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Watching Yulia Lipnitskaya through the eyes of another prodigy … Nadia Comaneci

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SOCHI, Russia – There is plain silence, and then there is the sort of silence that smothers the Iceberg Skating Palace when a little girl named Yulia Lipnitskaya kneels near the center of the ice and waits for the music to begin. She is 15 years old but she looks 12 and a country holds its breath for her.

More than 6,000 miles away, in the American heartland, a woman holds her breath for her, too.

“I’m so excited to see her,” Nadia Comaneci said a couple of hours before the music starts. “She is so wonderful she makes you forget that she wasn’t born with these moves.”

Not so long ago – wait, can it really be 38 years? – that was what people were saying about Nadia. You could forget that she wasn’t born with these moves. She was 14 years old, she looked 12, and in a few days in Montreal at the Summer Olympics she changed the world. She took to the uneven bars as part of the Romanian gymnastics team and put on a performance so perfect, so blindingly perfect, that judges for the first time in international competition simply could not find a flaw.

The scoreboard flashed 1.00 because there was no capacity to display a perfect 10.

From that moment on, perfection in sports meant something different and little girls across the world wanted to be Nadia Comaneci, winner of three gold medals – including the all-around – in 1976. She would go on to win two more gold medals in 1980.

“People talk about nerves of someone so young,” Nadia says. “But when you are that young, you do not think about the same things as you do when you are older. I can understand how (Yulia) feels. When I think of being 14, nobody knew me. There was no buildup. There was no pressure. I was free.”

The music begins at the Iceberg Skating Palace – the song is “You Don’t Give Up on Love” by the Russian composer Mark Minkov – and Lipnitskaya begins tracing a heart on the ice. She performed this short program once already at these Games, in the team competition, and that performance made her a worldwide sensation.

“Lipnitskaya Is A Goddess” a Russian headline read.

“Russian teenager soars to gold, stardom, with more to come,” was the headline for U.S. News and World Report.

“Fifteen-Year-Old is Sensation of Sochi,” read a German newspaper.

VIDEO: Watch Lipnitskaya’s short program routine

It is striking to see someone so young perform so brilliantly under the world’s glare. I ask Nadia why it moves us so much. She suggests that maybe it makes us remember being young and feeling invincible ourselves.

“Yes, I love to see young athletes, 14 or 15 or 16 years old, do so wonderfully,” Nadia said. “I don’t know if I think about myself, but I love to see that young confidence. You can see it in her. You can see she just goes there, and she’s just doing what she loves and has trained to do. She knows she’s good.”

Lipnitskaya stops tracing, gets up, acts like she is getting out of the race. And she begins. She is so light and small, you wonder if her skates even make a sound on the ice. She builds up speed. Her first jump is a combination triple Lutz-triple toe loop. Someone says this will tell us everything about her nerves. The silence of the mostly Russian crowd has never broken. When she lands the first jump, there are halted cheers. When she lands the second, the noise seems loud enough to lift her off the ice.

“I remember what I told myself before I went out in Montreal,” Nadia had said. “I thought of my best routine in practice. And I told myself, ‘OK, just do that.’ It seemed so easy for me because of that. Just do what you did in practice. …  She knows she only has to do what she does in practice. She does not have to do any more or less. It’s when you try to do more that you can lose focus.”

The first two jumps cleared, Lipnitskaya skates beautifully. The experts all around are nodding to each other as she lands her double Axel and then runs through various artistic moves in time with the music. The crowd can begin to sense something wonderful is happening and their cheers begin to crescendo. Lipnitskaya seems to sense their confidence, and she skates a little faster.

For Nadia, once she got that first 10 in Montreal, what followed was a wonderful blur – she scored six more 10s, won three gold medals, success fed success.

“Oh, I remember when I was finished,” she says, “people were saying, ‘Who is this girl? And where is Romania by the way?’ … That was my introduction. And that was what (Yulia) looked like when she was skating at first. Like she was introducing herself. She doesn’t say anything. She’s a mystery. Except for her beautiful skating.”

