In 1976, at the Montreal Olympics, the young Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci flew off the uneven bars in a dismount of astonishing height and extension, landing confidently, even if she took an “almost invisible hop,” as she later called it. The crowd roared, and she turned to look at the scoreboard: 1.00. For a moment, she later told the Associated Press, she was confused. She didn’t think it had been her best routine, but it hadn’t been that bad. Then a judge signaled that the score stood for a 10. At the time, a faultless routine was so inconceivable that the board had been designed to accommodate only a single numeral followed by two decimal points.
Comăneci wasn’t the only gymnast to get a 10 during the Montreal Games. The Soviet Nellie Kim received two, one for performing a novel and difficult vault and the other for her floor exercise. But Comăneci—14 years old, light and quick and pliable as a rubber band, with a ribbon in her ponytail—is the winner we remember. She went on to earn seven 10s during the Games, scores she received both for her aesthetic grace and for her innovative, daring athleticism. On the uneven bars, she pioneered a release move (now known as the Comăneci salto). On the balance beam, she did elegant back handsprings and precise aerial cartwheels. During her floor exercise, she performed a full-twisting back layout, as well as a beautiful Arabian pike (a kind of twisting forward flip). As the Soviet competitor Olga Korbut had in 1972, she captivated audiences with her seemingly effortless airborne moves—an irresistible juxtaposition of tiny girl and intrepid physicality.
Comăneci marked the arrival of an entirely new era of gymnastics, which had been in the making at least since Korbut’s dominance at Munich. She was one of a team of very young Romanian gymnasts trained by the iconoclastic, media-savvy Béla Károlyi at his school in Oneşti. Inspired by his days as a boxer, he made the girls work very hard at conditioning, and taught them acrobatic skills usually reserved for men.