Nadia the Olympic goddess dodged border guards to flee to the West in the dead of night and went on to dazzle the world winning golds with perfect 10s aged 14. But a new book reveals how being bullied and starved by her coach drove her to a suicide bid
On a November night in 1989, two weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, seven people made their way hurriedly but warily towards the frontier between Romania and Hungary.
Underfoot, the frozen furrows of a ploughed field crackled. They heard barking in the distance, from surrounding villages. By midnight the temperature had fallen so low that the cold was a real danger, although it wasn’t the only one.
The seven had embarked on the most perilous adventure of their lives: they were about to make an illegal border crossing from one hardline communist state to another that was in the process of rebelling and transforming itself.
When they stopped to take a rest, they spoke in whispers and didn’t so much as light a match, fearful the Romanian border guards might spot them. The man who had taken the risk of acting as their guide was Gheorghe Talpos — Ghita for short — a shepherd. Wearing a sheepskin cape and a black lambskin cap, he strode on ahead.
If a Romanian army patrol had caught him walking by himself near the border, Ghita could have provided several plausible reasons for being there. Besides, he knew some of the border guards personally.
Nadia Comaneci, the world’s most famous gymnast, was fleeing her own country, which had been a repressive totalitarian regime for more than four decades
But his companions weren’t locals. Far more dangerous still, one of the fugitives was Nadia Comaneci, the world’s most famous gymnast and a European, world and Olympic gold medal winner.
She was fleeing her own country, which had been a repressive totalitarian regime for more than four decades. The shepherd would have had no excuse. If he was caught, there was nothing he could say to defend himself or Nadia.
He had learnt only that night, just before they set off, that she was among the group. He was both amazed and intimidated. ‘How the hell can Nadia cross the border at night like a criminal?’ he asked. ‘Hasn’t she been abroad all those times? If she’d wanted to, couldn’t she have just not come back?’
Ghita went down to his cellar to knock back two mugs of wine. ‘If they catch me,’ he told the others, ‘at least I’ll be able to say I was drunk.’
Nadia remembers the dense darkness that night. She found it ominous: ‘When we stepped outside, we each put our hands on the shoulders of the person in front because once we moved away from the house, it was impossible to see. If I hadn’t been touching the person in front of me, I would have become separated from the group and been lost.’
In places the frozen ground gave way to slushy bog. Wading through liquid mud, Nadia sank up to her knees. Then, 200 yards ahead, they saw the silhouettes of Romanian border guards marching away a man and a woman who had been captured trying to cross the frontier illegally.
Ghita signalled for them to throw themselves to the ground. Holding their breath, they listened as the voices of the foul-mouthed guards and their barking dogs receded into the distance. They could hear the weeping of the captured woman. ‘If they hadn’t been busy with those people, maybe they would have caught us,’ Nadia later said.
But as dawn broke, two guards appeared in the freezing mist and challenged them. For a few minutes, it seemed certain that they would be handed over to the feared Romanian secret police, the Securitate.
Violent rages: Coach Bela Karolyi saw Nadia as his route to riches
Then the guards began to converse in Hungarian. Without realising it, the group had crossed the border.
For the next few hours, it still seemed likely they would be turned back — until Nadia took the desperate and courageous step of declaring her identity. At that moment, everything changed. She was offered asylum on the spot. ‘I was a famous gymnast and thus a hot catch in their minds. I told them: “Look. I will only stay if my whole group is allowed to remain in your country. We came together, we stay together.”
‘The words were out of my mouth before I even considered what might happen. Gymnastics had taught me to be a team player and, in this case, my team was made up of my fellow defectors. To my complete surprise, the police agreed.’
The next day, in a radio news bulletin laden with political subtext, Hungary’s national Radio Kossuth announced her defection: ‘Yesterday, Nadia Comaneci requested asylum in Hungary. The former Olympic champion left behind a nicely furnished home, a car and a good life to choose freedom.’
The headline ‘Nadia chooses freedom’ flashed around the world. Two days later, she landed at John F. Kennedy airport, New York. Still aged 28, she had been famous for half her lifetime.
NADIA was born in November 1961 in Onesti, a new provincial town still under construction in Romania, the first child of Stefania and Gheorghe Comaneci.
