How Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci finally escaped the Iron Curtain
On December 1, 1989, Romania’s Nadia Comăneci, winner of five Olympic gold medals and the first gymnast in history to score a perfect 10, sat across from an official at the United States Embassy in Vienna, in Austria, trying to apply for asylum.
“What do you want?” asked the official.
“I want to go to America,” she replied.
“When?” “As soon as possible.”
“‘There’s a Pan Am flight leaving in two hours,’ the official said. “You are on it.”
Comăneci’s defection sent shockwaves around the world, but especially in her native Romania, where the country’s despotic president, Nicole Ceausescu, and her influential wife, Elena, were both furious and embarrassed.
In “Nadia Comăneci & The Secret Police: A Cold War Escape”, historian and author Stejarel Olaru (Bloomsbury), examines what caused Comăneci to flee her homeland and the role that the country’s secret police – the Securitate – played in his departure.
It also documents the brutal training program she was put through by her coach, Béla Károlyi, which was designed to maximize Romania’s medal count but paid little attention to the welfare of the youngsters. gymnasts under his care.
When the Romanian revolution overthrew the country’s communist regime in December 1989, the Securitate was also disbanded.
In the years since, all of the reports they have compiled since their formation in 1948 have been made public.
In the case of the country’s most famous sports star, Nadia Comăneci, they proved to be both eye-opening and harrowing. The Securitate began monitoring Comăneci in 1975, placing informants in its training facility in his hometown of Onesti.
Informants were embedded in all aspects of society, tasked with monitoring persons of interest and sending regular written reports to the Securitate.
Everyone, it seemed, was on their payroll – including Comăneci’s own coach, Béla Károlyi, whose code name was “Katona”.
Meanwhile, his choreographer, Geza Pozsar (codename “Nelu”), was not only designing floor routines for Comăneci, but also submitting reports on Károlyi and his wife, Marta, whose extreme training methods made the subject of many complaints.
“He yelled at them and humiliated them,” writes Pozsar. “’Big cow!’, ‘Sow!’ He slapped the girls and they were very scared. Marta used to grab them by the throat and dig in her fingers.
“And she slapped them a lot. The girls had marks from his rings on their cheeks.
Pozsar’s reports fell on deaf ears, largely because as long as Károlyi was getting results – and he was – the Securitate was only too happy to let him.
Long and brutal, Károlyi’s training sessions took place eight hours a day, six days a week.
He monitored each gymnast’s weight several times a day and starved them if he felt they were too heavy.
As a result, bulimia quickly became a problem in the team.
He once scolded Comăneci for eating cheese saying, “[Now] you will only eat fresh air, but only one bite, because two will make you fat.
Károlyi systematically ignored the advice of doctors and dietitians, firing those who disagreed with him and forcing gymnasts to compete while ill or injured.
His mantra, writes Olaru, was that “achievements come more easily in the context of exhaustion”.
It was “only when there was a need to handle them [that] he told the young gymnasts he cared about them.
As the abuse continued, Károlyi’s team decided to file a complaint with the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party.
In June 1976, just a month before the Olympics in Montreal, Canada, they sent a letter detailing the treatment they had suffered, describing Károlyi as a “soulless man” and one who “is capable of killing us”. .
They repeatedly described themselves as “slaves”.
One of Agent Nelu’s reports agreed when he said of Károlyi: “In general, human suffering leaves him cold.”
His fingers struck from above and Károlyi took Comăneci and the team to Montreal. Unbeknownst to him, there were also five undercover Securitate agents in the official delegation who bugged his hotel room and all the rooms the team stayed in.
After dominating the 1975 European Gymnastics Championships, winning four out of five gold medals and becoming the youngest champion in history, Comăneci went one better.
In the parallel bars event, she became the first person in Olympic Games history to achieve the perfect score of 10.
Even the electronic dashboard was not prepared for it. He couldn’t post a score higher than 9.99 and so gave Comăneci a score of only 1.00 instead.
Comăneci left Montreal with two more gold medals, a silver and a bronze. And, at 14, she also left behind a global superstar.
“A gymnast from a small, distant country that the vast majority of Montreal Forum spectators had never heard of had changed the history of the competition,” writes Olaru.
Inevitably, fame comes at a price.
As Romania’s greatest asset and what President Ceausescu called a victory for communism, Comăneci was now under even greater scrutiny as the Securitate followed her every move, either to protect her of a possible kidnapping, or to ensure that she did not defect during a competition abroad.
Even the postman, who delivered thousands of fan letters to Comăneci’s home every month, was under surveillance.
Not all attention was welcome.
Even his friendships were suspect.
When she was 16, she became close with a male gymnast, Kurt Szilier, but after the Securitate compiled a file on him, he was separated from Comăneci and soon moved to another training camp.
“Famous all over the world, Nadia now wanted the simple things in life: having a boyfriend and going for walks with him in the park, shopping, going to the disco or the cinema, without having to ask for the permission or justify themselves to anyone,” Olaru writes.
The claustrophobia of celebrity, coupled with the round-the-clock attention of the Securitate, came to a head in August 1978 when she was staying at the August Sports Hotel in Bucharest.
As she was leaving her room to do laundry, an official stopped her and asked where she was going.
For Comăneci, it was the last straw. She burst into her room and drank the cup of laundry detergent she was carrying, prompting a trip to Bucharest’s emergency hospital. Reports of a suicide attempt spread, although Comăneci later claimed it was an accident and that she simply mistook the detergent for juice.
It wasn’t just the lack of privacy that took its toll. Despite being one of the most successful sports stars in the world, Comăneci did not reap the same financial benefits as her contemporaries, surviving on a salary equivalent to around $150 a month.
During the 1981 United States tour, coach Károlyi insisted on being given the cash equivalent instead of the food that had already been arranged for his team.
The team never saw the meals or the money.
Later, in New York, a Securitate observer reported that Károlyi was seen buying “three music stations, a number of cassette players, including boomboxes, two guns hunting and other articles”.
Béla and Marta Károlyi, and their choreographer Geza Pozsar, did not return to Romania after the American tour. Instead, they defected, moving to the United States and leaving Comăneci, her teammates, and Securitate officials to return alone.
Although rumors swirl that Nadia Comăneci would follow them, it would take eight years before life in Romania became unbearable for the gymnast.
Even after her retirement from gymnastics in 1984, the Securitate continued to monitor her, until she fled the Hungarian border and went to Austria, before settling in the United States in 1989.
“The communist regime had exploited her both financially and politically,” writes Olaru, “subjecting her in return to a complicated life full of restrictions.”