MONTREAL — It was a hot and humid late afternoon 4th of July but no matter, because Nadia Comaneci was in town, and wherever Nadia Comaneci goes, there is light and love and joy, and people are drawn to her and she to them, and especially here in Montreal, because it was here, as a 14-year-old, way back in 1976, that she executed the Perfect 10, and nothing has been the same since, not gymnastics, not the Olympics and for sure not Nadia and the very many people who want to be around her.
Which is, truth be told, pretty much everyone.
Nadia was out for a brief stroll on what is now named Nadia Comaneci Plaza. Of course it is named Nadia Comaneci Plaza. She says now that she had no idea they were going to name it after her when they did so 18 or so months ago, and it was a huge honor because usually — in her telling — they only name things like plazas after people when such people are dead.
Nadia is not only very much alive, she is a life force, and that is just one of the reasons people — in every country — want to be near, to feel what it must be like to be perfect, if even for a moment, because life is not perfect, as fate is glad to remind us all but, then again, as Nadia observes, if you work hard, maybe, just maybe, you, too, can be great, because everyone has it in them to be great.
You know what great means? It hardly has to mean you are going to qualify for the Olympics, or even win a gold medal. Great means today is a little bit better in some way than yesterday, and by that same measure tomorrow is better than today. That for sure is great. Just ask Nadia.
After doing this now for nearly 20 years, when asking casual (American) fans of the Olympics to name the most famous Olympic athlete who first comes to mind, the answer is invariably one of two:
Michael Phelps. Or, more likely, Carl Lewis.
It’s in this context that one is urged to take in the first in a series of promotional videos — featuring both athletes and venues — from the LA24 bid committee.
Released this week, this first mini-movie features Lewis at the scene of arguably his greatest triumph, the LA Memorial Coliseum, where in 1984 he won four Olympic gold medals. He has, over his Olympic career, nine golds and one silver.
Sports Illustrated named Lewis the Olympian of the 20th century. That list includes Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe, Mark Spitz, Nadia Comaneci, Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek and many more. Track and field's international governing body, the IAAF, named him male athlete of the century. The International Olympic Committee named him "sportsman of the century."
It would make for a long and fascinating discussion about why, despite his many achievements, Lewis is — still — viewed with something like suspicion in some quarters of the media. It’s a mystery, really. Ben Johnson is the guy who ran with stanozolol in Seoul in 1988, a steroid that turned his eyes yellow. If you have questions about Lewis’ stimulant tests back in the day: Lewis didn’t violate any rules then, and the levels wouldn’t be considered anywhere near a positive now. And, fast forward, maybe there are questions and maybe there aren't about clenbuterol and Jamaicans in Beijing in 2008.
Carl Lewis sang the national anthem. He ran for office. Neither proved glorious. So what? Wasn't it Teddy Roosevelt who said it was the guy who was out there trying who matters? Lewis sometimes speaks his mind. Like last year, at a pre-Rio Games media summit, when he talked about Team USA relay drops. So what? Wasn't it Jack Nicholson who once said we couldn't handle the truth?
People: Carl Lewis has 10 Olympic medals. Nine are gold. And that's just the starting place. Some appreciation and respect, please.
When — not if — you watch this video, consider:
Phelps has won every single one of his 28 Olympic medals overseas. You can argue back and forth about whether Phelps is the greatest Olympic athlete of all time (yes) but this is just fact: eight medals in Athens, eight in Beijing, six in London, six in Rio.
Lewis stands at a different place in the collective imagination. Why? This has zero to do with Phelps, who over the years has come to represent consistent, if not amazingly ferocious, excellence. With Lewis, it's even more layered, and this is where things get even more interesting, and this is another reason why the Olympics -- despite all their problems -- matter, and a lot.
Lewis won those first four medals, again all gold, in LA: the 100, the 200, the long jump and the 4x100 relay, matching the four golds that Owens won in the same four events in Berlin in 1936. The Coliseum is where Rafer Johnson lit the 1984 cauldron, another on a list of enduring memories. The Coliseum was center stage not just for the 1984 Games but the 1932 Olympics, too. Of course, it represents, as Lewis says in the video, history. It's more, really: you can hear and feel there the echoes of history because the building has been around so long. That’s the point: as everyone who knows the first thing about the Olympics and track and field knows, the Coliseum is nothing less than sacred ground.
Our world could use a lot more of what the Coliseum is and always was. It is good, especially in the Olympic context, to walk on sacred ground. Better still to run.
HAVANA -- Incredibly, this summer it will have been 40 years since Nadia Comaneci turned her perfect-10s at the Montreal Summer Games.
As difficult as those 10s were, the trick she has perfected since is perhaps all the more difficult.
Over the years, Nadia has emerged as one of the very few Olympic stars who is not only known by her first name but known virtually everywhere. She and her husband, the American gymnast Bart Conner, himself a gold medalist in Los Angeles in 1984, are hailed far and wide as first-rate ambassadors for the Olympic ideals.
This perhaps explains why, a few weeks back, the Rome 2024 bid committee tweeted out a photo of Nadia during her competition years:
With U.S.-Cuba relations moving toward a new normal, Comaneci took part this past weekend in a variety of events in Havana, including an appearance at the Cuban national gymnastics academy, where -- among others -- the 2015 men's world championship silver medalist, Manrique Larduet, trains.
So, too, little girls who dream of being Nadia.
He, and they, were thrilled -- in the kind of occasion the Olympic world needs way more of -- the star herself, the embodiment of dreaming big dreams.
It all reminded her, Nadia would say afterward, of Romania a long time ago. And what was -- still, is -- possible.