On Dec. 1, 1989, Romania’s Nadia Comăneci, winner of five Olympic gold medals and the first gymnast in history to score a perfect 10, sat opposite an official in the US Embassy in Vienna, Austria, trying to claim 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,” said the official. “You’re 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 his influential wife, Elena, were enraged and embarrassed in equal measure.
In “Nadia Comăneci & The Secret Police: A Cold War Escape,” historian and author Stejarel Olaru (Bloomsbury), examines what drove Comăneci to flee her homeland and the role that the country’s secret police — the Securitate — played in her departure.
It also documents the brutal training program she was subjected to by her coach, Béla Károlyi, that was designed to maximize Romania’s medal haul but paid scant regard for the welfare of the young gymnasts in his charge.
When the Romanian revolution overthrew the country’s Communist regime in December 1989, the Securitate was also disbanded.
In the years that followed, all the reports they compiled since their formation in 1948 were made public.
In the case of the country’s most famous sports star, Nadia Comăneci, they proved to be both revealing and distressing. The Securitate first started monitoring Comăneci in 1975, placing informants in her training center in her hometown of Onesti.
Informants were woven into every aspect of society, charged with monitoring people of interest and sending regular written reports back to the Securitate.
Everybody, it seemed, was on their payroll — including Comăneci’s own coach, Béla Károlyi, whose codename was ‘Katona.’
Her choreographer, Geza Pozsar (codename ‘Nelu’), meanwhile, was not only devising floor routines for Comăneci but also submitting reports on Károlyi and his wife, Marta, whose extreme training methods were the subject of many complaints.
“He yelled at them and humiliated them,” writes Pozsar. “‘Fat cow!’, ‘Sow!’ He slapped the girls and they were very frightened. Marta used to grab them by the throat and dig her fingers in.
“And she slapped them a lot. The girls had welts from her 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 leave him to it.
Long and brutal, Károlyi’s training sessions took place for eight hours a day, six days a week.
He would monitor each gymnast’s weight several times a day and starve them if he felt they were too heavy.
As a result, bulimia soon became an issue in the team.
Once, he reprimanded Comăneci for eating some cheese, saying: “[Now] you’ll be eating nothing but fresh air, but just one mouthful, because two will make you fat.”
Károlyi routinely ignored the advice of doctors and dieticians, 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 against a backdrop of exhaustion.”
It was “only when there was a need to manipulate them [that] he told the young gymnasts he cared about them.”
As the abuse continued, Károlyi’s team decided to complain to the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party.
In June 1976, just one month before the Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, they sent a letter detailing the treatment they had suffered, describing Károlyi as a “man without a soul” and one who “is capable of killing us.”
They repeatedly described themselves as “slaves.”
One of agent Nelu’s reports concurred when he said of Károlyi: “In general, human suffering leaves him cold.”
His knuckles rapped from on high, and Károlyi took Comăneci and the team to Montreal. Unbeknown to him, there were also five undercover Securitate officers in the official delegation who bugged his hotel room and every room the team stayed in.
Having dominated 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 the history of the Olympic Games to be awarded the perfect score of 10.
Even the electronic scoreboard wasn’t prepared for it. It couldn’t display a score higher than 9.99 and so awarded Comăneci a score of just 1.00 instead.
Comăneci left Montreal with two more gold medals, a silver, and a bronze. And, at age 14, she also left a global superstar.
“A gymnast from a small, distant country that the vast majority of spectators in the Montréal Forum had never even heard of had changed the history of the competition,” writes Olaru.
Inevitably, fame came at a cost.
As Romania’s greatest asset and what President Ceausescu claimed was a victory for Communism, now Comăneci was under even greater scrutiny as the Securitate followed her every move, either to protect her from potential kidnap or to ensure she didn’t defect when competing 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 her friendships were under suspicion.
When she was 16, she grew close to a male gymnast, Kurt Szilier, but after the Securitate compiled a file on him, he was separated from Comăneci and quickly moved to a different training camp.
“Famous throughout the world, Nadia now craved the simple things in life: to have a boyfriend and to go for a walk with him in the park, to go to the shops, to go to the discotheque or cinema, without having to seek permission or justify herself to anyone,” writes Olaru.
The claustrophobia of celebrity, coupled with the round-the-clock attention of the Securitate, reached a head in August 1978 when she was staying at the August Sports Hotel in Bucharest.
As she left her room to do some laundry she was stopped by an official and asked where she was going.
For Comăneci, it was the last straw. She stormed back 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, even though Comăneci later claimed it was an accident and she had simply mistaken the detergent for juice.
It wasn’t just the lack of a private life that took its toll. Despite being one of the world’s most successful sports stars, Comăneci didn’t reap the same financial benefits as her contemporaries, surviving on a salary equivalent to around $150 a month.
On the tour of the United States in 1981, 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 City, a Securitate observer reported that Károlyi had been seen buying “three music stations, a number of cassette players, including auto radio-cassette players, two hunting rifles and other items.”
Béla and Marta Károlyi, and their choreographer Geza Pozsar, didn’t return to Romania after the US Tour. Instead, they defected, settling in the United States and leaving Comăneci, her teammates, and Securitate officials to fly back alone.
Although rumors were rife that Nadia Comăneci would follow them, it would be eight years before life in Romania became insufferable for the gymnast.
Even after she retired from gymnastics in 1984, the Securitate continued to monitor her, right up to when she fled over the Hungarian border and on to Austria, before making the United States her home in 1989.
“The Communist régime had exploited her both financially and politically,” writes Olaru, “subjecting her to a complicated life full of restrictions in return.”