The Soviet Union (countries under Russian rule), the U.S. and Western Europe were engaged in a power struggle never before seen on so wide a scale mankind. Over 1 billion people were involved in cold war efforts at one upsmanship. Armies squared off against each other on the borders of neutral countries and warships faced each other over invisible boundaries, each daring the other to cross and start World War III, people labeled each other as pinkos, commies, capitalist Pigs, war lords and the like. This carried over into the Olympics. Political wrangles such as New Zealand having beaten South Africa (which was still immersed in apartheid) at Soccer and the threatened ban by all African nations if New Zealand was allowed into the Olympics and accusations of steroid use against the Soviet Union bloc of athletes threatened the future of the Olympics. Judges in each discipline did their best to promote athletes from their own countries over those sometimes of much better quality, from “the other side”. The year was 1976.
Then one Olympic afternoon Nadia Comaneci stepped onto the Olympic and World stages and reminded us all of what the Olympics was meant to be. The World held its collective breath and stopped hating each other for just a little bit.
The loudspeaker and the television announcer pronounced her name. NADIA COMANECI. The 4’9″ gymnast stood calmly at the edge of the floor mat waiting for the signal to begin. Though her country, Romania’s expectations of her were very high, the rest of the world did not even know her name. As I sat with friends waiting for her performance to begin we actually asked each other who she was. After her performance in the first element, we were all silent. None of us could find a single fault in her performance. The judges took some time to calculate her scores. Someone said, “She is going to be the one to beat and it won’t be easy.” The event continued with other girls from other teams, Nadia’s parallel bars was flawless, her floor routine fun, exciting, completely on point and flawless and by the time she reached the uneven bars, we were all mesmerized by the beauty of the line of her body, her technique, her rhythm and her confidence and we were all pulling for her.
None of us, veteran Olympics watchers all, had ever seen anything like her before. I remember saying to my friends, “I wonder if the judges will drop their politics and give her the scores she deserves”. We decided that if that didn’t happen, we were going to write the Olympic Committee in protest (little did we know that we would have been among the 2-3 million or so who would have done the same in the U.S. alone).
The moment had come and the World waited as she waited to begin on the unevens. With that run to the bars that both she and later Mary Lou Rettan, whose idol Nadia had been, made so famous, she performed a routine that until last night as I watched Gabby Douglas, had never been equaled. When Nadia stuck the landing without even a toe out of place, head and arms held high, a chill ran down my spine. I had never seen living perfection before, but I knew I had seen it then. I knew this was a moment to cherish on so many levels. My friends agreed for the most part.
For just a little while Nadia made us all remember one truth. Regardless of customs, culture, politics, and other manmade divisions, we are all one, human beings. A 4’9″ 14 year girl did in one hour or so what every nation on earth had failed to do since the end of WWII, she united the World. I don’t believe that there was an honest person anywhere watching those Olympics that wasn’t pulling for her to score a perfect 10. The Judges agreed. Politics, distrust and oneupmanship were thrown off that floor that day even if for just a little while.
It is a memory that I will always cherish. I have believed since that day that the World needs to live the Olympic spirit every day. We need to know as citizens of the world, that we can get together in sport or in life and live in peace.