On The Karolyis In Romania

Another Q&A with Bea Gheorgisor

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Today I bring you another Q&A with Bea Gheorghisor from the Couch Gymnast, my personal Romanian gymnastics guru. We did one together last year about the fall of Romanian gymnastics over the past decade. (You can check it out here.) At present, it remains the most-read newsletter that I have published since (re)starting Unorthodox Gymnastics. This second installment with Bea is my transparent attempt to glom onto her popularity.  

The other reason I asked Bea to do another Q&A for the newsletter is because Romanian gymnastics has again become a topic of conversation with the release of Athlete A on Netflix and the Heavy Medals podcast series from ESPN. (I think this might be my third newsletter related to the film/podcast. There’s a lot to mine there!) Both the documentary and the podcasts talk, to varying degrees, about the early coaching years of Martha and Bela Karolyi. This has prompted discussion about, not just about what the Karolyis’ did to their gymnasts, but the social, political, and sporting context in which they operated. That’s why I reached out to Bea and she agreed to answer my questions, yet again. She is too good to me.

Below are her answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dvora Meyers: In our telling of Romanian gymnastics history, it usually starts with Nadia Comaneci and with Martha and Bela Karolyi. But obviously, the sport in Romania didn't start with them. In fact, both Carol Stabesevschi and Geza Pozsar both spoke about having traveled to Varna for 1974 world championships with the pre-Nadia generation. Can you talk about what pre-Nadia Romanian gymnastics was like? Who were some of the stars? What were the expectations and results?

Bea Gheorghisor: There was gymnastics in Romania before Nadia: the first results were at the 1956 Olympics where Elena Leustean won the bronze on floor and the team won a bronze medal as well.  Then during the 60s there was a generation that did not manage to break into the medals but still ensured that continuity. Elena Ceampelea was the star of the team, she would compete until mid 70s. In the beginning of the 70s Alina Goreac and Anca Grigoras had good results with medals at Europeans. This is the generation Geza was referring to.

DM: Now to get to the part of Romanian gymnastics history that we're all familiar with—the rise of Nadia. Before she scored the 10 at the Olympics, before she won Europeans in 75, what was generally known about her and the other young gymnasts training in Onesti, such as Teodora Ungureanu?

BG: The hype around Nadia started well before the Olympics. She was noticed at the national level as an 11-year-old; from 1972, she won gold medals at Nationals. In 1973, she won all five gold medals at Romanian International (which was a mixed junior and senior meet). She participated in smaller international and friendly meets as well. In 1974, at Gera, she competed against Nelli Kim for the first time and beat her in the all-around. At Skien in ‘75, she won Europeans at 13 and a half years old. She was such a big star that she was voted United Press woman athlete of the year in 1975.

DM: Ungureanu was a late transplant to Onesti and the Karolyis. Where was she training and with whom before she arrived there?

BG: Teodora Ungureanu joined the Onesti group around 1972/1973; before, she was training in Resita with Andrei Kerekes. She has not spoken a lot about her pre-Karolyi training. She started placing first at nationals in her division in 1971 so she was already a recognized talent when she joined the Karolyi group.

DM: What was known about the Karolyis and their training methods pre-1976?

BG: It was well documented before 1976 that they preferred to work with very young gymnasts, their team was dubbed 'the iron kindergarten', that they promoted competing on injuries as the norm, that their gymnasts ate very little and trained very long hours.

DM: And what did people learn about their methods after they became famous when Nadia scored her 10s?

BG: I don't think the more extreme methods would have been discussed publicly. Especially after Montreal, it was said that they did not know how to deal with teenagers. The 'kindergarten' was now older and had started to have more of their own thoughts. Things were so bad that presumably in order to protect them Nicolae Vieru (the president of the Romanian Federation) moved Nadia and Teodora away from the Karolyis and allowed them to train in Bucharest on and off.

DM: Geza Pozsar in Athlete A spoke about how the Karolyis abused their Romanian gymnasts and when pressed about whether he reported it, he said yes, but how this was, more or less, considered normal coaching behavior in Romania. Could you speak a bit about what the culture of gymnastics coaching was like in Romania at that time? And about the culture around child welfare in general?

BG: Back then it was considered acceptable to be spanked or slapped at school. I think this has become illegal in Romania in 2004. I feel like the extreme poverty and deprivations of the 80s led to the extreme dehumanization of the Romanians. This is when the atrocities in the orphanages happened as well. [Ed. note: The stories about what happened in Romania’s orphanages were horrifying. You can read about it here.] So it is hard to extract from anyone that has lived through this period information about what life was [like] before and how much was normal. But the big scandals of 1978-79, the fact that Nadia was allowed to go and train in Bucharest, shows that what they [the Karolyis] did was not that normal.

DM: Was the Karolyis' behavior in line with what everyone else was doing or was it more extreme?

