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How Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci lastly escaped the Iron Curtain

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On Dec. 1, 1989, Romania’s Nadia Comăneci, winner of 5 Olympic gold medals and the primary gymnast in historical past to attain an ideal 10, sat reverse an official within the US Embassy in Vienna, Austria, making an attempt to assert asylum.

“What would you like?” requested the official.

“I wish to go to America,” she replied.

“When?” “As quickly as doable.”

“‘There’s a Pan Am flight leaving in two hours,” mentioned the official. “You’re on it.”

Comăneci’s defection despatched shockwaves all over the world, however particularly in her native Romania, the place the nation’s despotic President Nicole Ceausescu and his influential spouse, Elena, had been enraged and embarrassed in equal measure.

In “Nadia Comăneci & The Secret Police: A Chilly Warfare Escape,” historian and writer Stejarel Olaru (Bloomsbury), examines what drove Comăneci to flee her homeland and the function that the nation’s secret police — the Securitate — performed in her departure.

It additionally paperwork the brutal coaching program she was subjected to by her coach, Béla Károlyi, that was designed to maximise Romania’s medal haul however paid scant regard for the welfare of the younger gymnasts in his cost.

When the Romanian revolution overthrew the nation’s Communist regime in December 1989, the Securitate was additionally disbanded.

Within the years that adopted, all of the studies they compiled since their formation in 1948 had been made public.

Within the case of the nation’s most well-known sports activities star, Nadia Comăneci, they proved to be each revealing and distressing. The Securitate first began monitoring Comăneci in 1975, putting informants in her coaching middle in her hometown of Onesti.

Informants had been woven into each facet of society, charged with monitoring individuals of curiosity and sending common written studies again to the Securitate.

All people, it appeared, was on their payroll — together with Comăneci’s personal coach, Béla Károlyi, whose codename was ‘Katona.’

Her choreographer, Geza Pozsar (codename ‘Nelu’), in the meantime, was not solely devising ground routines for Comăneci but additionally submitting studies on Károlyi and his spouse, Marta, whose excessive coaching strategies had been the topic of many complaints.

“He yelled at them and humiliated them,” writes Pozsar. “‘Fats cow!’, ‘Sow!’ He slapped the ladies and so they had been very frightened. Marta used to seize them by the throat and dig her fingers in.

“And she or he slapped them so much. The women had welts from her rings on their cheeks.”

Pozsar’s studies fell on deaf ears, largely as a result of so long as Károlyi was getting outcomes — and he was — the Securitate was solely too blissful to go away him to it.

Lengthy and brutal, Károlyi’s coaching classes came about for eight hours a day, six days every week.

He would monitor every gymnast’s weight a number of occasions a day and starve them if he felt they had been too heavy. 

Because of this, bulimia quickly grew to become a difficulty within the crew.

As soon as, he reprimanded Comăneci for consuming some cheese, saying: “[Now] you’ll be consuming nothing however contemporary air, however only one mouthful, as a result of two will make you fats.”

Károlyi routinely ignored the recommendation of docs and dieticians, firing those that disagreed with him and forcing gymnasts to compete whereas unwell or injured.

His mantra, writes Olaru, was that “achievements come extra simply towards a backdrop of exhaustion.”

It was “solely when there was a necessity to control them [that] he advised the younger gymnasts he cared about them.”

Because the abuse continued, Károlyi’s crew determined to complain to the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Get together.

In June 1976, only one month earlier than the Olympic Video games in Montreal, Canada, they despatched a letter detailing the therapy that they had suffered, describing Károlyi as a “man with no soul” and one who “is able to killing us.” 

They repeatedly described themselves as “slaves.”

One in all agent Nelu’s studies concurred when he mentioned of Károlyi: “Usually, human struggling leaves him chilly.”

His knuckles rapped from on excessive, and Károlyi took Comăneci and the crew to Montreal. Unbeknown to him, there have been additionally 5 undercover Securitate officers within the official delegation who bugged his resort room and each room the crew stayed in.

Having dominated the 1975 European Gymnastics Championships, successful 4 out of 5 gold medals and turning into the youngest champion in historical past, Comăneci went one higher.

Within the parallel bars occasion, she grew to become the primary individual within the historical past of the Olympic Video games to be awarded the proper rating of 10.

Even the digital scoreboard wasn’t ready for it. It couldn’t show a rating increased than 9.99 and so awarded Comăneci a rating of simply 1.00 as a substitute.

Comăneci left Montreal with two extra gold medals, a silver, and a bronze. And, at age 14, she additionally left a worldwide famous person.

“Well-known all through the world, Nadia now craved the easy issues in life: to have a boyfriend and to go for a stroll with him within the park, to go to the discotheque or cinema, with out having to hunt permission or justify herself to anybody.”

Stejarel Olaru

“A gymnast from a small, distant nation that the overwhelming majority of spectators within the Montréal Discussion board had by no means even heard of had modified the historical past of the competitors,” writes Olaru.

Inevitably, fame got here at a value.

As Romania’s biggest asset and what President Ceausescu claimed was a victory for Communism, now Comăneci was beneath even larger scrutiny because the Securitate adopted her each transfer, both to guard her from potential kidnap or to make sure she didn’t defect when competing overseas.

Even the postman, who delivered hundreds of fan letters to Comăneci’s dwelling each month, was beneath surveillance.

Not all consideration was welcome.

Even her friendships had been beneath suspicion. 

When she was 16, she grew near a male gymnast, Kurt Szilier, however after the Securitate compiled a file on him, he was separated from Comăneci and shortly moved to a unique coaching camp.

“Well-known all through the world, Nadia now craved the easy issues in life: to have a boyfriend and to go for a stroll with him within the park, to go to the outlets, to go to the discotheque or cinema, with out having to hunt permission or justify herself to anybody,” writes Olaru.

The claustrophobia of movie star, coupled with the round the clock consideration of the Securitate, reached a head in August 1978 when she was staying on the August Sports activities Resort in Bucharest.

As she left her room to do some laundry she was stopped by an official and requested the place she was going.

For Comăneci, it was the final straw. She stormed again into her room and drank the cup of laundry detergent she was carrying, prompting a visit to Bucharest’s Emergency Hospital. Studies of a suicide try unfold, although Comăneci later claimed it was an accident and he or she had merely mistaken the detergent for juice.

It wasn’t simply the shortage of a personal life that took its toll. Regardless of being one of many world’s most profitable sports activities stars, Comăneci didn’t reap the identical monetary advantages as her contemporaries, surviving on a wage equal to round $150 a month.

On the tour of america in 1981, coach Károlyi insisted on being given the money equal as a substitute of the meals that had already been organized for his crew. 

The crew by no means noticed the meals or the cash.

Later, in New York Metropolis, a Securitate observer reported that Károlyi had been seen shopping for “three music stations, quite a lot of cassette gamers, together with auto radio-cassette gamers, two searching rifles and different objects.”

Béla and Marta Károlyi, and their choreographer Geza Pozsar, didn’t return to Romania after the US Tour. As a substitute, they defected, settling in america and leaving Comăneci, her teammates, and Securitate officers to fly again alone.

Though rumors had been rife that Nadia Comăneci would observe them, it will be eight years earlier than life in Romania grew to become unbearable for the gymnast.

Even after she retired from gymnastics in 1984, the Securitate continued to observe her, proper as much as when she fled over the Hungarian border and on to Austria, earlier than making america her dwelling in 1989. 

“The Communist régime had exploited her each financially and politically,” writes Olaru, “subjecting her to a sophisticated life filled with restrictions in return.”

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