They were as different as night and day.
One wasn’t much taller than me, competed in a sport I had never watched before, and came from a country far removed from what I knew. She said little and in a language I didn’t understand, but oh how she let her performance do the talking, packing a powerful punch on her way to winning three gold medals and earning the first ever perfect score in a Summer Olympics gymnastics event.
I had just turned eight, but I understood quickly that her score, a perfect 10, was a rarity and something I might not see in a very long time.
The other crossed the finish line of the 1500m run, the last event in the Montreal Olympics decathlon, his eyes and arms raised to the sky in jubilation. On his way to the gold, he set the world decathlon record with more than 8,600 points. His athletic physique, flowing locks and easy smile would go on to sell millions of Wheaties boxes and help make it the Breakfast of Champions.
The two athletes, of course, were Nadia Comăneci and Bruce Jenner.
A different time, a different place
Forty years have passed since Comăneci and Jenner burst onto the worldwide scene. My family didn’t get ABC, with it’s longtime Olympics sportscaster Jim McKay, on our home TV (a story for another day). However, we happened to be on vacation at the beach, a rarity for my family, and I have hazy memories of the group of us tuning into the nightly coverage. I remember too reading about Comăneci‘s and Jenner’s feats cover-to-cover in my brother’s Sports Illustrated.
Much has changed over the past four decades. Bruce Jenner has obviously become Caitlyn Jenner. The Eastern Bloc has long ago fallen and I watched the other night as the NBC Summer Olympics broadcasters talked about how Comăneci is working to help bring the once mighty Romanian gymnastics team back to prominence.
For one brief second, though, I was taken back to another time. I was a kid again, wide-eyed and full of questions about the future. The world was full of excitement and potential and even a little (Cold War) danger.
The next generation
I like that memory, I reveled in it for one brief second, but I quickly came back to the present. I much prefer watching to see who will be this generation’s Comăneci or Jenner. Who will spark our imaginations? Who will make us marvel and excited about man’s possibilities?
The choices are many: 19-year-old 100-meter breaststroke swimmer Lilly King who refused to back down from her drug tainted competitor; teen shooter Ginny Thrasher who won the first gold medal of the Rio games, pulling off an upset in the 10 meter air rifle event, an event that she wasn’t even expected to place; or even the ten athletes who make up the Olympic refugee team, “who have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem” and still fight on pursuing the best in human achievement.
The Olympics have changed, people have changed, but there is still good in the world. The are still athletes who take us back to our youth and who remind us of the good in people, who help each of us work to be “faster, higher, stronger” in our own lives.
Thank you Comăneci and Jenner!