One reoccurring theme when it comes to Romanian gymnastics is the enduring legacy of Nadia Comaneci. Nadia wouldn’t just be the icon of Romanian gymnastics, but a national heroine and an icon of the country itself. To truly explain Nadia’s impact within Romania’s national identity one simply has to Google: “Things Romania is famous for?”
It’s something I do from time to time over the years just to see how Nadia is doing. And every time without fail Nadia is referenced in the top five results. Not one of the five results, all of them. Throughout this article I have included pictures of the seven websites that are in the top ten search results (page #1 of Google) that reference Nadia.
When it comes to sports history, it pales in significance when compared to virtually everything else. Knowing who scored the most points in a competition is significant only because we say it is. Nadia won her crown at the 1975 European Championships when she overtook Ludmilla Turischeva. It was the end of Turischeva’s tenure and the beginning of Nadia’s. A transition of power had occurred.
When Donald Trump took Barack Obama’s chair in the Oval Office, that was a transition of power. The difference was, it actually meant something. It meant new laws were going to be written, old ones were going to be changed. Lives would be altered. The 1975 European Championships altered only the lives of Turischeva, Nadia, and their coaches. The lucky few who get to directly participate in a sport that we hold in such high regard. Everyone else mere spectators in hoopla allowing it to impact our lives only because we chose to make it so.
Only the select few athletes get to become legendary names and even fewer get to become so famous that their fame transcends sports. And when they do it it often comes with the caveat that the specifics of their athletic achievement is not what is important. Jesse Owens can be found in a history textbook, but not his running times. You know his name not because he crossed the finish line at 10.3 seconds, but the notions of Aryan supremacy that Owens demolished while competing.
The reality is that many of the most famous sports figures became historically important not because of their athletic accomplishments, but because there was a non-athletic component enhancing their significance. Nadia was among the ones who did it entirely on the basis of her athletic performance.
Very few people can name the specific race times of Owens and Michael Phelps. But even casual sports fan know that Nadia scored a ten even if they don’t know what apparatus it was on. Or better yet, mistakenly believe she did it on a men’s apparatus. Michael Phelps is known for his Olympic medal record, Nadia never held an Olympic medal record of any kind. Owens tore down a barrier for future athletes, the same can’t be said for Nadia. That’s not to say she is more famous or less accomplished than either Phelps or Owens. Only that the way Nadia achieved fame was so unique, and didn’t need a type of significance that want beyond athletics to enhance it.
The world fell in love with the 14 year old who had a name people couldn’t pronounce so they started using only her first name instead. A gymnast named Nadia Comaneci from Onesti, Romania tested the mental fortitude of 1970s television commentators as they had to learn what a “silent i” was, when to use it, and then remember to use it.
The finer points of Romanian pronunciation was just the beginning of a crash course in Romanian culture and history that Nadia would generate. This is where Nadia’s legacy diverges from her contemporary Olga Korbut who up until now, had a story that reads much like Nadia’s. Korbut was a Soviet and Owens was an American. Collectively their two countries were so massive they had no shortage of internationally famous citizens. They could never be the defining face of a nation as Nadia was.
Romania was different. A small, overlooked country that people didn’t know much or think much about. A country where if one superstar Olympian came along, he or she could make all the difference in getting it widespread recognition. More importantly be a positive figure the rest of the nation could rally around.
For all the discussion of the logical fallacy it takes to turn the individual athletic achievement of one person into a symbol of achievement for humanity, it misses the point. Athletes inspire us like the gymnast from Uzbekistan who proves that you can never be too old to keep doing what you love. Or the dual victories from Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles that ensured no little girl would ever again feel out of place in gymnastics because of her skin color. Chipping away at the remaining pieces of a wall Jesse Owens and Diane Durham helped knock down.
Every athlete inspires in whatever way he or she can. From overcoming addiction or a terrible accident, to displaying sportsmanship and being a role model for children. It connects random strangers from two people at a bar who use it to find a common conversation, to Nadia’s case where she united an entire country. Can sports even help get us closer to finding a medical cure? With terms like “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” maybe it can.
The once apolitical gymnast found herself politicized because of her inspiring fame at every moment. Most notably by the Romanian dictatorship who loved her for putting the country on the map and saw her as a propaganda tool. But also resented Nadia for being more famous than they were and knocked her down when they could.
The Romanian dictatorship was more than a government, it was an era. The architecture of buildings that were constructed under its rule are constant reminders of it. Replacing historic neighborhoods that were leveled just so the dictatorship could build monuments to itself. Forever changing Bucharest, a city that was called “The Paris of the East” for its beauty. Sinking the national budget and sending conscripted workers to their deaths in the process.
The dictatorship would introduce “compulsory childbearing” and the combination of those two innocent words would result in horror. A policy enforced by requiring monthly gynecological exams and quarterly pregnancy tests. It resulted in 10,000 deaths from illegal abortions and overcrowded orphanages plagued with rampant child abuse that were dubbed “slaughterhouses of souls.”
When winter came people froze. While a country went hungry its leaders exported food to pay off the debts it had accumulated with its unfinished construction projects that had been too ambitious to be completed. An entire country lived in fear as friends and neighbors informed on each other to protect themselves. No conversation was safe as people feared even the privacy of their own homes was within the reach of government bugs. This is what happens when a dictator tries to copy the model of what he believes to be the ideal nation, and the country he had chosen to emulate was North Korea.
These consequences can still be felt for a country whose economy lags behind most of Europe and its population hasn’t returned to its 1989 levels. Nicolae Ceausescu dreamed of making Romania a European power by growing its population. In the end Romania suffered the literal definition of “decimation.” To paraphrase one quip, the Romanian people collectively lost their minds as they realized the government had already lost its.
To be forced to personally deal with that hellish dictatorship. To endure the spotlight of being one of the most famous faces in the world. To be a high level Olympic athlete within the Eastern Bloc that was notorious for its treatment of athletes. Any one of those things would be more hellish and grueling than most can bear. Nadia had to do all three of those things at once. As a child.
It must have been been difficult for her, but Nadia will rarely speak of that. And perhaps because she knows that her story is more important than even herself. This is the final gift from a gymnast who had already given so much to the Romanian people and decided to give them a little more. To spare them the details of how hard it must have been so she can remain a wholesome story. And to serve as a reminder that it wasn’t all bad.
Cherishing the good moments was all the Romanian people had left to cope with the world they were living in and the memories of it. The dictatorship seemed to ruin everything it touched, Nadia refused to let it ruin its most famed heroine. Who meant so much as symbol of light in an era that was so dark. Nadia made sure to keep things that way, potentially doing so even at the cost of her own healing process.
Nadia is as synonymous to Romanian identity as medieval fortresses, the Carpathian Mountains, and Dracula. Perhaps it is because she is as strong as any fortress, as towering a figure as any mountain, and has a life story that rivals folklore.