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Olympic lore: Nadia – and nada to debt? ~ the 1976 Montreal Games

June 30, 2012

She’s a perfect 10: Nadia Comăneci won three gold medals, delivering several flawless displays

Sandwiched between the Munich ’72 Games – and the horror at the heart of them – and the glamourous, easy to recall Olympics of the 1980s, the Montreal ’76  Summer Games (July 17-August 1) tends to get overlooked by most peeps. But do they deserve better? Well, given they were arguably as fascinating and surprising as any Olympics before or since, with marvellous highs and dramatic lows (at least after the Games themselves for the host city) the answer should surely be a resounding yes.

So here it is then, peeps, this blog’s latest delve into the archives of Olympics past – go on, read on, I guarantee (if unlike Montreal itself perhaps), you’ll regret ne rien

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The Magic

There was no avoiding it, the ‘Munich massacre’ that had blighted the ’72 Summer Games had cast a dark pall over the Olympics. And despite a noticeably far higher security presence this time around – many would say necessarily so – and the fact Canada was selected as host over the USA (Los Angeles) and the USSR (Moscow) because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) feared holding a Games in one of the two super powers could cause a political backlash, Montreal ’76 nevertheless represented a chance for the Olympics to get back to what they wanted to be all about: great sporting effort and achievement, global openness and human progressiveness. Indeed, French architect Frank Taillibert’s design for a brand new, state-of-the-art Olympic stadium included both a distinctive modernist tower and a retractable roof whose doughnut shape gave rise to the stadium being nicknamed ‘The Big O’. Also, in a space-age-esque first, the Olympic flame was sent via satellite as an electronic pulse from Greek capital Athens to Canadian capital Ottawa – more conventionally, from there to Montreal it travelled by hand.

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The Mascot

One of Canada’s most distinctive and cutest of mammals, the beaver, was chosen as the subject for Montreal’s mascot. Unfortunately, Amik the beaver proved far less popular than Munich’s cute canine companion, Waldi the daschund, owing to the strange choice made for his design – over the years he’s been described as both flattened roadkill and a bad mullet. Poor little chap.

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The Moment

Nobody, man or woman, had ever managed it before in gymnastics – let alone at the Olympics – but at the Montreal Games that all changed. On July 18 1976, a 14 year-old, 4′ 11″ Romanian girl by the name of Nadia Comăneci was competing in the Uneven Parallel Bars and her faultless routine was awarded the first ‘perfect 10′ score in history (see video above). A monumental sporting moment, for sure, but it could have dissolved into anti-climax owing to the scoreboard’s designers having not accounted for the possibility a perfect score might occur, meaning the scoreboard read ‘1.00’. A bemused silence descended over the crowd until, after a few seconds, the penny dropped and spontaneous applause broke out around the arena.

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Legendary leg and fists of fury: Japanese gymnast hero Shun Fujimoto in plaster (l) and US boxer Sugar Ray Leonard on the way to immortality – and beginning a glittering career (r)

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The Main Man

Shun Fujimoto ~ part of the Japanese team that won gold in the Men’s gymnastics All-Round Team competition, Fujimoto amazingly competed in the event despite having broken his knee in the directly preceding Floor Exercise. He scored 9.5 on the pommel horse and 9.7 on the rings, pulling off a perfect landing from the latter before collapsing in agony – the dismount dislocated his broken kneecap and tore ligaments in his leg (see video clip below). Doctors ordered him to withdraw from further competition or risk permanent disability, one since commenting: “how he managed to do somersaults and twists and land without collapsing in screams is beyond my comprehension”. Fujimoto’s efforts, however, played both an important part in and provided the motivational spur behind his team winning the gold.

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The Main Woman

Nadia Comăneci ~ in addition to her ‘perfect 10′ in the Uneven Parallel Bars, little Nadia repeated the feat – not once, but six more times in the Bars and the Balance Beam. By the end of the Games she had won three gold medals (Individual All-Round, Bars and Balance Beam), a silver (Team) and a bronze (Floor Exercise). Like Olga Korbut four years before – who competed again at these Olympics, but was overshadowed – and despite an intense rivalry with the USSR’s Nellie Kim (who also won three golds), Comăneci became the face of the Games and a global heroine; albeit one who wasn’t able to indulge in the fruits of her fame owing to restricted travel imposed by her homeland’s government until she defected to the West in 1989; ironically just months before the Ceauşescu regime crumbled. At the end of ’76, the Associated Press had named her Female Athlete of the Year and she’d won the BBC’s Overseas Sports Personality of the Year award. She competed again at the Moscow Olympics where she claimed two further gold and two further silver medals.

