At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, 19-year-old Nellie Kim, clad in a simple, unadorned purple leotard, stood at the end of the vault runway. She raised one arm to salute the judges. The Soviet gymnast then charged toward the vaulting horse, a purple blur, jumped onto the springboard, did a half turn onto the apparatus and launched herself into the air, flipping one-and-a-half times and completing a full twist before landing. Kim stuck the vault, which was the most difficult one in the women’s competition, perfectly. Lifting her chest and arms, she once again, saluted the judges and walked off the mat. As she headed toward the stairs to dismount the podium, she raised her arms again, this time to the wave to the crowd that was feting her accomplishment. Then the scoreboard flashed. The top number, 90, was Kim’s bib number while the bottom one was 1.00. The crowd erupted and Kim waved again, clearly reveling in the moment.
The meet organizers hadn’t accounted for a possibility of a Perfect 10 so the digital scoreboard ordered for the occasion had space for just one digit in front of the decimal point. Hence the 1.00 that flashed for Kim’s ambitious, flawless vault. But at this point in the competition, the women’s all around final, the crowd knew just how to react. They already had a lot of practice cheering for the 1.00’s of Nadia Comaneci of Romania.
1976 was the year that 14-year-old Comaneci became a sensation for scoring the first Perfect 10s in Olympic competition. She had gotten the ball rolling on the very first night of competition, earning a 10 on her compulsory routine on the uneven bars. She would receive seven Perfect 10s at the 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 medals at that Olympics: one as a member of the dominant Soviet women’s team and two individual medals in the vault and floor exercise.
Despite both women’s clear excellence, when the 1976 Olympics are spoken of, it’s only Comaneci who is mentioned. It was Comaneci who became a global superstar and a symbol of the Olympics. Her Perfect 10s signified more than a score and a ranking while Kim’s were simply marks.
Forty years later, both women live in the United States—Comaneci in Norman, Oklahoma and Kim in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Geography aside, however, their lives, post-Perfect 10s, couldn’t be more different. Comaneci remains gymnastics royalty but has little formal role in the sport. Kim is the president of the Women’s Technical Committee, which oversees the rules and judging on the women’s side of the sport. If Comaneci is the Queen of Gymnastics then Kim is the prime minister—doing the unglamorous day-to-day work in the political trenches.
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When I sat down to interview Kim for my book on women’s gymnastics nearly forty years after her 10s, she was wearing a blue judge’s blazer and drinking a glass of wine. We were in the judge’s lounge at the 2015 World Championships. The women’s competition, which Kim had overseen, had just concluded and there was one more event to go for the men. Just as we had started talking, Kim interrupted herself mid-answer, excitedly motioning to the TV screen near our table, which was showing the high bar final taking place in the arena below. Danell Leyva, an American gymnast, had just nailed his routine and his father-coach, Yin Alvarez, was celebrating boisterously, sprinting back and forth on the sidelines. Kim was delighted by Alvarez’s performance. “Look at this coach,” she told me. “He is jumping non-stop. He is artist.”
That Kim would be enthralled by a coach’s obvious passion is not surprising if you know a little about her history as a gymnast. Though female gymnasts have been saddled with the reputation of being uniquely docile, the “just following orders” kind of athlete, this was not at all an apt description of Kim. She was frequently noted for her passion and stubbornness, even in the earliest accounts of her.
Over the years, many Soviet and Russian gymnasts have been characterized as “stubborn” or “difficult” but a strong personality was often taken as a sign of potential greatness. It’s important for Western readers to keep in mind that expressing negative emotions is more acceptable in Russian culture, which eschews small talk and other niceties in favor of blunt honesty.
Back in 1976, Stanislav Tokarev began his profile of the gymnast from Chimkent, Kazakhstan in Sovietsky Sport thusly: “During practice sessions, she sometimes furiously kicks gymnastic apparatuses and screams that she will never go near them again.” Her coach, former weightlifter, Vladimir Baidin, occasionally complained about her demeanor. In a Kazakh television documentary, Kim’s mother, Alfia Safina, talked about her daughter’s tempestuous relationship with her coach. “They would often quarrel,” she said. “They’d leave for practice normally but return already separately. [Baidin] say, ‘I’m done with her. I won’t train her anymore.’”
Even during the 1976 Olympics, the biggest competition of her life to date, Kim insisted on doing things her own way. A Canadian film crew was tailing the Soviet team around Montreal and captured many moments of fighting between Kim and Baidin, who had to watch the meet from the stands since only one coach was allowed on the floor with the team. In one scene, Kim, having ignored her coach’s instruction on the vault (at least according to the narrator), which resulted in a large step on her landing, is marching out with the Soviet team when Baidin appears to be rebuking her from his seat. Kim looks as pleased with him as he does with her and argues back on her way out of the arena to prepare for the team medal ceremony.
