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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | RANDY HARVEY

Comaneci's Life Has Changed by Leaps and Bounds

September 22, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

SYDNEY, Australia — My interview with Nadia Comaneci was arranged for Thursday night, which meant that I wouldn't be able to cover the women's all-around gymnastics competition. But I figured that if perhaps the greatest gymnast of all time was going to miss it, so could I.

I arrived half an hour early, giving me time to reflect on Comaneci and the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, where she, as a 14-year-old Romanian, won four gold medals, a silver and a bronze and was the inspiration for a platinum record, "Nadia's Theme," and the movie "10."

OK, I'm not sure about the movie. But I do know that she was associated with the term "perfect 10" long before Bo Derek, having scored seven of them in Montreal. No one in the history of the sport had ever scored one in the Olympics.

Even so, the late Dick Young, a crusty columnist for the New York Daily News whose interest in sports pretty much ended with the letter B (baseball, boxing and maybe some basketball if he was desperate for something to write) jumped on top of a press center table one day and practically ordered all red-blooded U.S. journalists to stay away from the gymnastics venue at the famed Forum.

"It's just a dance contest," he said.

The Times sports editor at the time asked Jim Murray to interview Comaneci. Murray wasn't opposed to the sport, but he wasn't quite sure what kind of quotes he was going to get from her, considering that she was 14, trained in Transylvania and spoke only a few words of English.

"It's like interviewing Rin Tin Tin," he said.

But there was no ignoring Comaneci. As big as Bruce Jenner and Sugar Ray Leonard became during those Games, she was bigger. Television audiences in the United States couldn't get enough of her, and ABC, which had learned from the Olga Korbut phenomenon four years earlier in Munich about the pull of women's gymnastics on women viewers, gave them what they wanted. That was back when U.S. networks knew how to cover the Olympics.

Of course, she was sheltered from Nadiamania by Romanian officials, and it would be years before she learned how well known she was in the West. When they finally relented in Montreal and allowed her to appear at a news conference, she was asked her greatest wish.

Clutching a doll, she said, "I want to go home."

*

Comaneci didn't show for our interview.

She went to the women's all-around competition at the Sydney SuperDome after all and became so caught up in the Romanians' performances that she couldn't pull herself away.

She explained this while talking to me later over her cell phone as she returned to her hotel in a limo.

How her world has changed in the last 24 years. She is 38, married to a former U.S. gymnast (Bart Conner), living in Norman, Okla., (where they operate a gymnastics academy) and attending the Olympics as a guest of two corporate sponsors, Coca-Cola and American Express.

She missed some other interviews as well, mostly with morning drive-time disc jockeys for U.S. stations here as part of a Coca-Cola radio network. The ones lined up to talk to her Thursday night included representatives from stations such as WWZZ-FM in Washington, KBXX-FM in Houston and, one whose call letters she might find amusing, KGB-FM in San Diego.

The world of gymnastics has changed as well. Before she emerged as a world champion at 13 in 1975, Soviet women dominated the sport, and they were so serious about their business that it was a revelation when ABC found one like Korbut who would flash a smile. Today, smiles are the least of what some Russian women flash. Their best gymnast, Svetlana Khorkina, was featured in the Russian version of "Playboy."

One thing that hasn't changed since 1976 is that the Romanians in most years remain the most persistent threat to the Russians, and, for the first time ever here, they swept the all-around medals Thursday night.

There was controversy, as there nearly always is in women's gymnastics, but this time the furor was justified because the vaulting horse was discovered to have been set up five centimeters, about two inches, too low.

"They're not going to have to do the whole competition over, are they?" a concerned Comaneci asked.

No, she was told, the results are final.

"That's good because the Romanian girls really were the best," she said.

Told that she sounded biased, she said, "I've lived in the States for 10 years, and, of course, I want to see our gymnasts do well, but my heart is still Romanian."

*

Comaneci became more popular than ever in Romania after she made a harrowing escape across the border into Hungary in 1989, probably because it proved that she was not enthralled with the Ceaucescu government. She married Conner in Bucharest in an official state wedding and remains the role model for gymnasts such as the ones Romania sent here, even if they hadn't yet been born in 1976.

She takes no credit for their success. She, however, believes that Bela Karolyi should.

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