Frank Deford: Olympic Swimmer Ledecky Is This Century's Perfect 10 : The Torch There are no more perfect 10s in gymnastics, so the sports commentator is leaping off the balance beam and into the Olympic pool.
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Frank Deford: Olympic Swimmer Ledecky Is This Century's Perfect 10

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Frank Deford: Olympic Swimmer Ledecky Is This Century's Perfect 10

Frank Deford: Olympic Swimmer Ledecky Is This Century's Perfect 10

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, as the competitors make their last minute preparations, let's get a little bit of perspective. Our commentator Frank Deford recalls a time when one of the game's most beloved sports was an also-ran.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: In the television era, the second week of the Olympics is reserved for what is considered the marquee event, track and field. So the shared premier showcases of the first week are swimming and women's gymnastics. While swimming was always a spotlight sport, I was, if you will, sort of present at the creation when gymnastics became the new star leadoff hitter.

In 1972, Olga Korbut had become America's TV darling. But she was a one-off, a Soviet child of the evil empire to boot. So '76 in Montreal - America's first week's attention, per usual, is devoted to swimming. Me for Sports Illustrated - I'm covering basketball and a decathlete you may remember named Bruce Jenner.

But I'm awakened Monday morning and told to high right over to the forum for women's gymnastics. For what? Some little Romanian has just made the first perfect 10. The what? Well, turns out this perfection has been attained by someone named Nadia Comaneci. She is an overnight sensation in all 50 ABC TV states.

At the forum, I am sitting next to the venerable New York Times columnist Dave Anderson, who would go on to win the Pulitzer. And we ruefully admit to each other that neither one of us has ever so much as glimpsed women's gymnastics before. So America is getting its gymnastics skinny from America's paper of record and America's authoritative Sports Weekly from wide-eyed naives. But that was the start of our gymnastics boom.

And soon enough after came Mary Lou Retton and all sorts of U-S-A pixies tumbling and vaulting. We became a women's gymnastics power with fabulous ratings Olympics after Olympics. Now, though, all that is completely turned back around because of two things. Number one was simply Michael Phelps. And number two was advanced camera technology which allowed us to better see underwater. Swimming has again become the more glamorous first-week sport, while gymnastics is once more the lounge act.

Moreover, this year, to go with Phelps' emotional swansong, America has the extraordinary Katie Ledecky, a sort of female Phelps. And she is at the height of her powers. Sadly, there are no more perfect 10s in gymnastics. Stupidly, they changed the scoring to make it more sophisticated and less thrilling. So when I watched the swimming, Katie Ledecky will be my Nadia from long ago, the 10 for the 21st century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Give that commentary a 9.9. Commentator Frank Deford's most recent book is "I'd Know That Voice Anywhere: My Favorite NPR Commentaries."

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