In 1972 and 1973, the Romania juniors competed against the Soviet juniors in dual meets. In both years, Comăneci won the all-around.
In other words, long before the Montreal Olympics, the Soviets knew they would be up against stiff competition. In fact, Larisa Latynina, the head coach of the Soviet team, would refer to Comăneci as the “Romanian Korbut” after the 1973 Friendship Cup.
Here are the Romanian news reports on the dual meets. Plus, there’s an early profile of Comăneci included at the end.
Reminder: In 1972, the Soviet newspapers didn’t know how to spell Comăneci’s surname.
Over the years, many of the world’s top gymnasts competed at the Romanian International. Among them are Sofia Muratova, Eva Bosáková, Erika Zuchold (née Barth), Lyubov Burda, Kathy Johnson, Ecaterina Szabo, and Daniela Silivaș, to name a few.
When Comăneci won every gold medal at the competition in 1973, most countries had not sent their top gymnasts. However, Comăneci’s victories were important within Romania — partly because she was only 11 years old* and partly because she defeated Romania’s top senior gymnasts at the time (Ceampelea and Goreac).
*Note: Romanian newspapers reported that she was 12, but she didn’t turn 12 until November of 1973. This competition happened in April of 1973.
In the words of Sportul, the sports newspaper in Romania, Comăneci “excited not only the spectators in the Floreasca Hall, but also the foreign specialists present at this contest, who also applauded her very warmly.”
Here are the results of the competition, as well as the Romanian news coverage and a short encomium of Comăneci.
Typically, when Americans tell the story of Nadia Comăneci, they start with the 1975 European Championships or the 1976 American Cup. But the truth is that Comăneci made a name for herself in Europe much earlier. One of her first triumphs was at the 1972 Olympic Hopes/Druzhba (Friendship) competition.
If you’ve read Comăneci’s book, Letters to a Young Gymnast, you might recall a brief mention of the competition:
On the heels of failure came my first success, at the 1972 Friendship Cup. Our team’s gymnasts were only ten years old. All gymnasts from the other countries were in their late teens and early twenties. Bela and Marta hadn’t even known how much younger we were before we arrived at the competition because they’d never seen the Soviet gymnasts, let alone the Czechs or Germans, compete. We walked into the arena, tiny little girls with pigtails, facing the likes of Lyudmila Turischeva, a long-legged and unbelievably graceful gymnast from Russia.
I won the all-around gold at the Friendship Cup. The team won the silver. We had done the unthinkable, beating the best international gymnasts in the world.
Letters to a Young Gymnast
To be sure, Tourischeva did not compete at this meet, female competitors had to be 16 or younger (not in their early 20s), and Comăneci did not win the all-around at the 1972 competition (she did in 1973). That said, her first major success indeed came at the age of 10 in Sofia in 1972, and it paved the way for future international successes — long before the Montreal Olympics.
So, let’s take a look at what was written about the competition in 1972. It was a different time — a time when the Romanian newspapers didn’t know how to properly spell Comăneci’s surname. Nevertheless, the Hungarians could see that Romania was a rising power in gymnastics:
[W]e must keep an eye on the sporting careers of Romanian gymnasts over the age of 10 in the coming years if we want to keep pace with the development of women’s gymnastics.
Sportélet, Sept. 1, 1972
Note: Noting the factual errors in Comăneci’s book is not a dig at her. If you asked me about details from when I was 10, I would probably get some of the facts wrong, as well.
Note #2: The title of this post spotlights Comăneci because it’s part of a series of posts on her early career.
In May of 1973, many of China’s top gymnasts traveled to the United States for a tour and a competition at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Meanwhile, back in China, the country held its national championships. On the men’s side, Yu Liefeng won the all-around, and Xu Guoning and Cheng Chunxia tied for first place on the women’s side.
Below, you can find an article on the competition.
The 1972 Chinese Nationals were the first major domestic competition after the Cultural Revolution. Launched in 1966 by Mao Zedong, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution — in very broad terms — set out to preserve Chinese communism by purging remnants of capitalism.
From a sports perspective, the revolution majorly impacted China’s national and international involvement. For starters, most of the national teams were disbanded. Gymnastics was an exception:
Apart from table tennis, gymnastics, and athletics teams, most national teams were disbanded.
