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Nadia: Book Details Abuse Of Legendary Gymnast And Her Daring Escape From Romania

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BUCHAREST -- When 14-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scored the first perfect 10 at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal, it was so unexpected that the scoreboard malfunctioned.

Her series of flips and spins on the uneven bars capped by a flawless dismount lasted only 19 seconds -- but will live on in history forever.

The serious, dark-eyed teen smiled at the judges and was already warming up for the next event, the beam, when her unprecedented mark flashed on the scoreboard: 1.00.

The device could not show a 10.00 because there had never before been one in the history of the sport.

Comaneci would notch six more perfect 10s at those Olympic Games 45 years ago and a place in the hearts of untold millions around the world.

In the decades since those July days in 1976, scores of films and books have told Comaneci's story, including her defection from Romania a month before the collapse of communism in 1989.

Dark Secrets

But details remained sketchy about her life in communist Romania, the elite world of gymnastics, and her escape to the West.

Nadia And The Securitate, a new book by historian Stejarel Olaru, exposes some of the dark secrets and mind-numbing surveillance that communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu employed to keep tabs on the young gymnast, who was propaganda gold for him and his destitute country.

The book, which draws mainly on declassified files of the infamous communist secret police, opens with Comaneci's risky escape in late November 1989.

On a pitch-black night with a full moon, local guide and shepherd Ghita Talpos led six people on a six-hour journey past Romanian border guards into Hungary.

Talpos only found out that night that Comaneci was part of the group.

I was "surprised and intimidated," he says in the book. "I drank two mugs of wine so that if they caught me, at least I had the excuse that I was drunk."

Comaneci's escape was planned in mid-November after a chance meeting with Romanian émigré Constantin Panait at a party in Bucharest.

"He exploited her unstable nature," Olaru said. "Nadia considered [her] meeting him was like a window suddenly opening and a fresh breeze entering" in promising a dierent future for her.

Years later, she claimed Panait held her captive after she had immigrated to the United States and took money from her.

Declassified Files

When they reached Hungary, ocials there planned to send some of the group back to Romania. But Comaneci insisted that they all receive the same treatment.

The Securitate began spying on Nadia when she was 13, shortly after she won medals at the 1975 European gymnastics championships in Skien, Norway. The surveillance continued until she fled Romania.

"There were dozens, maybe hundreds of people spying on the gymnasts and coaches...a complex network," Olaru told RFE/RL.

"It was a book that needed to be written," Olaru said. "I compared what I found with what Nadia said about some of the topics. There was contradictory information."

The historian pored over thousands of pages of Securitate files in researching the book.

The Securitate files contain reports about the sometimes brutal training program of controversial coaches Bela Karolyi and his wife, Marta, who defected to the United States in 1981 and went on to great success training the U.S national gymnastics team and running one of the country's preeminent gymnastics schools.

"Securitate agents trailed [gymnasts], tapped phones, intercepted correspondence. [Their] mission was to keep tabs on Nadia and the coaches," Olaru said.

George Gorgoi, who coached Nadia from 1978 until the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow, told RFR/RL that he wasn't surprised by any of the security service actions described in the book.

He knew about some of the agents, such as the team doctor, and team choreographer Geza Pozsar, as he had friends in the Securitate.

The book reveals that beatings, name-calling, and a lack of food to keep the gymnasts' extra slim were common.

Medical treatment was sometimes denied to sick or injured gymnasts and even water was rationed, the files reveal. Such measures helped control the young girls.

'Sadistic' Coach

Choreographer Pozsar -- aka agent Nelu -- wrote of Bela Karolyi: "Generally speaking, he's indierent to human suering."

He called Karolyi "sadistic" and said he would had even put steak in front of the famished gymnasts, whose diet was always restricted.

Gorgoi told RFE/RL that Karolyi was "very energetic and perseverant, and didn't accept compromises."

"He had no heart and was very greedy, but was a very good coach and very tough preparing the girls for competition," he said.

Of the dicult handling, Gorgoi said: "The end justifies the means," explaining that it was necessary to keep the girls' weight under control to meet the demands of the sport.

He declines to further criticize Bela Karolyi, saying that "he has Alzheimer's now and it's not nice to speak badly about him."

