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OLYMPICS '76: A STAR IS BORN

August 2, 1976 (excerpts)
Newsweek

Charles Michener

Nadia.  Her name was whispered excitedly every time she approached an exercise.  On the sidelines she was restless, pacing while her competitors sat and waited, occasionally doing difficult backflips with the casual ease of a ballplayer waving a bat in an on-deck circle.  Then it was time for action, and as the hush came over the capacity crowd in the Montreal Forum, all the nervousness and little-girl shyness went out of the child-heroine of the XXI Olympiad.  Suddenly 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci of Romania was in complete, exhilarating command of her tiny body - and of the worldwide television audience.  It was the purest, most joyous theater that the Olympic Games can offer, and every twist, leap and smile proved that the star was worthy of her role.

At times Nadia was virtually motionless, using the otherworldly strength in her 86-pound body to freeze herself above bars and beams in portraits of perfect gymnastic form.  Then she would pick up the tempo and become a blur of supple arms and legs, a ballerina in mid-air flight.  At the most difficult points where others hesitated, Nadia became even bolder and more breath-taking.  The crowd soared with her, gasping and cheering in a crescendo until she made her triumphant bow.  Then there was the inevitable pause, followed by the new explosion of sound as her perfect 10 point score - unprecedented in Olympic gymnastics - was posted.  It was to be a week of record performances, with at least one moment of genuine heroism, and more surely come as the Games continued.  But amid the political feuds, cheating scandals and impromptu squabbles that have become semiofficial Olympic events, Nadia in flight was Montreal's doll-like symbol of what's still right with the Games.

Only in her quiet moments away from the arena did Comaneci relax her irresistible grip on her audience.  Then she allowed herself to be a small girl, speaking in chirping tones, pondering questions with dark eyes that sometimes sparkled, even giggling as she savored the experience.  Yes, she said, she had an idol - not the Russian pixie Olga Korbut, whom she so, convincingly dethroned, but the French movie star Alain Delon.  No, she admitted openly, she didn't feel sorry for Korbut.

TO BE YOUNG AND PERFECT

"Were you confident that you would win?" she was asked after the fifth of her seven perfect scores and the first of her three gold medals.

"Yes.  I was sure."

There was little left to say.  There is probably no speech in any language that can describe the feeling of being 14 -and perfect at what you do.  Nadia Comaneci certainly required no words last week to express the unforgettable intensity of the Olympic experience at its best.

Comaneci's reach for perfection was the centerpiece of a week of world records in the pool, velodrome and weight-lifting arena.  U.S. men and East German women owned the pool.  The Americans set nine world records in winning the first ten men's swimming events.  East Germany's domination was nearly as complete, led by 17-year-old star Korne-lia Ender.  But the most appealing theme of these Games has been one of personal confrontation.  The Comaneci-Korbut duel was the most glamorous, but it was hardly more emotional than the 1,500 -meter swimming triumph of feisty American teen-ager Brian Goodell over his Australian rival Steve Holland.  In basketball, there was the vindication of Butch Lee, who had been snubbed by the U.S. team-and almost led his adopted Puerto Rican team to a stunning upset of the Americans.

As always, the Games have produced images that will outlive the perishable statistics.  There was Comaneci on the victory platform, accepting the gracious kisses of Soviet veteran Lyudmila Turishcheva, the bronze medalist.  There was Goodell pulling himself from the water, jerking a thumb at his own chest in a "Who's No. I?" gesture.  And there was Lee on his knees, on the court, screaming in anguish at the official who had called him for a last-minute charging foul that left Puerto Rico a point short of the U.S.

But perhaps the most fitting Olympic counterpoint to the effortless grace of Comaneci was provided by the 26-year-old male gymnast Shun Fujimoto of Japan.  During his floor exercise, Fujimoto fractured his right leg.  But with the Japanese in contention for a team gold medal, he refused to give up.  Fitted with a plastic cast from hip to toe, he somehow competed in the ring exercises and achieved the highest score of his life.  He finished with a triple somersault and twist that doomed him to excruciating pain when he landed.  But he executed it flawlessly and fearlessly and maintained his balance long enough to clinch the gold for his team - before his leg crum-pled grotesquely beneath him.

"It is beyond my comprehension," said an Olympic doctor who treated Fujimoto, "how he could land without collapsing in screams.  What a man."

"Yes, the pain shot through me like a knife," said Fujimoto.  "It brought tears to my eyes.  But now I have a gold medal, and the pain is gone."

Finally, the Soviets were forced to play an anguished role at the week's main event - witnessing the conquest of their national heroine Korbut by the up-start Comaneci.  The lovely Olga has been hard used in the years since she captured the hearts of the world from Munich.  Last week the price of all her traveling, competing and simply growing up - was poignantly apparent.  At 21, Olga has become a woman.  Sometimes, when the circles under the eyes darken and the once-winning smile becomes a loser's frown, she even looks like an old woman, more tired and strained than any 21-year-old should have to be.