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Mentioned in dispatches

  • This Olympics wasn’t just about terrific gymnastics achievements, it also featured surely the United States’ greatest ever boxing team, with five of their pugilists all winning golds: Sugar Ray Leonard, the brothers Leon and Michael Spinks, Leo Randolph and Howard Davis Jr. Indeed, apart from Davis, all of them went on to become world champions at different professional weights; Leonard is now regarded as one of the greatest ever boxers, having won world titles at five separate weights
  • Great Britain hardly had its most memorable Games this time out, but a somewhat unlikely national hero was born in the shape of bobbing, Mark Spitz-lookalike David Wilkie, who won gold in the Men’s 200m Breaststroke and silver in the 100m version of the same event
  • Five months before these Games, the ’76 Winter Olympics took place in Innsbruck, Austria, where Brit John Curry triumphed in the Men’s Figure Skating Singles (see bottom video clip), adding the Olympic title to the World and European titles he’d already won that year. Curry was renowned for incorporating ballet and modern dance influences into his routines that delighted and enthralled crowds and made him popular the world over. He was named the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year for 1976. Tragically, though, he was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and, having developed AIDS, died four years later – apparently in the arms of famed actor Alan Bates with whom he’d earlier had a two-year affair
  • Following her husband’s participation at Munich ’72, Princess Anne competed for Blighty in Equestrianism at Montreal ’76. Unlike her spouse who’d shared a team gold, however, she finished in 24th place and the overall British team didn’t even manage to finish; presumably because she was royal, Anne was saved having to face the gender determination test, though, something that all other female Olympians had to go through until 1999
  • In the first major boycott of the modern Olympics, 28 African nations refused to participate in these Games owing to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) not banning the New Zealand team in response to their country’s rugby union side touring the apartheid-gripped South Africa earlier in the year
  • Cuban Alberto Juantoreno became the first man to win both the 400m and 800m at the same Olympics, while Finland’s Lasse Virén pulled off a double in the 5,000m and 10,000m – it was, in fact, a double-double, as he’d achieved the same feat four years earlier. In a classic example of ‘Colemanballs’, David Coleman’s BBC TV commentary featured this exclamation during Juantoreno’s victorious run: “And there goes Juantorena down the back straight, opening his legs and showing his class”
  • Soviet modern pentathlete Boris Onishchenko was disqualified from his event when it was found he’d managed to rig his épée (dueling sword in fencing) to register a hit when there hadn’t been one. As a consequence of his cheating, the entire USSR modern pentathlon team was also disqualified, which caused Onishchenko such emnity among his fellow Soviet athletes that apparently volleyball players claimed they’d throw him out of a window if they came across him
  • Finishing with a haul comprising five silver and six bronze medals, Canada had the dubious honour of becoming the first host nation not to win a gold medal at its Summer Games (although the same had happened before and has happened since at Winter Games – indeed, it happened again to the hapless Canucks when they hosted the Winter Olympics at Calgary in ’88). Canada finally won its first gold medal at home 34 years later at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games

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High and mighty Blighty: David Wilkie (left), John Curry (middle) and Princess Anne (right)

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The Memory

Canada’s inability to claim a gold was not the only misfortune to befall the host city – far more serious were the financial implications Montreal suffered thanks to hosting the Olympics. After it had been named host, the city’s mayor Jean Drapeau declared that “the Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby”; this proved a dreadful tempter of fate. Five years later, when it became blithely obvious building of the Olympic stadium was off schedule, Quebec’s government took over, but to mixed results. Despite most buildings being finished (only just) before the Games’ opening, the stadium’s would be iconic tower wasn’t and its retractable roof has never been installed. All this caused the project’s costs to spiral and Montreal wouldn’t fully pay off the debts it clocked up for 30 years. All told (including inflation), the total bill came to a staggering C$1.61 billion. Unsurprisingly, the stadium’s nickname quickly altered from ‘The Big O’ to ‘The Big Owe’.

Montreal ’76 certainly doesn’t have the tragic legacy of Munich ’72, but with its dreadful debt burden, African boycott and underwhelming host nation performance, it hardly made the Olympic torch burn brightly once more in the ’70s – by the end of the decade everyone associated with the movement must surely have been looking forward to moving on to the ’80s. What Montreal ’76 could proudly boast, though – like Munich ’72 – was an outstanding performance by a young female gymnast who became a global superstar and whose achievements would be etched in people’s memories for all-time.

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The Medal Table

Gold Silver Bronze
1 Soviet Union 49 41 35 125
2 East Germany 40 25 25 90
3 United States 34 35 25 94
4 West Germany 10 12 17 39
5 Japan 9 6 10 25
6 Poland 7 6 13 26
7 Bulgaria 6 9 7 22
8 Cuba 6 4 3 13
9 Romania 4 9 14 27
10 Hungary 4 5 13 22
13  Great Britain & NI 3 5 5 13
27  Canada 0 5 6 11

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