At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, a 15-year-old woman’s gymnast from Romania set the Gymnastics World on its ear. She not only won three Gold Medals, but along the way, she achieved the first perfect 10 ever awarded.
In case you have no point of reference, at the time it was like Babe Ruth being the first to hit 60 Home Runs, or Roger Bannister running the first sub-4 minute mile, or for that matter, LeBron James leading in all statistical categories during the 2016 NBA Playoffs. In brief, it was a monumental achievement.
Like so many other sports fans, I watched the TV in awe. We had just started the new Sports Division at FOX and my sidekick Marty Groothuis and I had gone to Tucson, Arizona to sign up the United States Gymnastics Federation for representation.
Up until then, Gymnastics had not played an important role on TV. The only time it was shown was during major events such as the Olympics. We determined that among our goals was to change all that.
Working with Frank Baer, the man who founded the USGF in his Tucson garage, we quickly accomplished that by making Gymnastics a regular feature on all three networks. We created original competitions just for the Networks…. but we needed more! We needed something spectacular!
Than it hit us! Why not bring the Romanian team to the United States. We were told this was impossibility. After all, the United States was locked in a Cold War with the Eastern Bloc countries.
At that time, ‘NO’ was not a word we understood. So, we decided to make our dream competition a reality. First, the late Ron Beckman and I got invited by Frank Baer to attend the 1978 World Championships in Strasbourg, France. We went, not as official members of the delegation, but as auditors.
Frank would try to set up a meeting with Nadia’s coach, Bela Karoli. Now, you have to picture what Strasbourg looked like at the time. This beautiful sleepy mountain town in the Alsace, which had been the scene of many Nazi atrocities during World War II, was once again an armed camp.
At the 1972 Olympics, Arab terrorists had murdered 11 Israeli athletes. As a result, the French government, hoping to prevent any further chaos, had armored half-tracks and military personal stationed throughout the normally sleepy Hamlet.
The Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc teams were training in two separate buildings. The Eastern Bloc was an armed fortress. There was only one egress and ingress. Each was manned by an imported trooper dressed in riot gear … armed with an Uzi and at his side a guard dog. Who looked mean!… REAL MEAN!
As a non-delegate, I had to figure a way to get behind that Iron Curtain and meet Mr. Karoli. I noticed that all the Delegates wore plastic badges identifying themselves as officials.
I came up with a solution!
Finding out where there was a “five and ten cents store” in town, I went there and bought plastic cases. Into one, I slid my California license with my picture and pinned it to my jacket.
With outward bravado, but fear inside, I walked up to the guard, patted the dog on the head, waved to the guard and walked behind the Iron Curtain to sign the Romanian team for their first-ever U.S. appearance.
Armed with the agreement, I headed back to the U.S. and set about planning the tour. The two teams were to meet over a ten-day period in five of America’s top Arenas ending in Vancouver, B.C.
The tickets and venues were all set. Within two days of going on sale, Madison Square Garden; The Los Angeles Forum; plus San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Seattle and the PNE in B.C. were all sold out. The event created excitement everywhere.
In fact, Mayor Lindsey of New York was so on board that he planned to personally greet the Romanian Delegation upon their arrival at JFK at the start of the tour. He had gone so far as to order a Red Carpet and the NYPD Kilt Band to play when they set foot on United States soil.
The fabulous Sid Silver had handled all the logistics and we flew to New York the night before the anticipated arrival. This was it! FOX Sports was making a statement.
Two O’clock the night before, I was awakened from a deep sleep in my Hotel Room. It was my late wife. She informed me that the Romanian Consulate had been trying to reach me. It seems Nadia, so the story went, had injured her “pinky finger” and could not grasp the high Bar, or the pummel horse. In addition, she definitely could not do either the Floor Ex, or the Balance Beam.
Everything was immediately cancelled!
FOX had to repay all the local promoters for their expenses and damage. It looked as if my FOX career was over before it had a chance to really take off.
Fortunately, we had purchased a policy with Lloyd’s of London valued at more than enough money to make everyone whole.
Needless to say, it took quite awhile for Mayor john Lindsey, whose assistant I had called at 2:30 that morning to alert him of the problems, to forgive me. For three weeks leading up to the Madison Square Garden event, the Mayor had been on every Radio and TV Station, even had a special Press Conference touting the Romanian team arrival.
Lloyd’s was willing to pay up if we could prove Nadia was truly injured. Bill Saunders, President of the FOX International Division, based out of London, flew to Bucharest and after four days came back with medical proof –X-Rays and certification, that Nadia was truly injured.
WHEW! Llloyd’s paid off in full.
But the story doesn’t end there!
In 2006, eight years later, my daughter and her husband gave a small graduation party at their house for my oldest granddaughter Sarah. Among the invited quests were her classmate Kirsten and her parents. They had emigrated from Romania.
Sarah introduced me by name to Kirsten’s mother and father.
To which Kirsten’s father said my name was a familiar one in Romania. Puzzled, I asked why?
It seems the father was the Romanian Secret Police Captain scheduled to escort the team to the United States. His superiors found out that he had made plans to defect and immediately aborted the tour. Eventually, when the “Wall came down”, he and his family were allowed to leave legally.
Quite a quandary!! To this day, I do not know how Bill Saunders got the medical papers and the certification.
You know what?… I never asked!… leave well enough alone.