Olga struggled gamely last week, contorting her rubbery body and reaching out theatrically for her audience.  Experts said that her gymnastics were every bit as good as they had been in Munich.  But a foot injury slowed her just a bit and, more painfully, she understood very quickly that she had lost the crowd to Comaneci.  Korbut, Turishcheva, the brilliant 18-year-old Nelli Kim and 66 -pound Maria Filatova won the gold medal as a team.  But the spotlight belonged to the second-place Romanians and the girl with the perfect scores.

BREAKING THE SCOREBOARD

In the 48 hours before the individual all-around competition, Montreal revolved around Comaneci.  Computer technicians had to redesign the scoreboard system, which - like the rest of the world - had been unprepared to handle 10-point perfection.  Scalpers roamed the streets outside the Forum, demanding $100 for $16 tickets that were suddenly the most prized of the Games.  Insiders debated the judges' scoring, wondering if 10-point scores were unrealistic.

"Nobody is perfect," said Russian coach Larisa Latynina.  "Comaneci has her faults, too."

"The judges are in a box," said ABC analyst Cathy Rigby Mason, the former American champion.  "They started out giving high scores, and Nadia is so superior to every girl here that they have no choice but to give her 10s."

"In other words," Rigby was asked, "if Nadia were competing against an abstract standard instead of human rivals, and if the crowd wasn't going wild, she might not get 10s?"

Rigby pondered a moment.  "If Nadia were doing what she's been doing, all alone in an empty room," she said finally, "I'd still have to say that she would get the 10s."

Olympic gymnastics is a dazzling four-ring circus.  Separate groups of brightly clad athletes do their vaults, uneven bars, balance beams and floor exercises simultaneously, accompanied by sporadic cheers and the rousing music that goes with the floor routines.  But the individual all-around quickly became a two-woman show.  In the early sparring, Comaneci vaulted to a 9.85. Seconds later Korbut whirled around the bars to a 9.90 and excited cheers.  "Ol-ga, Ol-ga," the crowd chanted.  For a moment it seemed that the older princess could win back her people - and the gold medal.

Then Comaneci flew onto the bars and the Korbut dream died.  Nadia was so sure in her movements and bold in her style that her 10 was almost a foregone conclusion.  But that didn't detract from the din when the score flashed -- or her joy as she beamed and waved.

Korbut watched from the other end of the arena, where she was about to mount the balance beam.  Then she launched her own desperate bid.  For a few magical seconds, she seemed to recapture her Munich triumph, curling her body full circle on the beam, then rising to strut with her old bouncing gait.  The uninitiated dared to hope that she had pulled out a 10 of her own.  Then the forum echoed with angry boos.  She scored 9.50.

Soviet coach Latynina approached the judges.  She was told that Olga had merited a 9.75, but had been penalized .25 for exceeding her time limit.  The star didn't wait for the explanation.  Stunned, she paced to a lonely corner of the arena and silently wiped away a tear.

"Because of her injured foot," Latynina later explained, "Olga had to adjust her routine, so she went over the time limit." But it was difficult to shake the impression that in the face of Comaneci's 10-point challenge, poor Olga had simply tried too hard for too long.

10s AND MORE 10s

Soon Korbut had even lost her spot at the head of her team.  Kim, with a 10 in the vault, soared toward a silver medal.  Turishcheva, stately, charming and deserving of more acclaim than she has received, won the bronze.

But Nadia had more to offer.  She wrapped up the all-around championship with her fifth 10 -- a near-miraculous balance beam performance that left many wondering if one perfect effort can be described as even more perfect than four earlier ones.  Then she returned the following night to do it all again in the individual exercises -- and pick up two more perfect scores and gold medals.

Nelli Kim shared the final-night honors, scoring a second 10 of her own with an inspired floor exercise and grabbing two golds.  But the week belonged to Nadia, and the only challenge remaining for her was posed by her own statement, "I want to keep improving." To do that, she may have to invent a new sport.

KATE THE GREAT

In a reversal of the swimming pattern, the U.S. women offered the bright spots in the stadium.  Kathy McMillan leapt to a silver medal in the long jump and javelin thrower Kate Schmidt won a bronze.  Trailing badly until her final throw, Kate (the Great) came through with a dramatic 209 feet, 10 inch toss-and waved a fist in de-light to her cheering fans.

Many more confrontations lie ahead.  The athletes will be hard pressed to match the splendor of Comaneci or the raw courage of Fujimoto.  But just by reaching for that kind of excellence, they will be acting out a fitting second act for an Olympics that is succeeding in spite of its self-perpetuating problems.  Over-blown and unrealistic as they unquestionably are, there are still moments when the Olympics rise above themselves.  Montreal knew such moments last week, and as they happened, it was hard to imagine any setting more fitting for the Olympic experience - or the perfection of Nadia.