At nursery school, she was encouraged to learn exercises on the parallel bars, the beam and the mat, to burn off energy. As she grew older, she had ballet and roller-skating lessons but her favourite classes were in the tiny gym at a local oil refinery.
Pictured: Nadia Comaneci and Bela Karolyi in the 1970s
The space was so cramped, girls had to start their run-up to the apparatus from the toilet cubicle. But their coaches were ambitious and well-rewarded, provided with state accommodation and other perks, because sport was regarded as a vital political weapon in the Cold War. And since Romanian training methods were based on Marxist-Leninist doctrine, they were regarded as infallible.
By the time she was five, Nadia had attracted the eye of national coaches and by the age of seven she was competing in the Flame Sporting Association, a girls’ gym league. Two years later, she was appointed a coach named Bela Karolyi, with his wife Marta.
The manipulative and politically cunning Karolyi later claimed he discovered Nadia when she was playing hopscotch and turning cartwheels in the school playground. It’s far more likely that the couple manoeuvred their way into the ranks of Flame after recognising that, if they could turn Nadia into an international star, their own fortunes would be made.
According to the secret files of the Securitate, made public decades later, Karolyi was a vicious and possessive man, given to violent rages. He was described as ‘not characterised by comradely solidarity, but rather egotism’. This is damning language in any culture but under Communism, it was tantamount to treason.
But he was also seen as a hugely effective gymnastics coach. His methods had an extraordinary impact on Nadia’s performance. Aged eight, although promising, she was still prone to mistakes: performing on the beam at a national contest, she fell three times in ten seconds as girls on an opposing team laughed aloud. Marta was ‘foaming at the mouth’, Nadia noticed.
But two years later she won a pair of gold medals in the Friendship Cup, a sort of junior Olympics. The following year, at the International Gymnastics Championships, she astounded with a flawless display on the parallel bars and beam, performing a torrent of handsprings and triple-turn corkscrew leaps on the floor and winning every event. By 1975, Gymnast magazine was calling her ‘a genius’ and she was picked to go to the European Championships in Norway.
The favourite to win was the Soviet world champion, Ludmilla Tourischeva, who was 13-year-old Nadia’s idol. Yet Nadia swept the board, taking every gold. United Press International named her World Sportswoman of the Year.
She was her country’s first choice to go to the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Romania had not won an Olympic medal in gymnastics for more than two decades, since the Helsinki Games in 1952.
Nadia’s preparations got off to a bad start when she twisted her ankle. The Japanese and Russian gymnasts gave exceptional displays.
When Nadia stepped up for her first 20-second routine, she produced a blur of twirls, handstands and somersaults around the bars — but the auditorium erupted into jeers as her score was displayed.
Out of a possible ten points, she appeared to have been given just one. The scoreboard read: 1:00.
Nadia scanned the crowd in distress, looking for her coach Bela Karolyi. He was striding towards the judges’ desk. Then one of the adjudicators held up both hands, fingers and thumbs spread. He was signalling ‘10’!
Nadia had become the first gymnast in Olympic history to score a perfect 10. But because it had never been done before, the electronic scoreboard was programmed to go no higher than 9:99 and there was no way to show a 10:00.
Nadia on the balance beam: she won three gold medals at the Montreal Olympics
She was hailed as ‘the goddess of Montreal’ and over the next four days she proved the performance was no fluke, scoring a further six ‘perfect 10s’. Journalists compared her to Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, or the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man into space. She had achieved something no human had imagined possible.
Her reception on her return to Romania, as she stepped out of the plane with five medals round her neck — she also won a silver and a bronze — was overwhelming. President Ceausescu was quick to claim her success as a tribute to his regime, naming her by presidential decree a Heroine of Socialist Labour and awarding her the Hammer And Sickle gold medal.
Nadia’s coaches were well rewarded, too. Minutes from the files of the secret police reveal how Ceausescu and his wife Elena agreed to give them each a handsome bonus. The dictator added: ‘Let’s also give Karolyi’s wife a Skoda. He’ll get a Dacia 1300.’
What the security services also knew was that the Karolyis achieved their results through brutality, cruelty and terror. Karolyi could hit a child with the back of his hand hard enough to knock her across the room.
‘Karolyi is in the habit of hitting the gymnasts on the head when they make a mistake,’ warned a team doctor. ‘I told him to stop doing it, since it is very damaging and might lead to the loss of intellectual capacity.’