Nadia Comaneci has never met Yulia Lipnitskaya nor does she live a life where she likely ever will. She and her husband, Bart Conner, live in Oklahoma. She’s just a distant fan, a mother, an inspirational speaker. But maybe she knows things about Lipnitskaya. Maybe there is a connection between athletic prodigies.

VIDEO: Nancy Kerrigan’s take on the short program

“There is one thing that is different for her,” Nadia said. “She is performing in her home country. For me, I was in Montreal, nowhere near where I was from. That was different. There was no pressure on me there. But for her to be at home, in Russia, with everyone wanting her to win, she will have to deal with a different pressure than I had to deal with.”

As Lipnitskaya makes her way around for her third and final jump of the short program, there is a lot of noise and joy and everyone senses her conviction, her self-assurance. This is the little girl they had all fallen in love with less than two weeks ago in the team competition. This is their Russian darling. Just a short while before the competition began, the Russian hockey team had lost to Finland in the quarterfinals, a bitter disappointment, and now the gaze is firmly on Lipnitskaya.

And then, on the third jump, Lipnitskaya falls.

The gasps throughout the arena are, in their own way, louder than any cheers.

She finishes her routine in an airless arena and then is met with thunderous applause. Bouquets and teddy bears rain on the ice. It is as if no one in Russia can bear to see her cry, and she does not cry. The response cannot help but make her smile a little. Her score of 65.23 places her fifth – more than nine points behind the top three. She has lost more or less any chance for gold, and at this point winning any medal would take a monumental shift during Thursday’s free skate. It almost certainly will not happen. Not this time.

In an odd twist, the Russian who is in gold medal contention is 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, who was once the country’s skating phenom. She won the national championship when she was just 12. She was viewed as the great hope for Sochi, but inconsistencies seemed to wreck her. Sometimes she was brilliant, other times hopeless. Wednesday, she was brilliant. Nobody knows quite what to expect on Thursday. Such is the fluctuation of youthful brilliance.

VIDEO: Sotnikova surprisingly sits in second

“That is something about the Olympics,” Nadia said before Lipnitskaya skated. “You only get one chance. That’s it. You get one time down the mountain, one time to skate, one time on the floor exercise, one time to swim. There is no second chance. Well, there is another chance at the next Olympics, but that is four years away. And four years is a long time.”

Then she laughed a little bit.

“Well,” she said, “fortunately, four years is not so long a time when you are young.”

Budapest withdrawing 2024 Olympic bid; now L.A. vs. Paris

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Budapest will withdraw its bid to host the 2024 Olympics, leaving Los Angeles and Paris as the two candidate cities for an IOC vote to determine the host in September.

The decision was made to avoid “a loss of international prestige” for Hungary, with its governing party saying the bid had a very small chance of success, according to The Associated Press.

The move comes five days after Budapest’s mayor said he may propose withdrawing the bid due to more than 250,000 signatures collected urging a public vote on whether to bid. The Hungarian prime minister and Budapest mayor were to meet Wednesday to discuss the bid.

Previously, Hamburg and Rome withdrew their 2024 Olympic bids. Hamburg’s bid ended in November 2015 after 51.6 percent of voters in the port city were against the bid. Rome squashed its bid in October after opposition from its new mayor.

The last time two or fewer cities were finalists for a Summer Olympics was 1988, when Seoul beat out Nagoya, Japan, in an IOC vote.

The 2022 Winter Olympics also came down to two cities, with Beijing defeating Almaty, Kazakhstan.

It is possible that both the 2024 and 2028 Olympics could be awarded at the IOC session in Lima, Peru, in September.

“This is a discussion,” IOC president Thomas Bach said on Saturday, according to the AP. “It also depends on the timing. This is, you know, why I appreciate also the public discussion.

“There are many options.”

Los Angeles and Paris are bidding to host the Olympics for a third time, which only one other city has done — London. Los Angeles previously hosted in 1932 and 1984. Paris hosted in 1900 and 1924.

