Nadia Comaneci is the name synonymous with Perfect 10. Even her Twitter handle reads @nadiacomaneci10. For anyone who has seen the video of her as a 14-year-old who almost danced her way to the first ever perfect score in gymnastics at the Olympics back in 1976, Comaneci is remembered as the young girl with the graceful steps and smile.
She still has the same ready smile, and the infectious enthusiasm with which she talks about her sport is still child-like; proof that gymnastics couldn’t have a better ambassador. Her pride in the sport and its global evolution is palpable, a pride tempered with the knowledge of not just what she has achieved, but what her achievement means to the sport.
In 1976, a Romanian gymnast setting records in a sport largely dominated by the Soviet Union, changed the face of the sport in her country. Much like Dipa Karmakar, who was fondly hailed as “India’s Nadia Comaneci”, when she became the first woman gymnast to represent India at the Olympics.
Comaneci, who Karmakar referred to as “god” for gymnasts, has nothing but glowing praise for the Indian who made the sport popular all over the country. “It’s great to see a gymnast like Dipa, who was able to inspire a generation in a country where you were only talking about cricket,” she said in conversation with Scroll.in.
“She introduced a sport which was not popular here [in India]. It tells everybody that you don’t have to be born in United States or Romania or Russia to be a great gymnast. You can be born anywhere if you are a little gusty and you have some courage and you have a good coach next to you. Because we are all made from the same material,” said Comaneci, pointing to her legs.
She is especially admiring of Karmakar’s daring move, the Produnova or the “Vault of Death” as it’s often called. “You have to do something that is a little out of the ordinary to be able to make a mark [in gymnastics]. Just being there is not enough, you need to make or do that will make people go ‘wow’, and Dipa is someone gutsy enough to try it,” she added. “Every gymnast wants to do something that is right there on a book, to do something that nobody has done before. I think [Dipa] can be in that group of gymnasts who did something that not too many gymnasts attempt to do… successfully.” She laughed as she said the last bit, because “successfully” is indeed the operative word.
Karmakar’s rare story of unprecedented success in a niche sport is what made headlines, which then highlighted the hardships she had to face on the way. But what about the hundreds other young gymnasts who don’t move beyond the nationals? Can one athlete change the game in an entire country? Who better to answer that than the athlete who changed her sport globally.
“It takes one person,” Comaneci asserted. “After me there were others who followed up the tradition [in Romania] and sport became popular. It takes one person and it is followed by others because they say, ‘Oh, it’s possible why shouldn’t I do it, why can’t it be?’”
Maybe the same can happen in India, with Karmakar becoming the face of the sport throughout the country. “I think it is great for the country because now the parents who have girls will say I want my girl to play in a gym a little bit,” Comaneci said.
How India can develop gymnastics
But for parents to want to send their daughters to the gym, there needs to be the facilities for it. Karmakar’s coach Bishweshwar Nandi has in the past spoken about the hurdles in training with the previously limited infrastructure available. Comaneci, who runs a gymnastics academy with her husband, former American gymnast Bart Connor, in USA, had very insightful ideas about what India needs to do to develop gymnastics; to create a culture around the sport now with a role model like Karmakar.
“I think that you need big foundations of numbers of kids to play gymnastics,” she said of the first step, giving the example of her own students as she talked about how it is important for children to start any sport early and in the correct manner. “We have an academy with 1,500 students, we have a little room where we have two-year-olds who come with mommy once a week and they have a miniature beam and they have couple of rings, all colourful, they roll under mats. They don’t know gymnastics, they learn how to walk, they fall, they bend they talk and they learn the basics stuff. That’s how you start.”
Recounting the story of how she started the sport, an amused Comaneci said, “My mum sent me to the gym because I had too much energy and destroyed furniture.” But on a more serious note she added how it was starting at that young age that set her on her career path. “All of those pieces together directed me to a place where I liked it because I could do things that I couldn’t do at home. I liked this feeling of flying because it is all about flying and being free in gymnastics. And the pit you jump in– what kid doesn’t like that? It’s like a playground with all kind of high-tech stuff. I didn’t want to go home I always wanted to be in a gym.”
Talking about her own foray into the sport and her role as mentor to several youngsters back in USA, she also expresses a lot of hope for the future of gymnastics in India.
“Hopefully now with Dipa’s success with what you [the media] write and what other people will read, sponsors will put together facilities for kids to be able to, allow them to do gymnastics because a five or six-year-old doesn’t know what he wants to do but if you bring him in a gym, he is going to like it,” Comaneci said. “A child will be like, ‘I want to roll on a mat, I want to swing on the bars.’ It’s what we do when we go outside and play, no?
“Gymnastics is a base format for all sports – for coordination, flexibility a lot of things that you need anyway. I met a lot of kids who started with gymnastics and ended up being great in other sports and they said I am so thankful that I did gymnastics because I had that base that helped me achieve,” she added.
While Comaneci can claim the title of the gymnastics GOAT (Greatest of all Time), who according to her is the gymnast worthy of a Perfect 10 today? During the 2016 Olympics, the veteran gymnast had said that she would have given USA’s teen superstar Simone Biles a Perfect 10 and is visibly excited when she talks about Biles. “Once in a while comes someone who makes you say, ‘Oh my gosh’ – the difficulties, how easy she does things, her landings, ‘Oh my Gosh.’”
Before we conclude, we can’t not ask her about her historic feat at the 1976 Montreal Games. But it’s not just the Perfect 10 we want to ask her about. There is one other incident many are curious about – when the Olympics scorecard flashed 1.00 instead of 10.00, for the lack of the fourth slot. The story goes that Omega SA, the traditional Olympics scoreboard manufacturer, were told that a perfect 10.00 was not possible when asked if four digits were needed on the gymnastics scoreboard.
How did the then 14-year-old girl respond to this? A cavalier Comaneci laughed, saying that it didn’t bother her then because she was far too focused on doing her next event.
“I wasn’t watching, I wasn’t curious about my scores,” she said. “I thought I was going to get a pretty good score. I didn’t expect and I didn’t even understand what that was. I was like what’s wrong with the scoreboard and I didn’t even have time to think because I was the last competitor on the bars and I had to go to beam. Once I finished the music started and I had to go to beam, so when all the things were happening I was like, ‘Oh, whatever, we will figure that out later.’ One of my teammates was like I think there is something wrong with the computer they didn’t show the right score.”
“But years later I found that because nobody had done it [Perfect 10], they didn’t expect it and didn’t create the light and the bulbs [for the fourth digit on the scoreboard]. And after they created all the boards for the Olympics, because they spent some money on it, they wanted to use them in other competitions. But they didn’t bring them where I was competing. They said we don’t want to use them [traditional scoreboards] where Nadia is coming because we can’t make the 10,” she concludes with a hearty laugh.
That cheerful laughter after recounting the momentous incident that changed the game is perhaps one of the best way to describe Nadia Comaneci – from the young girl we have seen in videos scoring the Perfect 10 with a huge smile, to the legendary gymnast who shares her passion for the sport with delight.