The Canadians’ interest in Kim was not the only the Western media had shown in the gymnast. In the Kazakh TV special, her friends back in Kazakhstan recalled the time that a Western film crew showed up to profile Kim. “A lot of people wondered, ‘How come there is an Eastern-looking girl in the Soviet national team?’” the narrator said. Kim’s father is Korean and her mother is Tatar. (Tokarev, even in his utterly positive account of Kim in 1976, let some casual racism slip in, referring to her “slanting eyes” in his description.) The Western attention was a boon to Kim and her coach. According to the documentary, before the film crew arrived, Baidin and Kim’s family were upgraded to better apartments.
Later, the Canadians’ cameras catch up with the duo outside in Montreal where they’re assessing what happened during the competition. Baidin instructs her to aim at where she wants to land on the vault. “I never aim,” Kim defiantly tells him.
“Why not? It’s the Olympic Games!” her coach exclaims.
"I’m fed up with the Olympics,” she responds sulkily.
But during the next round of competition, Kim does aim as Baidin had encouraged her to. She sticks the vault and gets her first 10 of the Games. She would earn a second perfect score during the women’s floor exercise final for a routine that contained a double back somersault, a first for a woman at the Olympic Games. As with her first on the vault, Kim appeared overjoyed with her performance and score, smiling, clasping her hands together overhead and pumping.
And because of the 10s and subsequent gold medals, Kim became the new face of Soviet gymnastics at the ’76 Olympics.
“Kim was the new name in Soviet gymnastics at a time when they were beginning to look outdated,” Elizabeth Booth, the writer and academic behind Rewriting Russian Gymnastics, told me. Though she was “new” at least in the eyes of the Olympic viewing public, Booth considers Kim, the gymnast, as being cut in the classical mode, much like the stately Ludmilla Tourischeva, the 1972 Olympic champion, but with more difficulty. “I think she combined the difficulty of the 1980s with the lyricism of the early 1970s so she was very much at that transition point between the two eras,” Booth added.
That Kim didn’t represent the “new” gymnast the way Comaneci did was apparent soon after the Games. Though Kim had competed at the 1977 European Championships and won a medal, she was nowhere to be found in the 1978 Soviet documentary, You Are In Gymnastics. The gymnasts featured were the young, small ones—gymnasts like Elena Mukhina and Natalia Shaposhnikova—who were showcasing the difficult skills that had begun migrating from the men’s side of the sport. Just a couple of years after Kim performed her double back, Mukhina introduced the full twisting double back somersault to the women’s repertoire and won the 1978 world title. Kim placed second right behind her. “She wasn’t, in my opinion, the image of Soviet gymnastics that the Soviets wanted to project around the late 70s and early 80s,” Booth observed. After Romania had captured so many gold medals and the limelight in 1976, the Soviets were promoting gymnasts more like Comaneci and less like Kim, who was noted for her more mature shape and style.
Yet she continued to make major teams by doing what was necessary to keep up with the young gymnasts who threatened to outpace her. She revamped her bars routine in 1979 to make the world championships team headed to Fort Worth. That competition was something of a disaster for the Soviets, who lost the team title for to the Romanians for the first time ever. Kim was one of the few bright spots. She won the world all-around title at this competition, a first for a woman of color.
Despite her strong showing in 1979, Kim had to fight her way onto the team for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. “There were significant people associated with the Soviet team who didn’t want to see her on the 1980 Olympic team,” Booth said. As Booth noted, she no longer represented the “ideal” gymnast. Also, she wasn’t ethnically Russian, having grown up on the fringes of the Soviet empire in Kazakhstan before getting married to gymnast Vladimir Achasov and moving to Belarus after the 1976 Olympics. (She’d be divorced by the time the next Olympics rolled around.) But Kim did make the 1980 team and would have the chance to match up one last time with her chief rival, Comaneci. Neither would have the same standout performances they had had back in 1976. Comaneci didn’t repeat as the all around champion and tied for the silver. Kim placed fifth.
They redeemed themselves in the apparatus finals. Comaneci defended her Olympic title on the balance beam. And the two rivals tied for the last gold of the competition on floor exercise. As they stood on the podium together to accept their Olympic medals, the last of their careers, they reportedly spoke for the first time.
“That’s it, it’s over now?” Kim said. Comaneci responded, “Yes, it’s time.”
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After that shared moment of relief on the podium, the two women’s lives diverged in a major way. Comaneci remained in the spotlight and a national symbol for Romania. After the Games, she continued to make appearances and went on tour with the team. In 1989, Comaneci defected to the West, shortly before the student-led revolution in Romania unseated the Communist dictatorship, and eventually made it to the U.S. where she continues to be involved in gymnastics.
