She's bigger now, almost Wagnerian at 5'3" and 106 pounds in a sport populated by gnomes, but four years later the face is still familiar, a taut and chalk-white mask with enormous, tearless black eyes. The Carpathians could crumble at Nadia Comaneci's agile feet, and that ageless Romanian phiz would likely remain unchanged. The mountains, as far as she knew, were intact as she awaited her turn on the balance beam during last week's all-around women's gymnastics competition at the Moscow Games, but there had already been sufficient catastrophe to crack a less imperturbable calm.
The night before, during the optional or noncompulsory part of the team competition, she was the individual high scorer when she mounted the uneven bars for her final event. Even had she scored the maximum 10 points, the Romanian team could not have overtaken the Soviets, who had locked up their eighth straight team gold medal in women's gymnastics, but Nadia decided to go for it anyway. She is a wonder on the bars, having scored three of her unprecedented seven 10s on them at the Montreal Games four years ago, when she was 15 and as tiny as her stunted competitors are today. And she was off to a fine start, dazzling the 10,000 fans in the Lenin Sports Palace with a flying spread-eagle turn off the top bar, in which she flings herself into a complete turn and then regains her grip on the bar. She executed one of these difficult maneuvers flawlessly and then, after a series of flights from upper to lower bar, she tried another. If she had succeeded and dismounted properly, a 10 would have been all but inevitable. The turn was perfect, but as she finished it her hands slipped from the bar. While thousands gasped, she fell to the mat.
It was as if Nicklaus had shanked a drive, or Borg had hit a forehand off the handle. Legends do not fall on their behinds. This one did. But she was on her feet quickly and, expression unchanged, completed her routine. One of her chief rivals, the U.S.S.R.'s Natalya (Shapo) Shaposhnikova, who is 19 and 4'10", was performing her floor exercises when Nadia tumbled. Shapo has the look of someone who has just had her roller skates stolen, but she is an entertainer, and she left the floor waving her arms like a chorine at the moment of Nadia's humiliation. Shapo was given a 9.9, Nadia a 9.5. Nadia had literally fallen from first to fourth place among the competitors; now she was .150 of a point behind the leader, 15-year-old, 73-pound Maxi Gnauck of East Germany.
But you can't keep a good stoic down. Nadia steadily gained ground on her opponents the next night. A baby Garbo, she moved almost seductively through her floor exercises, interspersing a little fanny-wiggling amid acrobatic double flips to score a near-perfect 9.95. She had a modest 9.75 on the vault, favoring a slightly turned left ankle, but she bounced back from her fall off the bars to score a 10 on that apparatus, a true measure of her grit.
So now she stood before the beam, her second straight all-around gold medal hanging, as it were, in the balance. Yelena Davydova of the Soviet Union, a 4'7" 19-year-old, was the leader with 79.150 points, followed by Gnauck with 79.075 and Shaposhnikova with 79.025. A 9.95 would give Comaneci the gold.
Nadia began with a handstand, then a "walkover" (hand-aided flip) on the four-inch wide beam. She attempted a forward flip with a half twist, a move that's hers alone. In it she twists in midflight, so that when she alights she is looking back at the spot from which she started. The flip took her perilously near the edge of the beam, and she wobbled for an anxious moment. A slight flaw. But she completed her exercise with a spectacular series of flips, dismounting on a double-twist back flip. She took a tiny step backward upon landing—another small flaw—but the performance had the largely pro-Soviet crowd cheering and applauding. Comaneci stood before them, hands on nonexistent hips, while the Romanian patriots chanted, "Hey, hey, Na-dee-ya!" The decision was now in the laps of the women judges.
Until this moment, the gymnastic competition had proceeded with little incident. It now descended into chaos. The audience murmured in anticipation, but Nadia's points did not appear on the electronic scoreboard. The yellow-bloused judges were haggling among themselves on the floor, and the crowd began to whistle in disapproval. Head judge Maria Simionescu of Romania separated herself from the argument on the floor and joined another at the officials' table with Ellen Berger, a heroically proportioned East German who is the chief of the technical board of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG). Federation President Yuri Titov of the U.S.S.R. was the next combatant. For 28 minutes the judges and officials wrangled, marching back and forth between the table and the videotape machines. Finally, Kolog Nonus, a member of the Moscow Olympic organizing committee, stepped briskly to the computer normally operated by Simionescu as head judge and, while she glowered at him, punched out Nadia's score. As he did so, he was berated by the Romanian coach, Bela Karolyi, who had been arguing with everyone within earshot. The score came up 9.85. The Sports Palace fairly exploded with Russian cheering and Romanian whistling. Nadia? She was expressionless, even when Davydova, who has a teen-ager's head on a 10-year-old body, stood above her—barely—to accept the gold. Nadia was obliged to share the silver with Gnauck.
In the final tally, judge Tzvetana Dimova of Bulgaria had given Nadia a 10 on the beam despite the two missteps, and judge Alena Prorokova of Czechoslovakia had given her a 9.9, but judges Lidia Konopka of Poland and Lidia Ivanova of the Soviet Union had awarded her 9.8s. In gymnastics scoring, the high and low scores are discounted and the middle two are averaged. This gave Nadia her 9.85, a figure head judge Simionescu decided was too low. Her complaint was considered by a panel of gymnastics officials and rejected on the spot. Unconvinced, Mrs. Simionescu refused to press the score into the computer. Nonus did it for her.
The querulous Karolyi complained afterward of "injustice," concluding that the judges' action was "an arrangement to give low scores to Nadia." Whatever the arrangement, the ugly spectacle tainted what had been a brilliant competition. And there was more trouble the next evening. Simionescu and Berger clashed again during the individual apparatus competition when Simionescu argued that a 9.85 score awarded Shaposhnikova on the beam was too high. Berger said she regarded Simionescu's protest as evidence of unseemly nationalism. This delay required only six minutes, but little Shapo, who can look sour when everything is coming up roses, left the floor in high dudgeon before composing herself for the award ceremony. Nadia got her first gold of the competition in the beam. Davydova got the silver and Shapo, despite what Simionescu regarded as a generous score, was awarded the bronze.
Comaneci also won a share of the gold in the floor exercises with the U.S.S.R.'s team captain, the lovely Nelli Kim. Once again Nadia performed brilliantly, and perhaps sensing a 10, she actually paced restlessly on the sidelines, waiting for the score. For a moment there was the suggestion of anxiety in those eyes. The score came up 9.90, and the Soviet team members showered affection on the apparent winner, Kim, who at 23 and with a mature woman's figure, could pass as their great-aunt. But when the final accounting appeared on the main scoreboard, Nadia's score was 9.95, which tied her with Kim. To the audience it seemed as if Simionescu had finally won one for Romania and gained retribution for the alleged slight of the previous evening. Actually, the lower score was the result of a computer malfunction. Berger explained later that a judge meant to press a 10 for Nadia but a 9.50 had come up. The correction was hastily made, but the newest fiasco left the crowd in a nasty humor. This serene test of grace and agility had lacked only Billy Martin.
Kim took the loss of her solo win gracefully. The corrected score, she said, "was the right one. I do not know Nadia Comaneci, but I respect her as a sportswoman." Nadia will be almost Kim's age when and if there is another Olympics. She won "only" four medals in this one, two gold and two silver (to Shapo's two gold and two bronze), as opposed to five, three gold, a silver and a bronze, in Montreal, so maybe age is catching up with her. Or maybe she is just involved in a sport that has an imperfect system for determining winners and losers. The night after the gymnastics competition ended, Comaneci went to the Moscow circus. Why she went is a mystery. She had been in one all week.