13 year old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci winning the women’s international gymnastics title at Wembley
A teammate of Nadia’s, Milea Luminita, who tore a tendon was ordered to remove her plaster cast and continue training. When she collapsed, she was beaten so badly that she had to be sent home to her family. Karolyi assured her parents she would not be hurt again and insisted she return — then dropped her from the team because she had gained weight at home.
The gymnasts were forced to train for hours without food and when they did eat, they were given almost nothing. A typical meal for Nadia consisted of ‘a little meat, two salad leaves and an orange for dessert’. Yet Karolyi was overweight, a glutton who tormented his students by wolfing hearty meals while they watched.
Other Romanian athletes were appalled and did what little they could to help, leaving food lying around for the girls to steal.
At the Montreal Olympics, discus thrower Lia Manoliu insisted every day on having her fridge replenished with food which she claimed was for her, then left it for the gymnasts to find.
One doctor used to smuggle cartons of honey to them, while a Securitate officer hid apples and pots of yoghurt in their gym bags. Karolyi constantly insulted the girls, calling them ‘cows, stupid fat maids, hens, animals’. Sometimes he banged their heads against a door.
In desperation, Nadia and her teammates wrote to President Ceausescu, begging him to intervene: ‘We ask you to do something to give us back our childhood which day after day this man without a soul steals from us. We have become like slaves . . . he is capable of killing us — that’s how he threatened Nadia if she doesn’t win.’
A medical report in February 1977 noted that Nadia’s mental health was suffering, which doctors blamed partly on puberty. She was refusing to work, could not hide her fear of Karolyi and was repeatedly trying to run away.
One day she succeeded and ran to a grocery store, where she bought some cheese: ‘I couldn’t stand being hungry any longer.’
When he was confronted about her hunger, Karolyi yelled: ‘She will be eating nothing but fresh air . . . just one mouthful because two will make her fat.’
Unable to ignore the abuse any longer, the Securitate stepped in.
Nadia was given a different coach — but the bullying continued. In despair, she made a suicide attempt in 1978, aged 16. She later claimed she drank shampoo and was not really trying to kill herself: ‘I didn’t have anyone to talk to and I just wanted to attract people’s attention.’ Official files, however, suggest it was more serious, as she had swallowed detergent in a glass of water.
Memorable moments: Aged 14 Nadia scored the first-ever perfect ten for her asymmetric bars routine at the Montreal Olympics in 1976
Years of self-doubt and recrimination followed. Nadia veered from one emotional extreme to another, first announcing her retirement, then deciding to return to gymnastics. Sometimes she felt guilty at ‘letting down her country’, and at other times she believed she should sacrifice her own happiness to earn money for her family.
In a fit of self-loathing, she asked the Karolyis to take her back, even though the couple had withheld thousands of dollars in prize money from her.
She competed at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, winning two gold medals and a silver — an achievement treated as a disappointment by the Ceausescus, who expected three golds.
Then in 1982, at the age of 20, Nadia quit competitions and became a coach herself.
She was closely watched by the Ceausescus, who feared she would denounce them to the world if she ever left Romania — but she knew that if she fled, her parents would suffer the consequences.
Then, as the Iron Curtain started to come down in 1989, Nadia seized her chance.
With the Communist regime crumbling, her family would no longer face political recriminations — and she couldn’t bear to live in Romania a day longer. She set off on the perilous walk to Hungary, on that freezing November night.
In America, Nadia rebuilt her life, working as a gymnastics commentator and marrying a fellow athlete, Bart Conner, in 1996, with whom she had a son ten years later.
Today, her name is in the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. She was named Sportsperson of the Twentieth Century alongside figures such as Pele, Muhammad Ali and the swimmer Mark Spitz.
Although far away from Romania, she never stopped honouring her home country. In 1994, from the first money she earned in the U.S., she donated $100,000 to the Romanian Gymnastics Federation.
She was not the only Romanian defector in the States. Her coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi, escaped to America after the Moscow Olympics. They left their own young child behind.
- Adapted from Nadia Comaneci And The Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, by Dr Stejarel Olaru, to be published by Bloomsbury on April 6 at £25. © Dr Stejarel Olaru 2023. To order a copy for £22.50 (offer valid to 22/04/23; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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