closely until around 1980.

In 1976, Nadia’s legacy of scores of perfect 10.00’s began. She received scores of 10 at the American cup in March on floor and vault. At the 1976 Olympics, Nadia’s precision, talent and attention to detail earned her seven more scores of 10, four of which were on the uneven bars, the other three were earned on the balance beam. The electronic score board used at the time did not go up to 10.00 as a perfect routine was thought of as unattainable, so Nadia’s scores were flashed as 1.00. Soviet gymnast Nellie Kim became the second ever athlete to achieve a score of 10 on the apparatus of vault, shortly after Nadia’s scores at the 1976 Montréal Summer Olympics. Nadia was the first Romanian gymnast to earn an Olympic all-around title and holds the record of being the youngest all-around champion in gymnastics as the revised rules state that athletes must be at least 16 in order to compete in gymnastics at the Olympics.

When Nadia returned to Romania, she was a celebrity. She was the youngest person to ever be awarded the hammer and sickle gold medal; a socialist award symbolizing worker-peasant alliance, and the title of ‘Hero of Socialist Labour’ under Ceausescu’s authority. She was the 1976 BBC Overseas athlete of the year, an award allocated to a non- British athlete who made a significant contribution to a sport, and ‘Female Athlete of the Year’ in a sports publication from New York. She was able to support her family with the earnings from her successes and in 1977 went to the Olympics again to defend her title.
At the 1977 Olympics Nadia competed successfully, but not without controversy. People were skeptical about the scores and Nicolae Ceausescu ordered the Romanian Gymnastics team to return home. Following the 1977 Olympics, Nadia was sent to train at the sports complex in Bucharest, without Béla and Márta. Her training suffered and in the 1979 World Championships she performed poorly compared to her previous competitions only finishing fourth all-around. She was permitted to return to train with Béla and Márta after Worlds to win her third consecutive European title in 1979. She returned to the United States for World Championships and although injured, lead Romania to its first team gold medal in gymnastics. She had a minor surgery on her injured hand and continued to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Russia- referred to as the all-communist games, as the USA boycotted the games. Although Nadia brought home medals, her coach, Béla was not impressed with the scores and commented aloud that he felt she was judged unjustly, embarrassing the Romanian Government leading to a downfall in Romanian Gymnastics.

Nadia grew up during communism under the administration of Ceausescu and although being put through several obstacles remains proud of her heritage stating in her memoir, “I am who my people are and were.” In 1981, Nadia was granted a tour by the Gymnastics Federation (FIG) and on the last day of the Nadia81 tour that circuited throughout the United States, Nadia’s coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi and team choreographer Géza Pozsár defected from Romania. Béla had dropped several hints about defecting at the end of the tour, but Nadia ultimately decided to return to Romania, as that was home. When she returned, all of her successes had been diminished and her privileges lost. Béla started a home and a gymnastics club in Oklahoma and with the reputation of being Nadia’s coach attracted gymnasts to his facility right away.
Nadia was banned from travelling as it was feared that she would follow in Béla’s footsteps and defect and was watched at all times with the exception of travelling to other communist countries to compete. She was allowed to participate in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles for Romania, but was not allowed to speak with Karolyi, who had attended as an American team coach for Mary Lou Retton.

She notes in letters to a young gymnast that she felt insulted that regular Romanian citizens were permitted to travel but she wasn’t. Her opportunity to make extra money to support her family was lost. She wrote “when my gymnastics career was over, there was no longer any need to keep me happy. I was to do as I was instructed, just as I'd done my entire life”. On November 27th of 1989, Comăneci defected to the United States with help from Constantin Panait, a Romanian defect who became an American citizen. Defection from Romania is a very fragile matter as many have lost their lives trying to leave. Nadia went through Hungary and Austria mostly by foot until she arrived in the United States.
Today, Nadia is married to American gymnast Bart Conner and has a son named Dylan. She has funded a children’s hospital in Bucharest, is involved in the special Olympics and does charity work while remaining involved with the sport she so loved. In 2018, Nadia spoke at the World Championships in Montréal to commemorate her successes and the growth of gymnastics as a sport in the same arena she had competed in 42 years prior. She shared encouraging words and spoke about the evolution of the sport.

Nadia is a significant member of Romanian history as well as the history of gymnastics. She is currently the honorary president of the Romanian Gymnastics Federation and the Romanian Olympic Committee and is the sports ambassador of Romania. A perfect 10.00 in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics had been thought of as an impossible score to achieve, but Nadia Comaneci did just that and then used her legacy to do good in her name and in the name of her country. Nadia Comaneci will always be remembered an important figure of gymnastics history as the youngest, and first gymnast to ever score a perfect 10 who came from a small village in Romania. She has paved the way for many young athletes and her successes brought funding for Romanian Olympic hopefuls. Romanian gymnasts who have followed Comaneci strive to attain the same level of success and have altered the sport in their own positive ways. Most importantly, Nadia will be remembered as a dedicated woman who has set the bar of expectation high for all women in not only gymnastics, but all sports.

Bibliography:
“A Word on Romania.” Thecouchgymnast.com, 3 Aug. 2018, www.thecouchgymnast.com/2018/08/03/a-word-on-romania/.
Biography.com Editors. “Nadia Comaneci.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 1 Nov. 2016, www.biography.com/people/nadia-comaneci-9254240.
“Béla Károlyi.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B%C3%A9la_K%C3%A1rolyi#Defecting_to_America.
Gary. “The Journey Of The Romanian Women.” Gymnastics, 3 Jan. 2012, www.flogymnastics.com/articles/5047175-the-journey-of-the-romanian-women.
Meyers, Dvora. “Is Larisa Iordache The Last Romanian Gymnast?” Deadspin, Deadspin, 7 Oct. 2017, deadspin.com/is-larisa-iordache-the-last-romanian-gymnast-1819217665.
Meyers, Dvora. “Romania's Olympic Gymnastics Failure: Where Did It All Go Wrong? | Dvora Meyers.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Apr. 2016, www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/apr/19/romanian-gymnastics-olympics-failure.
“Nadia Comăneci.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nadia_Com%C4%83neci.
“Romanian Gymnastics World Champion Reveals Dark Side of Performance in Autobiography.” Romania Insider, 1 June 2016, www.romania-insider.com/dark-secret-behind-romanian-gymnastics-performances.
“The World Factbook: Romania.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Feb. 2018, www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ro.html.


Olivia Seabrook
Romanian Culture in a Semiotic Perspective Course
@ Glendon College Torontp





Olivia Seabrook    5/20/2019


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