My Fair Gymnastics Lady

I had a crush on gymnastics for a very long time. I stole glimpses of her whenever I could, and learned all about her, preparing for the day we would finally meet. Meet we did, and I was ecstatic, until she broke my heart. She was dangerous, fleeting, and insular, and she told me that I was much too old for her. I was sad for a little while, but then I met the circus and it turns out the she was The One For Me. I don’t bear a grudge against gymnastics though, and I still check on her occasionally.

It must have been while I was pining away for gymnastics that I dug up the film Nadia, about the life of outstanding gymnast, Nadia Comaneci. I added it to my very long film list and only recently got around to it. At least, I began to watch it. I don’t get a kick out of pointing out the flaws in films1. Besides, after helping my friend make a 15-minute film 2 years ago, I appreciate the work that goes into film production and I gained a new respect for film-makers. That being said, I still like to thoroughly enjoy the films I watch, and I find it a pity if there are too many glitches that come between me and my enjoyment.

I could not finish watching Nadia for three reasons. Firstly, it was a film about a Romanian girl in Romania but all the dialogue was in English, or to be more precise, in Murrican. Yes, I know we could say precisely the same thing about The Sound of Music, and Valkyrie, but I watched Sound of Music when I was still too young to realize (or care) that the Von Trapp’s were actually Austrian. Valkyrie wasn’t so fortunate – it kept bugging me that the Nazi’s all spoke English when I’d seen at least two WWII films where the Nazi’s spoke (angry-sounding) German. I understand that these films were made by Americans for an American audience, but still. I think perhaps Mel Gibson (Apocalypto and Passion of Christ) and Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds) may have spoiled me by getting actors to speak the original/indigenous languages of the characters they portrayed. Still, the movie was made in 1984 and the anti-capitalist Romanian government may not have been amenable to Hollywood borrowing some of its actors. I rationalized that this might be the reason, and continued to power through the movie.

My second reason was that the acting was not very good. I’m not an actress myself, but when I watch a film, I expect to be absorbed into the story, to believe the characters. In this case, I just found myself watching a bunch of people act. I could see them acting. If I notice that you’re acting, then, as the French say, c’est foutu2.

I was prepared to continue with the film despite this, until the scene about the gymnastics meet in Paris. Nadia and her friend Theodora were registered for the junior competition by the Romanian gymnastics board, because they didn’t feel that they had the skills necessary to compete in an advanced meet. Which made sense considering Nadia’s dismal performance at a previous local meet in Bucharest. However, their coach, Béla, decided his girls were too good for the “baby competition” and crashed the senior meet, and demanded that Nadia be allowed to show her routine despite the fact that she wasn’t registered for the competition. I get that this was a movie, and movie magic and all that jazz generally replaces good sense, but really? If ever there was a sport that was the embodiment of discipline and order, it is gymnastics. If athletes are not registered for a competition, on time, that’s too bad. No one’s going to let them compete. But whoever made this movie decided to delve briefly into the gymnastics twilight zone because the judges in this movie let Nadia show her routine even after Béla caused quite some mayhem. I hit pause right there just because it was too silly for words. But then I wondered if perhaps the movie was portraying a real life episode, so I read Béla Karolyi’s and Nadia Comaneci’s Wikipedia pages, and no such event is mentioned. While it is possible that the editors of their profiles simply decided to omit it, it is highly unlikely that they would exclude something so significant. This was probably artistic license on the part of the director/writer, but it was too much license for me.

It turned out that just reading about Nadia and her coach Béla was way more interesting than watching the film. Nadia Comaneci, at age 143, became the first (female) gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Olympics (Montréal 1976). In fact, she earned a total of seven perfect scores in that competition alone. I watched the video
of the beam routine that got her her first 10 and I have to say that I agree with the judges. While her routine didn’t have any of the death-defying moves that we sometimes see in today’s gymnastics, all her movements were confident, poised and flawlessly executed. This was someone who had practiced every single detail and it showed. It made me smile that for once the judges decided to be fair and not deprive a gymnast of her hard-earned points because “there’s no such thing as a perfect routine”. It would seem that the judges were particularly generous that year, because another gymnast (Russian Nellie Kim) also earned two perfect tens.

Before the 1976 Olympics, female gymnasts tended to be between 20 and 30 years old. After Comaneci’s feat, however, the average ages of competing gymnasts started going down, to the point that in 1992, one competing gymnast from North Korea was missing her front teeth. Since then, the FIG (Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique) has put the minimum age requirement to compete in senior level gymnastics competitions at 16. I wonder if Comaneci knew how much she would directly and indirectly shape the sport. According to the FIG, the age limit has two purposes: to protect young gymnasts from serious gymnastics injuries and manipulation by their coaches and parents, and to even the playing field since most younger gymnasts whose bodies are pliable can do more difficult skills. While I don’t think the solution is to summarily bar every young gymnast from competing, I see their point. It turns out that Nadia’s coaches may have been among the reason the age limit was established.

Béla Karolyi and his wife Marta also have an interesting story. They opened an experimental gymnastics school for girls in Onesti, Romania, which was where Nadia trained, and when Nadia shone like a star in Montréal, they gained a good deal of street cred as gymnastics coaches. However, due to friction between them and the Romanian government, they defected to the US (which unfortunately had repercussions for Nadia, their protégée – she was constantly under surveillance and was rarely allowed to leave the country, and ended up escaping on foot to eventually resettle in America), where they set up a gymnastics camp and trained other eminent gymnastics. However, in recent years, some of their former trainees have denounced their methods as particularly harsh, even abusive. They made injured gymnasts train despite their injuries, and they apparently controlled their athletes’ diet. To be honest though, gymnastics as it is practiced today is a sport that lends itself to this sort of thing. I noticed it very quickly when I started taking classes just for fun. There were competitive gymnasts who trained in the same gym and I noticed their coaches tended to put them down with their words, unless they hit a move perfectly. There is also an unacknowledged consensus that smaller gymnasts tend to fly higher and can do multiple tumbles more easily, hence the “controlled” diets.

Nadia and her coaches have a remarkable story anchored in the complex, harsh and beautiful world of artistic gymnastics and I wish a better director would re-make their film, this time with skilled actors who speak Romanian, and treat their story with the depth and respect it deserves.


  1. Ok, this isn’t 100% true. I absolutely love tearing apart big budget Hollywood blockbusters and carelessly made Nollywood films.
  2. Impolite French for, “it’s a lost cause”.
  3. One of those things that make me wonder what exactly I’ve been doing with my own life.
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