The sight of the 1.5m 14-year-old gymnast Nadia Comaneci standing next to a digital scoreboard showing a mark of 1.00 at the Olympic Games Montreal 1976 is one of the most instantly recognisable sporting images of all time. The watching world quickly realised what it had witnessed: the first perfect routine by a gymnast in Olympic history. For the Romanian, it took a little longer to register.
“I felt I had done a good routine,” Comaneci 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.”
In one of the most celebrated technical lapses in history, the arena’s scoreboard struggled to deal with the diminutive Romanian’s brilliance. History recalls that OMEGA, the Olympic Games official timekeepers and scorers since 1932, had asked organisers before the 1976 Games whether the scoreboards needed updating to accommodate four digits. They were told it was not necessary.
“I looked around to see what was going on and then I saw the problem or whatever was happening with the scoreboard,” Comaneci laughed. “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.”
The photograph wonderfully captures Comaneci’s slightly perplexed, bashful expression as she joins the world in realising, or sort of realising, what she had just done.
“In the back of my mind, I said to myself, ‘I guess I did better than I thought’. I underestimated myself. I thought I could get a 9.9 and when it was a 10, I was like, ‘Oh that’s much better, let’s see what I can do on [the] beam’,” she said.
“Of course I knew that the 10 was the highest score, but I didn’t know first of all that it was the first 10 in Olympic history; no one had told me, even though I wouldn’t have listened because I would have gone, ‘OK, let me think about that later’.
“I would have been happy with 9.95 but now I think about it, it wouldn’t have been history.”
The fact that it was someone so young and so petite – Comaneci weighed just 39kg at the time – added plenty to the story. The Romanian now has a 12-year-old son and can barely believe that at just two years older than him she was pushing the boundaries so far, on the biggest stage of all. Not that she felt her age at the time.
“People would say, ‘Wow you are so young’ and I thought, ‘No I am not, I know what I am doing’. I considered myself an adult in the gym because I had been doing it for eight years already at that point,” Comaneci recalled. “I was ancient in the sport.”
The perfect 10.00, or 1.00 if you prefer, in the team competition was just the start. Over the next five days, Comaneci produced a further six perfect routines, three more on the uneven bars and three on the beam.
“It looks difficult for people watching, who think the beam is really narrow,” she said. “But for us, we spent a lot of time training. In my mind I just had to concentrate every second, on every move.
“If you ask me if I remember September 1992, I won’t remember at all what happened but I do remember every moment of those Games. I remember the Olympic Village. I remember the arena, I remember the competition. I know the routines. It hasn’t changed, even though the years go by. In my head I could do the routines tomorrow.”
Fearless and utterly focused, Comaneci took home gold in the individual beam, uneven bars and the all-around, as well as bronze in the floor exercise and silver in the team event. While she admits that the first 10 gave her the confidence to believe she was “well prepared”, she does still insist that gymnastics is not about numbers.
“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.”
Now 56 years old, the in-shape Comaneci reveals that she does still “work on the beam a little bit” and “play on the uneven bars”. And she’s also got a few reminders of just what she achieved dotted about her house.
“I have two paintings, not photographs – one from the end of the floor routine in ‘76 and one is just my headshot,” she said, smiling. “I look back and think it’s great that my parents signed me up for gymnastics because otherwise I would have just wasted all that time in just being too normal.”