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Olympics: Golden Biles rekindles Kim’s memories of Comaneci rivalry


Nellie Kim

Nellie Kim

Simone Biles standing on the top of the all-around podium in Rio rekindled memories for former Soviet gymnastics great Nellie Kim, a winner of three gold in Montreal 1976, but forever in the shadow of the legendary Nadia Comaneci.

Romania’s Comaneci famously became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 in Montreal forty years ago, but the lesser known Kim also reached perfection in the same Games when she also achieved the mythical mark twice.

Comaneci won a total of nine medals — five gold — at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics, with Kim winning six — five in gold — in the same two Games.


The camaraderie between Biles and US team-mate Aly Raisman as they stood on the podium after going one-two in the all-around was refreshing for 59-year-old Kim, whose memories are of a time when rival gymnasts were not free to speak.

“The women’s competition was spectacular, I was almost crying watching these girls how emotional they were,” Kim said in an interview with AFP.

“We didn’t (speak), you know Soviet Socialist Bloc, Soviet people shouldn’t talk to other people. Number one, we didn’t know languages and number two, they said ‘you better focus on what you’re doing, try not to contact especially Western Bloc people’.”

“And Nadia didn’t have any interest in talking to anybody,” she laughs.

“She was 14, I was already 18, so it’s different, we didn’t even have a lot in common to talk about.

“The first time we talked was in Moscow 1980 when we were both standing on the pedestal sharing floor exercise gold and we were like ‘I’m tired, we’re tired? it’s time to go’.”

Comaneci had gotten her perfect 10 on the very first night of competition, on uneven bars. She would receive seven perfect 10s at the 1976 Olympics.

Comaneci won three gold medals at those Games — the all-around, uneven bars and balance beam.

Kim, who placed second in the all-around, would also win three gold — one as a member of the dominant Soviet women’s team and two individual on the vault and floor.

– Olympic heroes –

Despite her thoughts of what could have been, Kim holds mostly positive memories of her summer of ’76.

It was a revelation for the 18-year-old girl, born in Shurab in far-flung Tajikistan to a Sakhalin Korean father and a Tartar mother.

“A beautiful city, cheerful and welcoming for Olympic Games, smiling faces, TV which was making a movie about Heroes of the Olympic Games in Montreal, and I was selected to be one of those heroes. It wasn’t just the Olympics for me, it also to see the city to meet some families, to visit their houses.”

She suffered “burnout” and “psychological stress” in the days before the Games, saying that she probably peaked at the wrong time.

But she nevertheless got the first of her two perfect 10 the day after Comaneci.

“I didn’t expect to be so perfect. I said ‘Wow’. It was an appreciation of a new skill which I performed, nobody did it before. I felt rewarded by the judges for what I had done. It was a good feeling.”

She and Comaneci both live in the United States now and “keep in touch”.

“We have a lot respect for each other. I can’t say we’re close friends, but we have a nice relationship. We talk to each other and share family things.”

Their crossed paths again in Rio.

“My daughter was sitting with her, we took a picture with my grandson, it was nice picture for us, nice memories.”

Despite being regarded as gymnastics legend, Comaneci does not have an active role in the sport.

Kim has been president of world governing body FIG’s technical committee which oversees rules and judging since 2005, implementing the new voting system which has done away with the perfect 10.

– ‘Like a pearl’ –

Like Montreal, the Rio Games will be one which people will look back on in 40 years time, she believes.

“The excitement in the competition was on the top, the men’s was fantastic and the woman’s spectacular.

“We have stars, in particular these two stars Biles and (Kohei) Uchimura. It’s not just today they become stars, they’re a long time coming up.


“Simone is unique, she’s like a pearl. I’ve never seen any gymnast with such fantastic physical ability, capacities, talent.”

As for Uchimura, she thinks he can continue to his home Games in Tokyo 2020.

“I’m almost sure he’ll be there unless he has an injury. He’s a national icon in Japan.”

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