Fong and Zhouxiang, “Sport in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976)”
What follows is a translation of an article about the national championships in 1972. Unfortunately, the scores were not listed, but we can see which gymnasts would form the core of Chinese gymnastics as they started to compete in more international competitions in the early 1970s.
Reminder: The Chinese gymnastics team traveled to Yugoslavia and Romania before it held its first official national championships in 1972.
Among the juniors, you might notice a familiar name: Li Yuejiu, who tied for gold on floor exercise at the 1981 World Championships and who currently coaches in the United States.
In June of 1971, Nicolae Ceauşescu, the general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, paid a visit to China and North Korea.
One year later, Chinese gymnasts went to Romania for a competition.
Note: We’ll see a similar timeline between the U.S. and Chinawith Nixon going to China in 1972 and Chinese gymnasts traveling to the United States in 1973.
While the Chinese men’s team defeated the Romanian team, the Chinese women were not as successful. After the competition, the teams held joint training sessions, during which the Chinese gymnasts learned the compulsory routines. Apparently, Cai Huanzong’s routines looked even better than the figures used to depict the compulsory routines.
Note: After Ceauşescu’s visit to China, he published the “July Theses,” which ended a period of ideological diversity and cultural liberalization in Romania. A list of banned books, for example, was reinstated. Academics debate the extent to which Chinese political thought influenced Ceauşescu.
Note #2: China withdrew from the FIG in 1964, so this meet was important because it showed that China was dipping its toes back into the waters of international competition after a long absence.
Months after Olga Korbut captivated the world’s attention in Munich, there was a national youth championship in Zaporizhzhia, and a familiar name — Nellie Kim — took second behind Raisa Bichukina, a much less familiar name to today’s gymnastics fans. (Kim was leading after the preliminary competitions.)
The path from junior elite to senior elite is never easy. Of the top juniors in 1972, only Kim and Grozdova would make the 1976 Olympic team. On the men’s side, several of the top juniors in 1972 would go on to have successful senior careers, including Marchenko, Markelov, and Dityatin.
What fascinates me about this event is the coverage. It raises hard questions: Was the nation in too much of a hurry to have young gymnasts competing on a major stage? Are they forcing gymnasts to compete too much? At the same time, the articles marvel at the gymnasts’ talent. The next generation of women’s artistic gymnasts was performing the most difficult skills in the world, including the same vault that Nikolai Andrianov competed in Munich.
In January of 1973, shortly after the 1972 Chunichi Cup, Stadión, a Czechoslovak weekly, ran a profile of Karin Janz. In addition to a summary of her career, it included interviews with Janz, her father, and her coaches. Interestingly, it suggested that Janz intended to continue competing through the 1976 Olympics, which, in the end, she did not do. As the article noted, she was busy with her medical studies.
For her father, this was Janz’s greatest achievement: “It meant more to me than all her medals when she enrolled in medical school because she stayed true to her childhood dream.”
At the end of 1972, many of the stars of the Olympics headed to Japan for a series of competitions, including the Chunichi Cup. Not surprisingly, most of the competitors were not as sharp as they were in Munich. This was particularly true of the Soviet women who had to do a tour in West Germany right after the Olympics.
But the Chunichi Cup did give some gymnasts the opportunity to shine. For example, Nina Dronova, an alternate for the Soviet team and the Chunichi Cup champion in 1970 and 1971, took silver.
The competition also gave gymnasts the opportunity to try out new skills. U.S. gymnast Joan Moore added a back tuck to her beam routine, a skill that only Korbut and her teammate Nancy Thies competed at the Olympics.
Here’s a glimpse of what happened in Nagoya, Japan.
In 1972, there was a change of the guard on the Women’s Technical Committee (WTC). Berthe Villancher, who had been the president of the WTC since 1956, finally stepped down. Valerie Nagy took her place.
Below, you can find Berthe Villancher’s thoughts on her final competition as the president of the Women’s Technical Committee, as well as what was top of mind for Valeri Nagy (Jenőné Nagy in Hungarian) when she was elected.
All in all, Villancher was pleased with how the 1972 Olympics turned out. Known for her interventions among the judges, she was happy that she did not have to intervene in as many judging controversies.