It’s Olympics time again. I used to be a big fan, but in recent decades I’ve hardly paid attention. The hype is too big, the athletes too interchangeable.
But I came across this clip of Nadia Comaneci, the star of the 1976 Olympics. She’s 50 now, which stunned me, although it shouldn’t have—surely I know that the fierce little girl who wowed the crowd back then would now be all grown up and then some.
I liked her in ’76 not just because of her formidable skills, but because of her stern, tough, no-nonsense demeanor, which I found somehow refreshing compared to the syrupy-sweet cuteness of so many gymnasts.
Here she is:
Nadia grew up to defect and then to marry fellow-gymnast Bart Conner, and to have a baby at the age of 44. Here’s a photo that’s a portent of things to come. It was taken in 1976, when she was a soon-to-be-famous 14-year old and he a well-known 18-year-old.
The kiss was hardly spontaneous; it was orchestrated by a prescient photographer, as this article written in 1995 (when they were engaged) makes clear:
Before the revolution in Romania, before the political defections, before the Olympics, before the perfect 10, before anything was possible. Madison Square Garden. March 28, 1976. The American Cup Gymnastics Competition.
The little girl from Romania is hoping to do well in the Olympics later that year. She wins the women’s trophy in the New York competition. She is 14. The towheaded boy from Chicago, on his way to the University of Oklahoma, wins the men’s trophy. It is his 18th birthday. The photographers pose the winners together.
“Give her a little kiss,” one of the photographers calls out, and the boy leans over, dutifully, and kisses the little girl on the cheek.
Years later, Conner will remind her about that moment. He remembers it all. But for Comaneci, it is part of a youth that was lost in training and competition and the painful search for a perfect score in an imperfect life.
“I just remember it was some little blond guy,” she teases.
Here’s another little blond boy: