Andreea Raducan's Doomed Quest To Get Her Gold Medal Back

Some thoughts on the HBO documentary The Golden Girl.

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On September 21, 2000, Romanian Andreea Raducan won the all-around at the Olympics in Sydney, leading a Romanian women’s sweep of the podium. A few days later, the 16-year-old gymnast was stripped of her gold medal after testing positive for pseudoephedrine, which was then a banned substance, after the Romanian team doctor gave her a couple of tablets with the stimulant to treat her cold before the start of the all-around final. Raducan, however, was allowed to keep her other medals from the Olympics—the team gold and the silver on the vault since she didn’t test positive for the drug after either of those finals.

Fifteen years later, Raducan tried to get the IOC to reinstate her as the 2000 Olympic all-around champion. (Spoiler alert: She didn’t get back her gold medal.)

That doomed quest is purportedly what the documentary The Golden Girl, released last year on HBO Europe and made available stateside late last month via Amazon Prime, is about. While Raducan has a pretty strong claim to innocence in the story—everyone, even top IOC officials, agreed at the time that she had been an unwitting victim in this whole mess and that the medication probably didn’t confer any sort of competitive advantage.

(Fun fact: Simona Amanar, the all-around silver medalist behind Raducan, also took the same cold remedy but she didn’t trigger a positive test result because she weighed more than the diminutive Raducan. Also: in 2004, pseudoephedrine was struck from the banned list. It was then added back on in 2010. Its performance enhancing bona fides have never truly been well established, which explains why it is not banned by all sports organizations and why it hops on and off the banned list.)

I wrote the film is “purportedly” about her quest to get her gold medal back because there was really no suspense whatsoever about what the outcome would be even before filming began—it was never going to happen. There was no way the the IOC was going to restore Raducan’s title and open up that can of worms 15 years later. (The New York Times review of the film appropriately called this quest “quixotic.”)

So if this movie isn’t really about a quest to get back an Olympic gold medal, then what is it about? I’ve watched the documentary three times, and I’m still struggling to piece it together. It is trying to be about a lot—the culture of gymnastics, doping in sport, the individual vs. institution—and I haven’t decided whether or not it was successful at telling those stories or if the various threads truly come together to tell a cohesive narrative. So, like the filmmakers, I’m going to offer up this jumble of thoughts and hope that something resembling a point emerges at the end.

One of the genuinely interesting things about the documentary was all the footage the filmmakers had of the national team training at Deva in the late 90s. (Deva, for those who didn’t watch a million NBC fluff pieces on the Romanian gymnastics dynasty growing up, is the town in Romania where the national team trained year-round. The center was established in the late 70s by Bela Karolyi before he and Martha defected to the U.S.) Nowadays, we get to see a lot of training footage from elite gymnasts due to the ubiquity of smartphones. But back in the late 90s and early aughts, this kind of footage was rarely seen outside of TV segments, and what was shown was always highly sanitized. 

But the training footage that appears in The Golden Girl is not sanitized. We see the girls as they train and we hear the voice of one of the head coaches, Mariana Bitang, berating the girls constantly, calling them “idiot” and “stupid,” among other insults.

Raducan spoke about how once the girls waited until the coaches were asleep—or when the gymnasts thought they were asleep—and one of the girls climbed out of the window of the dormitory to run to a nearby kiosk to buy the team sweets.

In the documentary, we see the consequences of that transgression. Bitang, from behind the camcorder, interrogates a terrified gymnast, asking her to tell Bitang how she came to be in possession of the large bag of sweets and biscuits that were discovered in the sauna. Bitang treated the gymnast like she was a suspect in a serious crime, as though it was a kilo of coke, not a bag of biscuits. I suppose that for the coaches, this was as bad as a kilo of coke, perhaps worse because coke generally doesn’t lead to weight gain.

Bitang tries to cajole the gymnast into giving up the person who is responsible. When asked about the incident in her sit-down interview for Golden Girl, Bitang tries to explain that she was actually concerned for the safety of her athletes. She claimed that she simply wanted the gymnasts to ask for the key instead of jumping out of the window. Of course, she doesn’t explain why the gymnasts felt that they couldn’t simply ask their coaches for the key so that they could walk to a kiosk. Or why they waited until night when they thought their coaches had gone to bed instead of going to buy snacks in broad daylight. She doesn’t have to explain that part; we all know why.

(Doesn’t this image remind me you of cops setting out kilos of heroin from a big bust for the press?)