"One thing I learned from Karolyi is the human body has huge resources," Gorgoi said, telling the story of a gymnast who had worn away her skin and flesh from working out in the gym to the point that part of her bone was visible on her palm.

Karolyi took a "handful of magnesium powder, put it on her wound, and told her to do another exercise."

Gorgoi said Karolyi ignored the team doctor's advice and the unnamed gymnast competed on the parallel bars in a meet with her wound.

“"We had to leave the door open when we urinated. They were scared we'd drink water...."

Former Romanian gymnast Rodica Dunca

Olaru told RFE/RL that Bela Karolyi was "brutal in the gym, but out of the gym he played with the young gymnasts" and was a bon viveur.

He added that Marta Karolyi "was severe in and out of the gym," an opinion that Gorgoi shares.

Securitate ocer Ioan Popescu, an ocial member of Romania's national gymnastics delegation, filed a report in 1977 when the team was in Spain.

"Bela Karolyi...insulted and even beat Nadia Comaneci and [three-time Olympic medalist at Montreal] Teodora Ungureanu because they didn't have the right weight for the competition," Popescu wrote.

Popescu was one of the ocers who would sometimes sneak food to the hungry gymnasts, like Comaneci and Ungureanu. The girls sometimes even ran way, only to be brought back by the Securitate.

Karolyi regularly called Comaneci the "champion cow" (vaca medialiata) and other names.

'Air Is Fattening'

Gymnasts were mockingly warned about their weight. Karolyi told Comaneci in 1977 before a tour of Mexico that "You'll have to eat air there. But watch out, air is fattening."

Some gymnasts, unsurprisingly, developed eating disorders, the book says.

The gymnasts were sometimes so hungry that they ate toothpaste. When the gymnasts used the bathroom, they were watched so they wouldn't drink water from the toilet, according to one account.

"We had to leave the door open when we urinated," former gymnast Rodica Dunca said in an interview with Pro Sport in 2002 that appears in the book. "They were scared we'd drink water.... They also kept guard when we were showering so we couldn't tilt our faces upwards to drink water."

"If we got o with a beating, we were happy," said Dunca. "Some days, blood was streaming out of our noses."

Thanks to the legion of agents infiltrated into the elite gymnastics camp, the communist regime was briefed about what was happening between the coaches and their gymnasts.

Occasionally, Communist Party ocials and even the Ceausescus themselves intervened to defuse tensions.

The First Defection

The Karolyis walked out of their hotel in New York City with Pozsar and defected to the United States on March 30, 1981. It was the same day that President Ronald Reagan was shot outside a hotel, and the defection received no attention.

Bela became the coach for 1984 all-around gold medalist Mary Lou Retton and head coach of the U.S national team for the 1992 Olympics.

Marta was in charge of the gold medal-winning team in Atlanta in 1996.

The Karolyis were later also accused of abusive treatment of female gymnasts in their care at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas, where convicted pedophile sports doctor Larry Nassar carried out some of his sexual attacks against dozens of girls and young women. Nassar is now serving multiple life sentences in prison for the abuse.

The couple deny any knowledge of Nassar's abuse, but some athletes have accused them of turning a blind eye to it.

Although they had enjoyed a privileged life in communist Romania, where shortages of basic food, a lack of heating, and power cuts were common -- and foreign travel a luxury – some think the around-the-clock surveillance was too much for the Karolyis.
Or maybe the couple feared they'd soon be out of political favor, Olaru said.

Gorgoi told RFE/RL that time was running out for them and they had no more gymnasts of Comaneci's caliber.

Political Gold

Comaneci was political gold for Ceausescu in every sense of the word and because of that she was closely guarded.

When the American broadcaster ABC traveled to Romania to cover Comaneci's 1984 retirement from the sport, the Securitate kept tabs on sportscaster Chris Henkel and World Champion gymnast Kurt Thomas as they made their report.

They suspected Thomas had tried to convince her to defect in 1981 and was planning to kidnap her from Bucharest, the book says.

Comaneci took part in exhibitions in Romania, and demonstration tours abroad that over time earned Romania millions of dollars.

"That was worth more.... The money never reached the gymnasts or coaches," Olaru said.

"I noticed that, after a major international competition, Ceausescu would go on foreign tours," he said. "She had a great reputation that wasn't just [good] for Romanian sport, but also for Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu used her fame, personally and politically."

