In sport, as in life, we yearn for perfection. We want to push ourselves to be better versions every day. That’s just how things are, we are forever looking to improve, to get better.
But just imagine how the 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci would have felt during the 1976 Olympic Games at Montreal when she reeled off one perfect score after another. When the dust settled, the Romanian had scored seven perfect 10s to blow away the opposition and the scoreboard (which was not designed to show double-digit scores simply because no one was expected to be perfect).
“I was told, ‘a 10.00 is not possible,’” recalled Daniel Baumat, now the director of Swiss Timing, which like Omega is part of the Swatch Group. “So we only did three digits.”
So when Comaneci finished her first perfect routine of the day, on the uneven bars, the judges were in a bit of quandary. They knew that the scoreboard could not show 10. So, one of them approached Baumat and asked for a solution.
“She asked what to do,” Baumat said. “I said that they could either put up 1.00 or .100 but that there was no possibility for a 10.00. Just as the federation had told me.”
So, Comaneci became the first perfect ‘1.00’ in history.
“I felt I had done a good routine,” Comaneci later said of the moment she finished on the uneven bars in the team competition, on the second day of the Montreal 1976 Games. “So, I didn’t care to watch the scoreboard because I thought I was going to get a 9.9 or something like that, which was good as a start. I was already thinking of the balance beam because once the score comes, the music comes on and then we had to march [to the next apparatus]. So I was putting that routine away and not paying attention to the scoreboard, until I heard the noise in the arena.”
Comaneci added: “I looked around to see what was going on and then I saw the problem or whatever was happening with the scoreboard. I didn’t understand it but I was like, whatever it is, it’s something wrong so I am just going to concentrate on my next event. One of my team-mates said, ‘I think it is a 10 or there is something wrong with the scoreboard’. I knew at least I was going to get a 9.9 – because a 1.0 was way too low.”
And Comaneci didn’t stop there.
By the time she left Montreal, the tiny Romanian had done it seven times. She produced perfect routines in the uneven bars four times and on the beam, three times. She won three gold medals, for the bars, the beam and the all-around competition, as well as a team silver and a bronze for her floor exercise.
“She seemed,” The Guardian wrote a few years later, “almost inhuman in her exactness.”
There was grace no doubt but there was also great control in her routine. Most would have thought that this composure would be beyond the 4ft 11inch tall girl, who weighed just 39 kgs but she just seemed to know when to smile, when to focus and how to win the hearts of everyone watching.
But to this day, Comaneci feels that gymnastics to her was never about the scores or even perfection.
“We don’t think about scores at all. It is not important,” she said. “You don’t compete to get a score, you compete with yourself to do a good job.”
Comaneci never quite matched the great heights she reached at Montreal again but she will always remain the first to attain perfection and that is her legacy.