It’s really interesting that this exchange is recorded on video at all. It makes sense that the coaches would want to record parts of the training sessions and that Bitang’s taunts and ridicule would get caught up in all that; those clips, sans the insults, can be helpful tools, allowing the coach and athlete to review skills, see where they made mistakes and how they can improve. But the footage of the snack bust? Why bother recording that? Why bother putting the interrogation on tape? What were they planning on using that footage for? Was it meant merely to humiliate the gymnast? Or would they hold it over the girls as a threat, that they’d show this to their parents if they stepped out of line again? 

I also have a lot of questions about how the filmmakers even got ahold of this footage. I assume it’s because Octavian Bellu or Bitang gave it to them, right? But if that’s the case, why would they turn over footage that shows them treating the girls terribly? 

Perhaps they don’t think what is shown is all that bad. When Marta Prus, director of Over the Limit, which is about rhythmic gymnastics training in Russia, screened the documentary for Irina Viner-Usmanova, the grand doyenne of rhythmic gymnastics, she liked the film so much that she arranged for it to be screened in Moscow. Now, that documentary—which I wrote about a couple of years ago—showed Viner-Usmanova engaging in far more brutal, cruel behavior towards 2016 Olympic gold medalist Margarita Mamun than what is seen in The Golden Girl. Yet the Russian coach seemed eager to show this footage to, well, everyone. Perhaps this is because Viner-Usmanova, Bellu, and Bitang don’t see anything wrong with what they did, even as the tide seems to be turning against their style of coaching.

All of this footage is really important because, as Romanian sports journalist Andreea Giuclea told me in an email, “Now we have it on film and they—and the rest of us—can’t deny it anymore.” The reckoning on abuse, currently roiling through much of the gymnastics world—the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherland, Belgium—hasn’t really come to Romania, even though that country begat the Karolyis’ careers, and even though many, many past elite gymnasts have spoken about the abuse they endured, particularly at the hands of Bitang and Octavian Bellu. Maria Olaru, the second—and last—world all-around champion for Romania, wrote a book in which she describes the abuse. It came and it went. 1996 Olympic team member Alexandra Marinescu has spoken publicly as well. But these stories (and some others) seemed to have little impact on the institutions of the sport in Romania. 

The abuse narrative doesn’t just come from the training footage. Cristian Tudor Popescu, a prominent Romanian sports journalist and writer, offered up the usual story about the Karolyis basically “inventing” the child gymnast. (Not 100 percent true, by the way, though it is the popular lore; top gymnasts’ ages were already on the decline by the time Nadia Comaneci came around—a 15-year-old Ludmilla Tourischeva competed on the 1968 Soviet Olympic team—but that’s a discussion for another day.) He talks about the “garrison” mentality, how the athletes are “deformed” by the high level of training commenced at young ages. “I could even call them robots,” he says. While I get his points and basically agree with most of them, there’s a dehumanizing aspect to how he speaks about the young gymnasts. Even if they are obedient and do what they’re told, even if they were forced to behave robotically, they’re still people, young girls with interiority, even if few get a glimpse of it. The gymnasts have already been dehumanized enough by the coaches. We should be careful not to replicate this even as we intend to criticize the abuse that they’ve experienced.

The other person in the documentary giving voice to criticisms of gymnastics culture and training is Gabriel Diaconu, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma. Raducan is ostensibly seeing him to treat her trauma, but I am not certain he helped her all that much. He is unusually combative for a therapist in his sessions with the Olympic champion. I have spent much of my 37 years in and out of therapy, and typically, therapists don’t really argue with you to help you shift perspective. But this was all being done for the cameras, so I came to think of Diaconu as less of a therapist and more as a Greek chorus. He’s not really there for Raducan, who doesn’t appear ready or willing to reconsider her experiences in the sport or with her family or her coaches. Raducan recalls her father dropping her off at Deva and telling the coaches, “My girl’s name is Andreea Raducan. If you think she’s not talented enough, please call me to take her home.” When she struggled in training, her coaches wielded this against her, telling her, “Raducan, maybe your dad can come and train you on the banister.” (I have to assume that this should’ve been translated to “beam.”) Raducan probably recognized just how much her gymnastics career meant to her father and the coaches knew that as well. She knew that he would be so disappointed if the coaches called him to come and get her. The coaches used her desire to please her father against her.  Raducan told this story affectionately and as a defense against Dianconu’s charges that she had been abused. Diaconu saw this incident and others like it as akin to a psychological slap.

“Your handicap is that you’ve grown up accustomed to pain. You got used to negative conditioning,” Diaconu told her. 

In one interview, Bellu says, “He who makes you cry has your interests at heart.” This is a pretty twisted rationalization for treating the gymnasts poorly. While we all will at some point in our lives hurt someone we care about, perhaps even deeply, the fact that we’ve done so doesn’t prove that we care about this person. That we hurt those we love shows our capacity for truly awful behavior; it doesn’t rationalize that behavior or make it acceptable.

