Nadia Comaneci, 53 this year, glamorous, lean and sprightly, wearing six-inch heels, her flexible body obviously a work in continual progress (she does 30 minutes’ exercise every day), is doomed to be remembered as a pony-tailed 14-year-old Romanian who was the first gymnast to be awarded a “perfect 10” score – on the uneven bars (she has two moves named after her) – at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. She was fêted, then virtually held prisoner in her own country, defected to America where she was criticised for an apparently louche lifestyle with a married man decades older.
We meet when she’s in London for a couple of days before travelling to Bucharest to see a children’s clinic she funded, and then Venice Beach, California, where she and her gymnast husband, Bart Conner, also an Olympic gold medallist, have a holiday home. Mostly, they live in the university town of Norman, Oklahoma, where they run a gymnastic academy with 1,500 children, some of whom start at the age of three.
Less well known is the fact that the day following her perfect 10, a Soviet rival, Nellie Kim, scored the same. “I always tell people that, but timing is all,” she says, in a brisk, no-nonsense way. Steely dedication since the age of six has given her an uncompromising black-and-white attitude to life. She is friendly, yet seems brittle, curiously similar to the Russian Olga Korbut, darling of the 1972 Olympics, whom she usurped.
“We live in a society where people are only interested in the first – to the Moon, the four-minute mile. They don’t ask, ‘Who was second?’ I will always be in the record books because now the minimum age for gymnastic competition is 16. You have to do something so monumental that people remember you for a long time. Even then you need to be out there so they don’t ask, ‘I wonder what happened to what’s her name?’”
Wonder no more. This week she’s chief judge on BBC1’s new reality show, Tumble, based on Strictly Come Dancing, where professional gymnasts mentor “celebrities” (a word used increasingly loosely). They include Girls Aloud’s Sarah Harding, former EastEnders actor John Partridge, Lucy Mecklenburgh from The Only Way Is Essex, Sugarbabe Amelle Berrabah, former Dynasty actress Emma Samms, former Steps star Ian “H” Watkins (who has displayed online his scars and bruises from training), World Super Middleweight boxing champ Carl Froch, Loose Women presenter Andrea McLean, and former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan.
“There’s always criticism of reality programmes,” agrees Comaneci, “but I’m confident this will be great. I like the fact we’re pioneering. There’s been every other kind of show. If you don’t try it, you’ll never know if it works. I’m nervous because it’s live. You have to be realistic in gymnastics, but it won’t be dangerous because competitors will learn gradually. We have a beam, hoop, trapeze and trampoline so it’s a combination of gymnastics, creativity, costumes and music – an entertainment performance. It’s great they’ll have contestants aged from 20 to 60. Peter Duncan, for instance, is 60.”
She’s been on a reality show before. In 2008 she was a celebrity contestant on The Apprentice, in America, so knows the potential problems. “I did it through curiosity and because they were paying money to our charity. But it became a little bitchy and I was voted out because I’m too nice. I can’t be mean.” So is she in danger of being too soft on Tumble? “I’ll critique if necessary because I know what it takes and appreciate what they’re trying to do.”
Born in Onesti, a small town in Romania, she was competitive from an early age and at six was spotted by coach Bela Karolyi doing cartwheels in her school playground. “I was always a show-off,” she says. He invited her to join the experimental gym school he ran with his wife Marta. “Other kids had more talent, but I was more focused.” Karolyi said she was the only gymnast he could never “break”. “When he asked me to do 25 push-ups, I’d do 50,” she writes in her book, Letters to a Young Gymnast. “I wanted to be better than anyone else, and to be extraordinary. I don’t know why. It’s the way I am.”
She adds now, “I worked harder than everyone else, six hours a day except for Thursday and Sunday when I did three. If you want to be successful, that’s what you do – or you go home. I’d have been successful at any sport. I have no regrets about being focused. Thirty years ago people said a ten-year-old girl couldn’t do as much as a boy because they’re fragile, but why not? We should be equal. Girls don’t realise how much they can do. They have to be helped.
“If I hadn’t kept going, I’d be here today with nothing, or I’d be normal, which is boring. But I’m modest. I don’t like saying things about myself. I prefer someone else to do it.” Well, maybe, but she adds she enjoys fame. “I like the fact people look up to you because it’s possible to do what I did.”
