x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Comaneci's perfection

The 1976 Montreal Olympics will forever be remembered as one of the greatest sporting festivals ever staged and the undisputed star of the show was Nadia Comaneci.

AD200910173059104AR
AD200910173059104AR

Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week Robert Philip looks at gymnastics' Nadia Comaneci.

Despite the absence of 28 African nations in protest over the New Zealand All-Blacks' tour of South Africa earlier in the year, the 1976 Montreal Olympics will forever be remembered as one of the greatest sporting festivals ever staged. Cuban Alberto Juantoreno became the first man to win the 400m and 800m at the same Games...Lasse Viren, the "Flying Finn", completed the long-distance double in the 5,000m and 10,000m, the American "Dream Team" won five gold medals in boxing (Sugar Ray Leonard, Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks and Leo Randolph subsequently became world champions in the professional ring), and Boris Onischenko (thereafter known as Dishonestshenko) of the Soviet Union won a gold for infamy when he was thrown out of the Modern Pentathlon for cunningly doctoring his epee to register a hit whenever he chose to do so.

But the undisputed star of the show was the Romanian Nadia Comaneci, 14, who was awarded seven perfect 10s in the gymnastics arena - one would have been unprecedented - where she won three gold medals. Olga Korbut of the Soviet Union may have done much to popularise the sport in Munich four years earlier but it was Princess Nadia who inspired millions of teenage girls across the globe to don leotards and flock to their nearest gymnasiums.

When Comaneci touched perfection for the first time in her flying routine on the uneven bars during the team event even the electronic scoreboard was dumbfounded, flashing up the figure 1.00. The spectators collective gasp of bafflement turned to roars of approval when the judges' official score was announced over the public address system. "I knew my routine was flawless," revealed Comaneci later. "I had performed it countless times in practice in exactly the same manner."

Over the coming days, the teenage elfin produced another six flawless performances as she swept to gold in the uneven bars, beam and all-round competition, while winning silver in the team event and bronze in the floor exercises. Overnight, the tiny, Twiglet-shaped Romanian was as famous as Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus or Pele, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and on the front page of the stuffy New York Times, striking the balletic pose which marked the climax of her floor routine.

She won the Overseas Athlete award in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year poll, was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in the United States and subsequently received the Olympic Order, award granted by the IOC, in 1984 and 2004, becoming both the youngest recipient and the the only sportsman or woman to receive this honour twice. In the 1979 movie Love At First Bite, Dracula (played by George Hamilton) is evicted from his castle in Transylvania when the Romanian state decided to convert his home into a gymnastic training centre.

"We will be coming with parallel bars, swings and Nadia Comaneci. Don't be here," the Prince of Darkness is informed. And more than 30 years on from Montreal, one of the plane crash survivors in the popular recent American TV series Lost named a wandering cat Nadia in honour of "the greatest athlete the world has ever known". Now married to the 1984 Olympic gold medallist gymnast Bart Connor (and mother to her two-year-old son Dylan), Comaneci may have become an American citizen but is an impassioned supporter of the post-Ceaucescu Romania.

When not engaged coaching wannabe Nadias at her gym in Oklahoma, she serves as her native country's Honorary Consul-General in the US, while personally funding the building and running costs of the Nadia Comaneci Children's Clinic in Bucharest which provides a free medical servive to Romania's unfortunate orphans. "I help," she says modestly of her involvement in the scheme and the long hours she puts in.

"I do anything I can. The children are very dear to me. A lot of things went on in Romania that nobody knew about until the truth came out. I am lucky, because I can now do so much to help." There were many trials and tribulations along the way; the ill-advised love affair with Nicu Ceaucescu, the despot's hated offspring, the reported suicide attempts and the terrifying dash for freedom through the darkened forests of eastern Europe before her blossoming into a woman of intellect, wit and vivacity.

After the fall of Ceaucescu, Comaneci was also reunited with the beloved Olympic medals she was forced to leave behind when she fled to the west. "I always wanted them back. I guess that is my happiest memory, the first 10 in Montreal. "But you must not imagine I live in the past. I am really happy with my life now. "My only regret is that I never had the chance to escape earlier. Montreal was a wonderful dream. But I really don't want to get those years back."

Muhammad Ali may be the self- proclaimed Greatest but Nadia Comaneci can lay claim to being the "Perfect One". rphilip@thenational.ae Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Comaneci is the all-time best, text G38 to 2337. Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday January 8.