Raducan, however, seems to accept this kind of rationalization, and she rejects the abuse narrative that the doctor has attempted to foist throughout the documentary, though she does talk about the training camps as grueling. The only trauma she admits to is the one in which the IOC stripped her of her gold medal in the all-around, and the only true perpetrator is this institution. She doesn’t seem to find much fault with the doctor, whom she visits in the film and with whom she has a tender conversation. Nor does she seem upset with her coaches, who, upon learning of the positive test results, immediately assumed that Raducan had done something wrong, instead of questioning the doctor, the man responsible for the athletes’ physical well being. Or the leaders of the country who showered her with fake gold medals and flowers and turned her into a symbol, but didn’t do much else to help her through her ordeal. 

One trope that the documentary kept circling back to is that of the innocent child. Early on, we see a press conference with Raducan from 2000, when she was presumably asked by a reporter for her opinion on the doping matter and whether she should be stripped of her medal. “I can’t judge this,” the young Raducan says, “I’m just a child.” Throughout the film, when she’s talking to various people who were there and connected to her losing the medal—the doctor who gave her the cold meds, a former member of the IOC medical commission, Olympic champions Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci—she asks them to tell them what they remember of the event because she was just a child at the time. While it is certainly true that trauma impacts memory, and I’m quite certain that this is the case with Raducan and her recall of that particular event, I do find it quite interesting that instead of simply stating that she doesn’t remember much about this trauma, she keeps tying her lack of recall to the fact that she was a child. She was 16, certainly very young, not an adult, but also not a child. Your teen years are not like your early childhood years, which is a time from which most people don’t retain many memories. We tend to really remember our teen years. (Generations of art and pop culture indicate that this is a time that leaves an indelible mark on us.) The repeated invocations of “child” and “childhood” by Raducan seem to be a way of insisting on her innocence in this whole mess. Not only is she not guilty of cheating but she is also innocent like a child. 

Raducan is not the only person in the film who invokes the child trope. Bellu, as he’s being interviewed upon the team’s return from Sydney after the Olympics, tells a reporter of the girls’ reaction to the doping fiasco, “I think they forgot it already. Because they are children and they forget easy.” He tells the reporter that it’s harder for the adults, who are not as quick to forgive and forget.

What Bellu is saying is plainly untrue, not simply because the girls, by virtue of their chronological age, are not children, but also, as we know, traumas that happen to us when we are young leave indelible marks on our psyches. I think what Bellu is expressing here is a wish, more than anything else, that this trauma won’t be remembered and that other traumas, perhaps those that he himself has inflicted, will be forgotten. The “innocence” of children is being invoked in order to deflect from dealing with who is responsible for what happened, and what the responsible parties really need to do to help Raducan heal.

But in this story, Raducan’s innocence is not really up for debate. It’s stated at the very beginning that everyone recognized Raducan as an innocent in this story, and yet that acknowledgment doesn’t change a damn thing. She won’t get her medal back. This was never about guilt or innocence, right or wrong, fair play or cheating. Raducan’s story is, in part, about how people who love you and are supposed to protect you often fail in their responsibilities; how sometimes you end up paying a high price for other people’s mistakes; how little the individual matters to institutions like the IOC; how doping rules and other measures are not about ensuring fairness or athlete safety, but about imposing order and control on people and situations. When you say, “Well, those were the rules at the time, and she was in violation of them,” you’re not making a case for fairness or justice but for maintaining order. If they restored Raducan’s gold, the IOC would undoubtedly be inundated with other, less meritorious requests to do the same for other stripped medals, which is something that they would very much like to avoid. That “slippery slope” argument here is about maintaining order and sacrificing the individual for the sake of the system. 

(Nadia Comaneci is wise in addition to being perfect. If she wasn’t also funny, you’d have no choice but to hate her.)

I’ve never won an Olympic gold medal or been accorded any sort of prestigious honor. I have no idea what it feels like to have worked so hard for something so precious and rare, to finally get it and then to have it publicly taken away. I have to imagine that this is an incredibly difficult thing to go through. Maybe it is something you don’t ever get over. And that’s okay. We all are walking around with open wounds that might never close fully, or that might be reopened at the slightest provocation. This doesn’t mean we can’t move on with our lives and be happy even if at times we will again feel sad or hurt about something that happened long ago.

And Raducan has clearly moved on and built a good life for herself. The film documents her wedding and then her accepting the role of president of the Romanian Gymnastics Federation—a position she has since resigned from—while pregnant with her first child. Twenty years have passed and Raducan’s life is bigger than just that one moment in Sydney.

