For most folks alive in 1976, they’ll remember the celebration of the Bicentennial. It was my first real encounter with marketing overkill. If you could slap a flag on it with 1776-1976 inscribed, it was done. Bicentennial quarters, bicentennial commemorative plates, bicentennial dog biscuits… you name it.
What I most remember though from 1976 was the Summer Olympic Games in Montreal. Yes, the Reds won their second consecutive World Series that year, sweeping the Yankees 4-0, but none of those games were truly memorable. What sticks in my mind are the performances of Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, and American decathlete, Bruce Jenner.
This adorable young lady captivated the world by earning the first perfect 10.0 score in Olympic gymnastic history. Her impact was as much a result of her Eastern Bloc heritage as it was her precision on the balance beam. In the midst of the Cold War, citizens of Soviet Bloc countries were portrayed as either peasants or spies. Because of the tight media controls in Eastern Europe, we in America really new very little about life in places like Romania. As with any international conflict, viewpoints were polarizing and often demonizing. Then along came this graceful little girl.
Nadia provided a human face to all of this. She exuded grace and athleticism in the competition. You couldn’t help but root for her. She wasn’t a “Commie,” she was Nadia. After ABC Sports used a piece of background music in a montage of her Olympic performance, the song instantly became known as “Nadia’s Theme” even though she never used the piece during any of her performances. It rose as high as #8 on the Billboard charts that year. For those of my younger readers, you can still hear the tune today as it opens each episode of the soap opera, “The Young and the Restless.”
Much like Jackie Robinson did for African-Americans, Nadia changed the way we viewed citizens of the Eastern Bloc. It was impossible to feel any ill will for her. In fact, her fame and ability to travel paved the way for the defections of her coaches, Béla and Marta Károlyi, who eventually became the coaches of the American gymnastic squads featuring such greats as Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug. Nadia herself was sadly restricted in her travels after that, being made a quasi-prisoner in her own country. Eventually, she herself defected in 1989. She eventually became acquainted with American gymnast, Bart Conner, and the two were married in 1996.
Because of the bicentennial, patriotism in the US was at a fever pitch by the time the Olympics rolled around. Bruce Jenner picked a perfect time to become the face of the American Olympic team.
Jenner had finished tenth in the troubled 1972 Games in Munich. Afterward, he dedicated himself to training for Montreal. Jenner finished with a then-world record 8634 points earning the gold. Continuing a tradition started with Jim Thorpe’s victory in the 1912 games, Jenner was immediately cast as “the World’s Greatest Athlete.”
Jenner immediately became a national sensation, most notably having his face adorn a Wheaties box. Bruce went on to do some movie and television roles, including an episode of “Silver Spoons” where he addressed growing up with dyslexia.