She was inspired by Korbut and remembers watching the 1972 Olympics. “One day I hope to be like her,” she said admiringly at the time. Four years later she succeeded. Korbut told me later, she was “put out” that Comaneci “stole her thunder” and hinted at poor Olympic judging – “It’s all politics.”
Comaneci disagrees. “How can it be? It’s known who is the best and generally the right person wins, although even if you’re good on paper, you can mess up. I’ve met Olga and feel bad if she thinks that. Judges gave me the scores and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Korbut was allegedly sexually and mentally abused, suffered a nervous breakdown and spent too much time being a celebrity. None of that happened to Comaneci: “I behaved like the 14-year-old I was, went home, had a bit of a celebration, took two days off and was back in the gym. I began the sometimes troubling process of growing into a young adult in a communist country. I always had my feet on the ground, though, which is what I learnt from my parents. “It didn’t affect my education. There were 15 of us in the training complex and one teacher for every three girls. I did three years at university. Gymnastics wasn’t going to give me a job so I needed a diploma. You have to know how to transition from that to real life. It’s important to stay around what you know and not stray into other things. I’d be no good at the piano. I like to observe and learn but have passion to do things well.” She and Bart don’t teach at their academy but have expanded their business into selling shoes, leotards, and publishing the International Gymnast Magazine.
She won two gold medals at the 1980 Olympics, but two years later, for the World Championships, she was overweight and unfit. “They said I was over the hill. I wasn’t even close.” She proved it by winning her third consecutive European championships, and retired in 1984.
After the Karolyis defected to America in 1981 she was strictly monitored in Romania. The Olympics never made her wealthy. Her salary was $100 a month and she, her mother and brother Adrian slept in the kitchen in winter to keep warm. “I had no friends because I didn’t want them to know how poor I was.” At 25, the government withheld a large part of her salary because she was childless. President Ceausescu declared: “The fetus is the property of society and anyone who avoids having children is a deserter.”
In 1989, a few weeks before the revolution, she defected. One day, she says, she realised she could remain in Romania, frustrated, with no hope of advancing “like all those others silently screaming” or she could spread her wings in a new life of freedom. She realised if she was caught, she would be imprisoned or even killed. One night, as part of a group of seven people, she walked for six hours through deep snow and ice to Hungary, then over seven barbed-wire fences to Austria, where she was granted asylum to America. “I was scared but you have to take chances. I don’t know if I could have done it if I hadn’t struggled to overcome challenges in the past.” She wonders still whether it was courage or desperation that impelled her to leave. Others suggested different reasons as she was helped by Romanian exile Constantin Panait, a father of four, who became her self-appointed business manager and, it was suggested, something more.
Once in America, she was criticised for wearing heavy make-up and dressing provocatively in short skirts and fishnet stockings. “Not a good look. Don’t you ever see pictures of yourself and wince?” When asked whether she knew Constantin had a wife and four children she answered “So what?” – the implication being that she was a home-wrecker. She explains she’d spent her young life as an object, always being told what to do, and was out of her depth.
“I heard those criticisms but no one knew me. There was a TV movie, Nadia [in 1984], which said I saw my boyfriend – I don’t know which one because I never talk about anything like that – with another girl, so I drank bleach to commit suicide. I don’t know who made that up. Why should I comment on any of that? I’d have had no time for life.”
Eventually, she broke with Panait and settled in Montreal, where Bart Conner interviewed her for a TV show and renewed an acquaintance begun at the 1976 Olympics. He invited her to Oklahoma and they married in Bucharest in 1996 with a reception in the former presidential palace. They have an eight-year-old son, Dylan. “He plays in the gym every day but also does soccer, tennis and martial arts. My husband says if he decides to do gymnastics, he’ll coach him and I will have to be the mummy.
“I have two passports – Romanian and American. Basically, I’m a Romanian adopted by America. I have always loved Romania. But whenever I go to either country I say, ‘I’m going home.’” Now “home” is Britain for the next six weeks, and a new challenge.
Tumble starts tonight at 6:30pm on BBC1