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Comaneci hopes artistic gymnastics worlds change lives, like Montreal did for her


MONTREAL — Nadia Comaneci, the queen of the 1976 Olympic Games, wants Montrealers to live and breathe gymnastics for an entire week.

Forty-one years after becoming the darling of the Games, Comaneci is back in the city that changed her life for the 2017 world artistic gymnastics championships, which begin Monday.

The weeklong event at Montreal's Olympic Stadium will feature 400 athletes — 155 women and 245 men — from 71 different nations.

"This week people will talk only of gymnastics," said Comaneci, the event's spokesperson, at the opening press conference on Sunday. "I'm sure there are other things happening but the important thing will be gymnastics.

"I'm so happy that I'm still a part of this amazing sport."

Comaneci became the first gymnast in Olympic history to post a perfect score for her performance on the uneven bars. She won three gold medals, one silver and one bronze in Montreal when she was just 14 years old. She is the youngest gymnast to ever win Olympic gold.

"People talk about the perfect 10 all the time," said Comaneci. "Many times when I meet people and they do something good in their lives, or they're happy for something, they call it a 'Nadia.'

"It's something that will always be connected with my life. My life has been defined by what I did here."

The 47th world artistic gymnastics championships, first held in 1903, is back in Montreal for the first time in 32 years. It is the first event of the new Olympic cycle leading up to the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

The women compete in four disciplines: vault, uneven bars, beam and floor exercises. The men compete in six disciplines: vault, pommel horse, parallel bars, horizontal bar, rings and floor exercises.

The event begins with three days of qualifications followed by four days of finals, where 12 world titles are up for grabs.

Organizers say nearly 50,000 tickets have been sold, eclipsing their goal of 37,000.

"This is top notch, the best gymnasts in the world are here in Montreal," said Kyle Shewfelt, Canadian gold medallist at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. "Many legends are here and many legends will be born."

Some of gymnastics's most recognizable names will be competing for hardware.

On the women's side, there's Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands, who won gold on the balance beam at the Rio Games last summer; Romania's Catalina Polor; and 42-year-old Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan.

Fan-favourite Simone Biles of the U.S., won't be in attendance as she's taking a year off from competitive gymnastics.

On the men's side, Japan's Kohei Uchimura is on the hunt for a seventh straight all-around gold medal at a world championship.

But Comaneci says the stage is set for younger, unknown gymnasts to make a name for themselves, just as she did.

"This is the new generation, 60 per cent of the gymnasts are new," said Comaneci. "The fact that Simone is taking a break for one year, anybody can grab this all-around title. That's what makes this competition so exciting. We know on paper who can do that, but they have to perform."

Olympic Stadium was converted into a 10,000-seat venue designed specifically for the event. Organizers built a 130-metre long, 18-metre high wall to create a more intimate atmosphere within the 55,000-seat Big O.

Add to that a 10-tonne giant screen, as well as lights and speakers designed for the makeshift venue. Organizing committee president Richard Crepin is calling it a cross between a gymnastics competition and a rock concert.

"We're crazy," he said. "Gymnastics is a beautiful sport and we don't show it enough. We will not do these kinds of events on a regular basis. It's really hard. Financially it's a big undertaking."

Crepin says the world championships cost $14.5 million to organize, with more than half of the funds (55 per cent) coming from the public sector.

Kelsey Patterson, The Canadian Press

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