(Side note: I actually did a book event with Raducan in Bucharest the week of her wedding and can report that she is lovely in person. And after the fact, I learned that she had her wedding reception at the same hotel in Bucharest where I was staying, so when I thought I saw 1988 Olympic gold medalist Daniela Silivas in the elevator, I wasn’t actually hallucinating due to exhaustion and jet lag.)

But I wonder, despite all of the years that have gone, if all that much has changed for her when she revisits her gymnastics career. Does she have a different perspective on what happened to her? This is purely speculative on my part, but based on the film, especially the back and forth with Diaconu, it doesn’t seem that she has shifted her perspective all that much. She still sees her training regimen as necessary, her coaches’ and father’s behaviors as appropriate. Bellu and Bitang were at her wedding and there’s footage in the documentary of her dancing with Bellu in her gown. There seems to be genuine affection between the coaches and their former star pupil. If she has reckoned with how her coaches treated her, it was done offscreen.

Raducan, however, seems to be more critical of her teammate Simona Amanar than she is of any of the other people or institutions in the story. Amanar initially placed second in the all-around, part of the Romanian sweep of the podium, until the IOC upgraded her status to gold medalist after Raducan was stripped of her medal. At the time, Amanar said she didn’t consider herself to be the gold medalist and said that she accepted the gold medal “only because it belongs to Romania. I didn’t win it. It was won by Andreea and it belongs to Andreea.”

But when interviewed more than a decade later and asked whether she thought that she was the all-around champion, Amanar seems to say that she is.

Amanar then quickly appears to grow uncomfortable and asks to stop discussing this matter. The interviewer wants to press on and Amanar then asks them to stop rolling.

Watching that, I wondered why, of all the subjects interviewed in this film, is Amanar being put on the spot in such a manner. It didn’t look like Bellu or Bitang were pressed as hard and they were quite obviously abusive towards the gymnasts. But Amanar didn’t really do anything wrong. She was, no doubt, told to take the medal. These gymnasts weren’t exactly granted any agency in matters big or small, and this was definitely big.

Later, the filmmakers tell Raducan that Amanar said that she is the 2000 all-around champion. “You could have asked her if she still would’ve accepted the medal today,” Raducan says. “Maybe now as an adult she would do things differently.” Except that at the time Amanar clearly stated that she was accepting the medal for Romania (as did Olaru, who was upgraded to silver) and not for herself.

“If I were her, I wouldn’t have accepted,” Raducan says. She no doubt believes that but whoever told Amanar to take the gold would’ve told Raducan to do the same thing. And Raducan, who described herself in the news conference as a child, would’ve had no choice but to obey.

Raducan’s fixation on the medal and what Amanar should and shouldn’t have done is strange because earlier in the documentary she insists to Diaconu that she doesn’t care about the medal.

“What else do you need?” he asks her, having noted that the country feted her as the legitimate champion and everyone loves her. (Also, many gymnastics fans consider her the legitimate winner of a competition that was already marred by the vault being set at the wrong height but that is a story for another newsletter.)

“I miss having the title,” she tells him. But the title isn’t something that Amanar can give her now and she couldn’t give it to Raducan then either. Amanar could’ve refused to accept the gold medal and the title still wouldn’t have gone back to Raducan. Amanar’s name would still be the one in the record books. The medal is a worthless hunk of scrap without the title backing it up.

Only the IOC can give her the title. Raducan knows that. She is no longer a child.

It feels wrong to target Amanar in this way. She, too, has been caught up in an uncaring system. She no longer has the silver medal she won and can feel proud of; rather she has this gold medal and she doesn’t really know how to feel about it. It’s no wonder that when she thinks back on Sydney, she talks about the all-around podium and medal ceremony with Romanian gymnasts on every step and with her on the second step below Raducan. “Everybody remembers that beautiful podium and that is what I want people to remember,” she says.

I keep coming back to the question that Diaconu asks Raducan—what else do you want? But to this I add—what happens if you never get it?

Because she won’t get it. The IOC is not going to restore her Olympic crown. And so Raducan will have to figure out how to frame her experiences—everything that she went through, the good and the bad but especially the bad—without that happy ending. She’ll have to decide for herself whether it was all worth it in the end without a gold medal.

Last week I made my first podcast appearance in quite some time, talking about the weekly Torah portion with David Tuchman of OMGWTFBible. Doing this podcast really underscored to me just how much of my yeshiva education I’ve forgotten. (Don’t tell my mother; she’ll weep over all of the wasted money.) Listen if you want to hear my Brooklyn accent. You’ll also get to hear me repeatedly stumble on the pronunciation of “Yahweh” and talk about biblical curses.