Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Witness: Nadia Comaneci's Perfect 10

I don't normally talk about my professional interpreting career on this blog, but today merits an exception. It's the anniversary, the 40th anniversary, of what for me was an unforgettable moment. And paradoxically it happened to me because at that very moment I was not interpreting.

It came about this way. In the summer of 1976 I was recruited to the large team of 60-odd conference interpreters who serviced the multitude of press conferences, committee meetings, etc., that accompanied the Montreal Olympic Games just as they always surround the Olympics. The public isn't aware how much of these activities goes on. I consider it was the high point of my career as an interpreter. I got the job because I had previously done work as a freelance interpreter for the Canadian government, I moved for a month into one of the apartments that were provided for us at great expense in Montreal and commuted most days between morning press conferences in the city and the afternoon equestrian events at Bromont, Quebec.

But at the very start of the games, just before the opening ceremony, we interpreters discovered a serious mistake had been made. Everyone on the staff of the games was issued with an identity tag to wear around their neck; it bore their photo, their name and their function. You had to show it to get to work. No tag, no admission. However, the people in charge had forgotten to prepare tags for the interpreters. Panic! In desperation, the official responsible issued an order: "We have press tags left over. Issue them all press tags." And then he was so busy that he forgot to ask for them back.

The unintended result was that the interpreters could get into the press enclosure at any event merely by flashing their identity tags. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

One evening, back from Bromont with no interpreting to do until the following morning, I walked up St Catherine Street to the Montreal Forum. The Forum is usually Montreal's premier ice hockey arena, vast, but it had been taken over for the Olympics. That evening it was hosting the gymnastics. I flashed my tag and eased myself into the front row of the press enclosure.

I had arrived just in time to witness history in the making. Between the spotlights and the camera flashes, and from a distance of barely 30 metres, I saw dainty, diminutive, precise, untrembling Nadia Comaneci, 14 years old, make her perfect score of 10. The first perfect score in Olympic gymnastics. As we onlookers stopped chattering, she, as she says in her BBC interview, was thinking only of what she had to do next. Her event barely occupied a quarter of the floor space but it was the corner nearest to where I was standing. I was there too when, to the initial bewilderment of the reporters and the crowd, the board flashed up 1.00 because it hadn't been designed to display 10.00.

Simon Watts, et al. The first Olympic gymnast to score a perfect 10. BBC Witness, 20 July 2016, or click here. This revealing video interview shows Nadia in childhood and as she is today – still graceful.