Gymnastics prodigy Nadia Comaneci was only six years old when Bela Karolyi saw her and a friend playing cartwheels in a corner of their schoolyard in a small town in Romania.
Karolyi, who trained a gymnastics team to gain international exposure for Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal communist regime, famously described moving from class to class until he finally found them.
And in Comaneci, the first gymnast to score a perfect ten in the Olympics (and only 14 when she did), the stony Karolyi and his equally formidable wife Marta found a superstar and child prodigy who matched their determination to win – whatever it may be. cost.
Indeed, Comaneci said that as a little girl she would just grind her teeth through pain and adversity, and refused to “give people the satisfaction of seeing me cry.”
Gymnastics prodigy Nadia Comaneci (seen in 1976) was only six years old when Bela Karolyi saw her and a friend performing cartwheels in Romania
She had even heard, she once said proudly, ‘my old coach, Bela Karolyi, said I was the only young gymnast he could never break.’
Comaneci, who achieved unparalleled glory at the 1976 Montreal Olympics under the tutelage of Karolyis when she scored seven perfect tens, has described their relationship as a ‘happy triangle’.
However, a new book claims the relationship was anything but sunny.
According to a recently released cache of reports about Karolyi’s gymnast training program, buried in the archives of the dreaded Romanian secret police, the Securitate, Comaneci and other girls were regularly starved, beaten and verbally abused.
The couple is also said to have stolen some of the money they earned during matches and denied them access to doctors.
By far the most celebrated Romanian of her day, Comaneci became so crucial to the interests of the state that President Ceausescu was regularly kept informed of her progress.
Nadia Comaneci attends HBO’s official Golden Globe Awards After Party in January 2017
In a new book, Nadia And The Securitate, historian Stejarel Olaru says the Securitate used informants and wiretapped phones to monitor what he called the “ abusive relationship ” between Comaneci and Karolyi, who went on to coach the US women’s gymnastics team.
The Securitate had so many people – such as coaches, doctors, and gymnastics officials – who gave information that they could follow her every move.
And, says Olaru, even seasoned Securitate operatives were shocked by the way Karolyi mistreated the young gymnasts.
Reports spoke of the atmosphere of ‘terror and cruelty’ dating back to the late 1960s.
In 1974 – two years before Comaneci’s triumph in Montreal, an informant wrote, “The girls were hit until their noses bled and they were punished with physical exercise until exhausted.”
The bearish Karolyi usually insulted the girls by calling them “fat cows” and “pigs,” and often refused medical treatment.
“Starving the gymnasts was a regular practice of the Karolyis,” writes Olaru. The girls ate toothpaste at night – they were that hungry.
In some cases they talked about drinking water from the toilet tank. ‘
Comaneci himself has said that gymnasts cannot afford to put on weight and Olaru says some Romanian girls suffered from bulimia.
“They became experts at stealing food, which they hid in places they thought no one would discover, such as the hem of the curtain,” he says.
In 1977, Comaneci gave an interview to two Romanian journalists in which she confirmed that she had been beaten and insulted, had not been fed up to three days in a row, and was once criticized for hurting only ten us.
Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci and Bela Karolyi speak in the 1970s
“Too many things have happened … I can’t even look at him anymore,” she said of Karolyi.
The interview was never published – but Olaru found a record of it in the Securitate files. Six months after the Montreal Olympics, where she was six feet tall and weighed 85 pounds, Comaneci refused to continue training with him, the historian says.
Her mother complained to the Romanian Gymnastics Federation about the star’s treatment and asked to speak directly with Ceausescu.
A meeting had been organized but canceled at the last minute.
Ceausescu “used (Comaneci) for propaganda purposes” and called her a “heroine of socialist labor,” says Olaru, “but she was nevertheless harassed, intimidated” – even though she was beaten less often than the other gymnasts.
Informants described Karolyi, a former boxing champion who was also under surveillance, as “unmoved by human suffering.”
Olaru believes that Ceausescu’s regime did not intervene to keep him out of “pure political calculation,” arguing, “How could they brag about the high level of the gymnastics program and conduct an investigation against Karolyi at the same time?”
Comaneci quit gymnastics in 1984 and became “a prisoner in her own country” because she was forbidden to travel abroad, Olaru says.
The five-time Olympic gold medalist, now 59, defected to the US in 1989, just months before Ceausescu was overthrown, and now lives in Oklahoma with husband Bart Conner, a fellow ex-gymnastics champion.
Bela Karolyi has not commented on the allegations in the Olaru book, although he said in a statement: ‘I am never satisfied: it is never enough, never. My gymnasts are the best prepared in the world. And they win. That’s all that matters. ‘
It’s not the first time that he and his wife’s training methods have been questioned. The couple defected to the US in 1981 – leaving their seven-year-old daughter behind – and both later became head coach of the US women’s gymnastics team.
The Karolyis were embroiled in a new scandal in 2016, when more than 265 women, including 19 members of the US national team – including champion Simone Biles (above) – accused team physician Larry Nassar of sexually assaulting them for nearly three decades.
Hailing from Transylvania, Karolyi is hailed as the most successful American gymnastics coach ever, with more champions than any other coach in the sport.
However, a 1995 book by American sports writer Joan Ryan exposed the toll gymnastics takes on pre-pubescent girls and described Karolyi as the ‘high priest of insensitivity’, verbally abusing his girls, calling them ‘cockroaches’ and ‘overflowing Christmas turkeys’ called. ‘.
They were reportedly kept on such a lean diet that they had bagels smuggled into their hotel rooms.
“Karolyi belittled and ignored his girls for one reason: he got results,” Ryan said. “He has put out the weak from the strong.”
The Karolyis became embroiled in a new scandal in 2016, when more than 265 women, including 19 members of the US national team – including champion Simone Biles – accused team doctor Larry Nassar of sexually assaulting them for nearly three decades.
Much of the abuse (for which Nassar was convicted) took place at the Spartan farm training camp in Texas run by the Karolyis.
Although they denied any knowledge of the abuse and were not charged, some victims said Nassar had gained their trust by smuggling them food.
Pictured: Nadia Comaneci and Bela Karolyi in the 1970s
Some of Karolyi’s American champions have supported his tyrannical methods and agreed that when it comes to winning medals, the ends justify the means.
However, it also appears that those methods have been considerably stricter in communist Romania, a state with little respect for the fundamental rights of its citizens.
Emilia Eberle, a former gymnast under Karolyi in Romania, claimed that the pair regularly hit her and her teammates for mistakes they made in training or competition. “In a word, I can say it was cheeky,” she said in 2008.
As a treasured champion, however, it was previously believed that Comaneci had taken off relatively lightly.
Although she trained up to six hours a day with the other girls, she lived close to Karolyis’ ‘experimental’ school, so at least she didn’t have to board there.
In a 2004 memoir, Letters To A Young Gymnast, she rejected the assumption that she was a puppet of the Ceausescu regime.
She instead portrayed herself as passionate as the Karolyis and although she later rebelled against their “ total control over my life, ” she credited it with putting her on the path to glory.
“There has been no child abuse in my life,” she wrote, insisting, “there was more than enough to eat” and “gymnastics was never torture.”
Although Comaneci has reportedly spoken to Stejarel Olaru for his book, she has said publicly that she has ‘nothing more to add’.
Perhaps the champion, who has admitted that “ my face is an impenetrable wall to the outside world, ” prefers the world to remember her amazing achievements on the beam and uneven bars, rather than thinking about what it takes was to get her there.