Kim, too, remained connected to the sport though very differently than her more famous rival. She married again, this time to cyclist Valery Movchan, whom she met at the 1980 Games, and had a daughter, also named Nellie. In addition to coaching in Belarus, which became her adopted homeland, she went to judge for the Soviet Union at major competitions, including the 1988 Olympics, where she was singled out in the Western media for giving a 10 to a Soviet gymnast who had clearly taken a step on the landing. In 1990, her judging license was temporarily suspended due to accusations that she unfairly favored Soviet gymnasts. Kim, reappeared, however, as a judge at the 1992 Olympics, which was the last one in which the Soviets would compete under a single banner. In 1993, Kim had expressed her concerns about the disinvestment that was already underway in sports in the former Soviet republics. “We already have unsatisfied needs. The number of sports schools is decreasing,” she said on French TV.
What Kim feared did come to pass: Not only had the Soviet Union disappeared, but so had the the gymnastics machine the country created. While the relatively wealthy Russian republic weathered the change with only some diminishment in their overall gymnastics performances, former powerhouse republics like Belarus and Ukraine, which had produced several Olympic champions since the 70s, have slipped off the sport’s radar.
Kim has spent her years since the breakup of the Soviet Union as something of a gymnastics nomad. She spent time coaching gymnasts in South Korea, Italy and Belarus. She is the co-vice president of the Belarussian Gymnastics Federation and lives in Minneapolis. She has traveled the world as a judge, coach and technical expert. In response to accusations of bias in 2013 coming from the Russian camp after the world championships—they said she favored the Americans—Kim defended herself against these charges, by asserting her statelessness. “I am not an American citizen,” she told journalist Albert Starodubstev. “I live in the U.S. because it is better for me to work there. But in my soul I am still a citizen of the great country that disappeared at the beginning of the 90s.”
In 2004, Kim was elected president of the Women’s Technical Committee (WTC). Under Kim, gymnastics saw the biggest change in the sport since she and Comaneci earned Perfect 10s—the transition away from the 10 to a points-based, open-ended scoring system. Many gymnastics fans joked that this is Kim’s revenge—ridding the sport of the iconic mark that made her chief rival so famous. It’s amusing, but likely untrue, since the scoring changes had been in the works since the early 90s and the catalyst for the change in 2004 was a series of scoring scandals in the men’s competition at the Athens Games.
Kim has tried to help stimulate development of gymnastics in less prosperous countries, such as her native Kazakhstan. In 2015, this effort landed her in hot water yet again. Kim, who is co-vice president of the Belarussian Gymnastics Federation, helped two American teens with no connection whatsoever to Belarus—who have no family from there, who have never set foot in the country—become citizens in order to compete for the struggling nation at the world championships. The goal was for at least one of the two to place high enough to earn Belarus a spot at the Olympic test event the following spring, which is where individual gymnasts can earn berths to the Games for their nations.
The reason this move was seen as especially controversial was because the two Americans, without a single trial or competition, displaced two homegrown Belarussian gymnasts who had already been on their country’s world championships roster. It smacked of American gymnastics imperialism. And many felt that Kim’s involvement in the whole affair was inappropriate. When questioned, Kim maintained that no rules had been broken and the FIG concurred, saying that it cannot tell countries and federations how to determine citizenship. While both assertions are true, neither addressed the issue of how the Belarussian gymnasts had been treated, which had been the issue for many fans and observers.
But the gamble paid off. The two Americans, who weren’t good enough to qualify in the deep American field, placed high enough in the rankings to earn a spot to the test event. And at the test event, Kylie Dickson (the Belomerican as one gymnastics blogger called her) won an Olympic berth for herself. Whether this boosts the fortunes of Belarussian gymnastics in the long term, however, remains to be seen.
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Forty years after Kim made her Olympic debut, gymnastics is a very different sport. It’s more dynamic and strength based than when either she or Comaneci first competed. And the 10 that made Comaneci famous is gone. Kim, however, doesn’t seem to be terribly troubled by this.
Because even though Kim is happy to reminisce with you about the past—she indulged many questions from me about her 10s and performances in Montreal—she is relentlessly forward looking. When Kim and Comaneci were competing, people wondered if the sport was getting too dangerous, if the human body was being pushed too far. Nowadays, their routines would be considered simple by elite standards. In fact, they wouldn’t even be considered elite.
“Development will never stop,” Kim told me emphatically. Her job now is to figure out how to manage this inevitable evolution and how to make gymnastics work in this time and place. As she pointed out when discussing her allegiances, the world of Perfect 10s, along with the country she once represented, no longer exists. And Kim is pragmatic enough to know that you just have to keep moving forward.
Dvora Meyers is a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, ESPN, and Slate. She's the author of “The End of the Perfect 10” from Touchstone, which is available now.