86 Nations participating
2912 Athletes participating
The significance of the 1981 Bucharest Universiade extended far beyond the field of competition as the Games restored drive and faith in the world university sports movement after the United States-led boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow a year earlier.
A storm hovered over the international sporting community following the politically charged boycott of 66 nations at the Moscow OIympics, but the 11th Universiade held in the Romanian capital helped cast away the dark clouds, with more than 4,300 athletes and officials taking part in the Games.
If anyone had questioned Romania’s organisational capabilities because it had little to no experience in hosting major international events apart from a few student meets, Bucharest responded by staging one of the more successful Universiades of the era that featured a record 86 countries and total crowd figures surpassing, by one account, 500,000 the event came to a close on 30 July.
Hopes were high for some notable figures attending the Bucharest Universiade, including Romania’s larger-than-life President, Nicolae Ceausescu, and then International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch. The pair opened the Games on a searing summer day before a capacity crowd of 60,000 at Lia Manoliu Stadium.
Jean-François Lamour, a French athlete who participated in fencing-sabre in Bucharest before going on to become the French sports minister, remembers his time at the Universiade with pride. “Before having the opportunity to represent France at the Olympics, I took part in the 1979 and 1981 Universiades. The level of performance was high and I especially lived unforgettable moments shared with other athletes from more than 150 countries. I then met some of them at the Olympics.”
The athletics and swimming competitions once again spearheaded the Universiade by producing 14 and 26 new Games records, respectively. In athletics, established stars such as middle-distance runners Said Aouita (Morocco) and Doina Melinte (Romania), and high jumper Sara Simeoni (Italy) put on a show, but it would be none other than Romania’s own – Montreal Olympic champion gymnast Nadia Comaneci – who captivated the audience by hauling in four of her country’s 30 gold medals in singular fashion.
The Soviet Union led the medals table for the sixth successive Games – including a proud win over the United States in the men’s basketball final – followed by the host nation, the US and then China, which topped the podium 10 times for what some consider the country’s first truly successful Universiade.
After restoring faith and détente in the international sports world, Bucharest next passed the baton on to Edmonton, Canada, where the Universiade would return to North America in 1983.