Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects: The gymnastics scoreboard at the Montreal Olympics

The scoreboard wasn't big enough to display the perfect 10.00 mark the judges wanted to awarded Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci in 1976

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The Independent Online

Today in 1976, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci commenced her Olympic routine on the uneven bars. "This could be the highlight of the compulsory event," said the TV commentator. "She is one of the technically strongest, best gymnasts that I've ever seen." Some 18 seconds later, she landed perfectly on the mat. "The crowd loved it!" shouted the commentator. And they did. So did the judges – but they had a problem: the scoreboard wasn't big enough to display the perfect 10.00 mark they wanted to award her.

Prior to the games, sports timing specialists Swiss Timing had approached the Olympic organisers to double-check the requirements for each event. Would four digits be needed for the gymnastics? Or three? Daniel Baumat, now the vice-president of Swiss Timing, was informed that "a score of 10.00 is not possible". So when 35 timekeepers and eight tonnes of equipment were sent to Montreal that summer, the gymnastics scoreboards had three digits and were programmed to display scores only up to 9.95.

"I saw the scoreboard turning around, and it said 1.00," recalled Comaneci years later. The judges had urgently conferred with the scoreboard operators and decided that this was their only option. Spectators, officials and gymnasts were confused; it took a PA announcement to explain that the first ever perfect 10 had been awarded, and that the scoreboard simply couldn't cope with it.

The Russian coach, Larisa Latynina, scoffed. "I question the performance," she said later. "I can see a 9.5, but it should not have been a 10. There were flaws." But the next day Comaneci delivered two further performances both marked as "1.00" on the scoreboard. At the age of 14 years 250 days, she became the youngest Olympic champion of all time. On arrival back in Romania, then-president Nicolae Ceausescu awarded her the title "Hero of Socialist Labour".