"While Nadia knew about the surveillance...she didn't grasp the scope of it. It was very complex," Olaru said.

There was perhaps another more personal reason for the obsessive spying, Olaru believes.

"They gathered all kinds of information on...her private life, her life as a gymnast, her relationship with her family, with coaches, with colleagues, delegation ocials, members of the nomenklatura, everything [was under scrutiny] except one thing."

The President's Son

"There was no mention of her relationship with Nicu Ceausescu [the Ceausescus' youngest son]. The Securitate wasn't allowed to mention the name of [Ceausescu] family members in its files," he said.

Olaru said there are statements from witnesses about an alleged relationship between the two. Comaneci has insisted the relationship was strictly professional.

"I didn't touch on Nadia Comaneci's private life in my book, as this is not my role as a historian. I mentioned the existence of a relationship with Nicu Ceausescu as it seemed relevant from a political point of view," he said.

He says the purported relationship explains the intense scrutiny she was under after retiring from gymnastics in 1984.

Suspicious Hungarians

President Ceausescu viewed the Karolyis with suspicion.

Like Pozsar, the choreographer and Securitate informant, the couple was from Romania's ethnic Hungarian community.

Pozsar, who had close access to the Karolyis and the gymnasts, emerges as the main informer on Comaneci and the Karolyis.

"Geza Pozsar is a central figure and I asked him for his point of view, and he declined. This is regrettable as his testimony was very valuable," Olaru said.

Pozsar also declined an interview with RFE/RL citing an upcoming book he is writing.

But Gorgoi says Olaru's book "tells what happened and how it happened. It's based on research which tries to show the reality of gymnastics and the social situation in Romania."

Olaru said Comaneci supported some of his research and oered him some context.

"She said she considered it a closed subject and whatever she had to say, she'd already said it in her own book and interviews [over the years]."

He said he "kept her updated with my findings and she oered clues to help me understand the Securitate archives."

Comaneci did not respond to an interview request with RFE/RL.

Escape From Romania

News of her escape on the night of November 27, 1989, was almost as big as her perfect 10 -- except it wasn't reported in Romania.

"The Romanian press wasn't allowed to report her escape as it reflected on the regime in a negative way," Olaru said. "But there wasn't a single country where it wasn't news" he added.

"I was lucky as the Securitate made my job easy. They reported on what the press had written, and I didn't need to go to the national library as it was all in the Securitate archives."

Olaru said there was a lot of hype and fake news surrounding her escape but that a few media outlets, including the Romanian Service of Radio Free Europe in Munich, covered the story in a balanced way.

After the defection, the Securitate bugged Comaneci's mother's apartment and "her phone was listened to. Family members were watched. They wanted to find out who had helped her escape and if she was in contact with the family."

"Nadia's [mother, Stefania Comaneci,] used to listen to Radio Free Europe every day and she recorded the RFE news bulletin about Nadia...and she'd listen to it at night, over and over again. She did that every day."

As for her actual escape, Olaru says "it was planned two weeks before" it happened when she was in Bucharest. He says there is no evidence to suggest her escape was orchestrated by the CIA or supported by one faction of the Securitate, two conspiracy theories that have circulated.

The Aftermath

Comaneci now lives in Oklahoma with her husband Bart Conner -- a gold-medal winning gymnast at the 1984 Summer Olympics -- and their son Dylan.

She has not publicly talked about the beatings in her book, Letters To A Young Gymnast. But she acknowledged the physical abuse that occurred to two Romanian journalists in an unpublished interview for the book when the room was bugged.

She appears to have made her peace with the Karolyis, who live a quiet life on a ranch in Texas.

"I think there has been a reconciliation, and there is no more resentment [between Comaneci and the Karolyis]," Olaru said.

"She also cares about her image, and she has every reason to. There is no athlete in Romania who has a better image," he said.

"She inspired entire generations of gymnasts who came after her and wanted a purpose in life," Olaru said. "It wasn't just that they wanted to be like Nadia, they wanted to do the impossible that she achieved."

Gorgoi, who first immigrated to Israel and then to the United States in the late 1980s, sums up the legendary sporting prodigy.

"In sport, every now and then, a genius appears," he said. "She is the genius of world gymnastics."

Alison Mutler
Alison Mutler is a freelance correspondent based in Romania.

 

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