Then... Now... Women's Gymnastics
Montreal '76 and Rio '16
I had two tickets to women’s gymnastics on the first day of competition of the ’76 Montreal Olympic Games, the day after Opening Ceremonies.
The tickets indicated the sport, gender, place, time, location, and seat, but not the teams, and teams are all in women’s gymnastics.
My first seat was in the rafters of Montreal’s Forum – a partially obstructed view of the four teams that marched in. We did not know which teams would appear until that moment; these turned out to be among the lowest seeded teams in the tournament, including the United States and its one individual star, Cathy Rigby.
At last the Forum was emptied, and I could only hope that my second ticket would produce a higher level of competition. This time I drew a once-in-a-lifetime gymnastics seat; I was at eye level with and directly in front of the uneven parallel bars.
Seated next to me was a young woman who was as passionate about gymnastics as I am about track and field. She was eager to share her knowledge and I was a more than receptive audience.
The crowd buzzed with anticipation, and then burst into applause as Romania, Hungary, East Germany, and the USSR marched in – the four best teams in the world.
First-round tickets were never so good.
Ever, as it turned out, as we were about to witness history.
Over the previous winter, Omega Timing staffers had approached the International Olympic Committee to make sure they had the score display design correct – three digits or four? Three, they were told, as a 10.00 is impossible.
Romania’s Nadia Comaneci - all of 14 - put the experts in their collective place when she completed her historic uneven parallel bars routine that earned the first 10.00 in Olympic history. We knew we had witnessed something special, and after her breathtaking routine the rousing applause continued… and continued.
There was a lengthy delay in the posting of her score. Finally, I leaned over to my seatmate and said, “Maybe the scoring system can’t handle a 10.00?”
You’ll win many a bar bet with the answer to this question: What did the scoreboard display?
That’s right, a 1.0, 9 full points short of the score she had earned.
The British newspaper The Guardian has Comaneci’s perfect 10 as the #5 greatest moment in Olympic history (of course, this must be viewed with some skepticism as they have Jesse Owens at #6).
I did my best to replicate my Montreal tickets, and ended up with ducats to the 1st and 3rd preliminary round sessions of women’s gymnastics. In ‘the more things change the more they remain the same’ category, these first rounds took place exactly one day later in the Olympic schedule than in 1976.
In the first session, this Geography teacher got schooled by geography, as well as by the entire transportation and spectator entry process. Suffice it to say that I could have entered Olympic Arena with 2 minutes left before the finish of this ‘subdivision,’ and decided instead to learn the layout of the Olympic campus and get a head start on my second session, scheduled to begin at 2:30.
The first group teams had been similar to those in Montreal, and the quality was much higher for Rio’s 2:30 round, which included Germany, Russia, Belgium, China, and a “mixed group of 8” individuals, the individual stars of countries/territories like Sweden and Guam whose team had not qualified - the notion of Guam not having a national gymnastics team had not occurred to me.
And one more country:
I shoulda brought earplugs.
It was just me and 15,000 screaming, shrieking, and – to coin a possibly new term – shrilling Brazilian teenage girls.
They did not wait until a routine was complete to voice their approval. Rather, when one of theirs completed an individual move, they went crazy. A pirouette, backflip, cartwheel, side aerial, straddle backward roll (do not attempt this if you’re over 18), a front walkover – the result was the same.
A chorus of squeals.
Under this relentless pressure from the crowd, not to mention the television cameras in their faces as they left each apparatus, the Brazilian team did admirably well – and what I saw Sunday afternoon is on the front pages of newspapers here today.
Brazil’s first two athletes were a bit wobbly on the balance beam but they hung in there – on there, actually – and stuck their landings.
I was impressed at the variety of cheers, and looked forward to the ‘BRA-SIL clap!clap!clap!’ every time it came around. I became quite convinced that there’s a special cheer of encouragement reserved for those climbing back onto the balance beam.
Flavia Saraiva had one of the best performances of the day – a 15.133 on balance beam; neither perfect scores nor 14 year-olds are allowed at the Olympics anymore. But as she nailed each element of her program the roar grew and then she, too, stuck her landing.
Crocodiles in the Amazon dove under water.
I will say that at times all this seemed a bit much. Pity poor Amy Tinkler of Great Britain. She waited a lifetime to perform her floor exercise and got off to an inspired start. Then the crowd erupted over a Brazilian’s move and quite truly, Tinkler’s music could no longer be heard.
As this crowd represents a nation in crisis, I find myself torn between the hokiness of it all and the visceral response of a nation desperate for something to cheer for. I’ll err on the side of the latter every time, in spite of the challenges presented all the athletes in this rotation who competed in the same subdivision as the host nation.
There was lamentable in-house commentary.
“You’re great,” said an announcer to a Brazilian who had fallen short. “You’re awesome.”
Funny, he never said anything like this to anyone else.
As one of the Brazilian gymnasts made the shape of a heart with her hands, we were implored by the announcer’s female counterpart to “… send some love back…” to her.
Adults should know better.
India’s Dipa Karmakar made Olympics history by being the first from her country to qualify for an individual event final. She performed magnificently on vault to etch her name in the history books, not quite the same way Comaneci did in ’76, but a magnificent moment of its own, nonetheless.
Flavia Saravaia won this subdivision of qualifying, and Brazil was only .067 of a point behind Germany going into the final rotation, the uneven parallel bars. Could Brazil actually win against one of the traditional European powers?
Here, I’m afraid, the storybook ending fails. The last of Brazil’s uneven bars competitors stuck the landing prematurely when she fell off, and Brazil’s team score plummeted to 4th.
This did not faze the two women who sat next to me, both from Brazil, and both beaming at the end of this competition, regardless.
As for the engaging woman next to me in Montreal, the one who so generously gave me an insider’s view of the greatest moment in gymnastics history? To this day I wish we had stayed in touch, but in those times asking for someone’s contact information was asking for home address and telephone number.
I am quite sure she has been to as many gymnastics meets as I have been to track and field, and to this day I am grateful that as tour guide to my first gymnastics meet, she was a perfect 10.00.