The U.S. is in the midst of its longest stretch between hosting the Olympics since the 28-year gap between 1932 and 1960. It last hosted a Summer Games in 1996 and a Winter Games in 2002.

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Bob Costas details his favorite Olympic memories

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Bob Costas is often asked his favorite Olympic moment. He always gives the same answer.

“That’s Muhammad Ali lighting the torch in ’96 in Atlanta (video here),” Costas said after stepping down as NBC’s Olympic primetime host earlier this month. “It was such a well-kept secret that maybe 10 or 12 people in the whole world knew it was going to happen. They rehearsed it one time at 3 a.m. Dick Ebersol, who had the original idea of having Muhammad be the guy, would not tell me or Dick Enberg who it was going to be. He said, ‘You will recognize him or her. But I want your reaction to be as spontaneous as everyone else in the stadium.’

“And the way they staged it, he literally stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight. It was such an arresting moment. I’ve said this before, you hear a lot of sounds in the arena, but you seldom ever hear an audible gasp. And there was a gasp before it kind of set in. And then it turned into thunderous applause and cheering.

“And it wasn’t just excitement. It wasn’t just admiration. It was all those things plus respect, and I think an understanding that he represented so much — athletic excellence, grace. Whether everyone always agreed with him at every stage along the way, you had to respect the integrity. He walked the walk. He put millions of dollars and the prime years of his career on the line for his beliefs. And people had to respect that.

“And they were also moved by how poignant it was that the man who once was the most beautiful and nimble of athletes on the entire planet and the most entertainingly loquacious of athletes had now been reduced to a man trembling as he held the torch and a man essentially unable to speak, even by that point, and yet he was willing to present himself to the world that way. And somehow even in that new state he was a dynamic and charismatic figure and a profound figure. So if I have to pick one, that’s my one.”

It’s not the only one.

Costas’ favorite Winter Olympic moment — from the four Winter Games he covered — came on the final day of the 2010 Vancouver Games.

“When Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal,” Costas said of the men’s hockey final. “That was like the soccer goal that Brazil got this past summer. That was one that everyone else wanted to win, but the host country needed to win. I mean, the U.S. was busting its ass to win that game. They wanted it bad. But Canada was desperate to win that game. And the U.S. ties it in the last 30 seconds and sends it to overtime. So now you’ve got the drama of overtime — the whole country’s on pins and needles, it’s the last event before the Closing Ceremony. The whole triumphant feeling of the Closing Ceremony would have been very different had the Canadians lost that game. Not only did they win it, but the national golden boy Sidney Crosby scores the winning goal. You can’t ask for much more than that.”

Most of Costas’ memories were of watching Olympic events on a monitor at the international broadcast center, sometimes working 12-hour shifts.

The 2000 Sydney Games were different. Given the time difference, he finished hosting duties (primetime and late night) around 5 p.m. local time. He would then walk across Olympic Park and attend events on some days — usually basketball, gymnastics or track and field.

Costas’ favorite in-person Olympic event was Cathy Freeman taking 400m gold in Sydney “because of what she represented,” being of Aboriginal descent.

Costas also wanted to note a moment from the 2002 Salt Lake City Opening Ceremony.

“When they brought in the tattered American flag that had been at the World Trade Center on 9/11,” he said. “That was a very moving thing, and so was the Ali thing in ‘96 in Atlanta.”

A regret?

“I never saw a single Dream Team game in person,” he said. “I mean, I saw them all on monitors. I’m watching a bunch of things all at once, but I’m in a studio. It’s part of what the job is.”

And Costas’ favorite Olympics of the 12 he covered?

“I’ve always been partial to Barcelona [1992] because it was my first primetime Olympics,” he said. “Barcelona is really a fascinating city, very distinctive. … Athens [2004], although it was an imperfect Olympics, it cost the country a whole lot a financially, it meant a lot to me because I’m a Greek American.”

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