The story of Nadia Comaneci’s senior career generally starts with the 1975 European Championships where Nadia demolished the existing top ranked gymnast Ludmilla Turischeva. But one of the lesser known details of this competition is that the 1975 European Championships was not the first time Turischeva and Nadia crossed paths. They had actually first crossed paths six months earlier in 1974 in an event that is one of the more absurd incidents in the history of Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG).
To introduce this story I first need to give some context on the background of Romanian WAG prior to 1976. Contrary to general gymnastics hoopla, Romania did have strong gymnastics prior to Nadia. Romania won team medals at both the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. But by the time of the 1968 Olympics the program had effectively died out and didn’t even have an Olympic team. After reaching a low point in 1968, Romanian WAG came back with a vengeance and returned to the Olympics in 1972. At those games the team finished in sixth place.
Among the members of that 1972 Olympic team was a 14 year old by the name of Anca Grigoras. Anca had finished in 29th place and was the second best gymnast on the team. Given her young age she was seen as the future of the Romanian program. And that assertion was proven correct when she finished ninth at the 1973 European Championships and captured a bronze on beam.
The return of Romania had been noted by the gymnastics community and its rapid improvement had gained the program considerable respect. So when in October of 1974 a highly prestigious gymnastics demonstration in Paris realized they didn’t have enough gymnasts, they turned to the Romanians for help. They sent out an “urgent request” to the Romanians and asked them to come to Paris as fast as they could.
Event organizers had used the word “bodies” when they made the request for more gymnasts. This had been done because as far as the gymnastics community was concerned, Romania was just a regular WAG program that would behave like any other gymnastics program. They used the term “bodies” because they thought Romania would do the predictable and common sense thing by selecting an established gymnast such as the soon to be 17 year old Anca Grigoras and another established senior. What they got instead was Bela Karolyi.
Bela brought a 12 year old Nadia Comaneci and a 13 year old Teodora Ungureanu. Event organizers barred both of them from entry and sent them to a secondary competition for juniors that was being held in another part of the city. The two young Romanians easily won this meet and then returned to the senior level demonstration five minutes after it had begun.
After again being denied entry Bela “barged past the guards” and instructed Nadia and Teodora to hide behind some crash mats. While this was happening the exhibition was in the vault stage. As the biggest name participating in the event, Turischeva would be the last person to perform her vault.
Bela instructed Nadia to wait until Turischeva finished her vault, and then instructed her to go do a Tsukahara which was the top vault at the time. Other versions of the incident have Bela instructing Nadia to do whatever vault Turischeva did, and to do it even better. And there is also a version of this story where Nadia was told to go run and hide immediately after completing it. Nadia herself doesn’t discuss what she was supposed to do immediately after she landed the vault.
Because the Romanians were competing without permission, Nadia did not have time to warm up. She didn’t have the opportunity to measure her starting point or to place the springboard in the proper spot. Yet she completed her vault perfectly and the whole competition was startled. Event officials instructed Bela to stop interfering with the event and he agreed to abide by that request.
But when Turischeva finished her beam routine, Nadia did the same thing and immediately mounted the beam to perform a routine of her own. By this point Nadia had won over the crowd and event organizers had no choice but to allow Nadia and Teodora to perform on floor.
Now the question is, did any of this happen? This particular story has been told by Nadia herself and is included in two of her biographies. The story is also included in Minot Simons II’s writings on the history of gymnastics. He is the finest gymnastics historian that ever was and his inclusion of it is a significant endorsement that this series of events did in fact happen.
The story is also remarkably similar to events occurring during the 1984 Olympics when Bela charged past the guards to enter the competition floor. He also defied event organizers by approaching Mary Lou Retton for a second time after being told to not do that again when he approached her earlier in the competition. And Bela’s career is full of crazy shenanigans on par with the Paris 1974 story. Most notably the time he had his second best junior prospect (Lavinia Agache) compete under the name of his best junior prospect (Ecaterina Szabo) in the United States. He then returned to the United States shortly after, this time bringing both Agache and Szabo for the Americans to see side by side. Thus the Agache-Szabo impersonation could no longer be denied. And that was one controversy too far for the Romanian government and with his future in jeopardy Bela defected to the United States.