BG: The gymnasts say that they were more intense and worse than other coaches. There were complaints from the gymnasts as early as 1976. Complaints so serious that the Securitate [Romanian secret police] knew at that point that they were mistreating the gymnasts, withholding food and not allowing the gymnasts to get recommended medication and physical treatment. I think the Karolyis were already infamous in those circles for the way in which they treated their gymnasts. It's hard to say if other coaches were doing the same back then. After they left, their methods stayed. My father was a member of the national boxing team and he was training for the ‘84 Olympics, so it must have been ‘83 or ‘84 when he was training at high altitude during autumn or spring. During one of the training sessions, which involved running for about 10-15k at an altitude of 1500 to 2000m, a snowstorm started. The boxing team caught up with the national gymnastics team. They were shocked at how lightly dressed the gymnasts were, completely unsuited for the place and weather conditions and the gymnasts seemed in such physical danger that the boxers had to carry them back to the training center. So the Karolyis were gone but there was still little regard for the safety or health of the gymnasts. This was the image of the Romanian gymnast in the early 80s that what I was told about: they were beaten, overtrained, deprived of food and water (there were already the rumors that they had to drink out of the water closet). It happened for sure in other sports too. In the 90s, I used to go with my father to many sporting events, and I saw many coaches go berserk at athletes (mostly women), slapping them over their faces and shouting at them in front of everyone. These were track and field, handball matches, wrestling, etc.

DM: I mentioned in a previous newsletter that Pozsar and the Karolyis were both part of the ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania. What was life like for ethnic Hungarians under the reign of Nicolae Ceaușescu?

BG: In Communist Romania, all people were equal. As long as they did not want to be 'different'. If you were willing to accept the complete erasure of your ethnicity, culture, language, family history, not much happened to you. The 'trouble' started when you did not agree with your new name, new job, or whatever they wanted you to do. That is why many people still find it hard to understand and think that the minorities got a sweet deal back then. The communists said 'just give up anything that makes you, you, and we have no problem'. All minorities were repressed.

[Ed. note: As I noted in a previous newsletter, it was not unheard of for the government to change the names of Hungarian athletes in order to make them sound more Romanian. That’s how the 1984 Olympic gold medalist went from being Katalin Szabo to Ecaterina Szabo. Also Nadia Comaneci, in her memoir, Letters to a Young Gymnast, remembers reading in a book by Ion Pacepa, the former head of Romanian intelligence who defected to the West in the late 70s, that Ceausescu had once said, “I don’t want to share Nadia’s fame with a couple of dirty boanghen,” which a pejorative used by Romanians to refer to the ethnic Hungarians living in the country. ]

DM: Can you talk about what you know of the nature of the relationship between the Karolyis and Nicolae Ceaușescu? 

BG: Personally they must have met Ceaușescu a few times after the '76 Olympics, at formal events. I imagine the difference in intelligence (Ceaușescu was famous for his lack of wit and education) and interests made for a very bland interaction. Although Bela has been telling stories about private meetings and how he once saw a man eaten by a bear in the vicinity of Ceaușescu, I am sure that with the communist regime in general they had a complicated relationship. The Securitate attempted to recruit them (after the 76s Olympics by all accounts) and Bela and Martha refused to cooperate. There was huge backlash and intimidation attempts (cutting off their phone line, cutting off electricity for their apartment). That was when the surveillance began. They did such a bad job and left such a mess in their apartment that Bela walked in the Securitate office to give them a spare key so they would not try to break in next time. Before 75 or 76, Bela and Martha were rarely allowed to travel together abroad and they were anyway watched very closely. But after 1976 things got much more serious: their house, phone, gym, everything in Onesti was under surveillance. They were considered  high risk for defection. It was a complicated relationship because it was not 100% of hate and antagonism; they also had friendly relations with higher ups. In those days you could buy this with cigarettes and bottles of whiskey brought from abroad. They were not very deep friendships, as you can imagine.

DM: What was the reaction of the gymnastics community in Romania when the Karolyis defected in 1981?

BG: The gymnasts were privately thrilled. But other than that, no one spoke about it. Usually these things were not mentioned. The one who spoke a lot was Bela. It was said that the party had had enough after the 1980 Olympics when Bela caused such a scandal, delaying Nadia's score and then protesting for tens of minutes (though many people still believe Nadia was robbed of the all-around title). It was one thing to beat the Soviets through your routines, to demonstrate through sports that your brand of communism was superior; it’s quite another to openly protest and make such a scandal. Bela was not one to fall in line or listen to someone else's instructions. He liked to make things about himself. Communists did not like outspoken people. They did not like individuality and personal success stories. There were only two gods in Romania: Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu. But Bela thought of himself as a big personality as well. Plus, I believe Bela really wanted more money. He thought he deserved so much more. Bela and Martha defected in the US, on the 30th of March 1981, same day Reagan was shot. All the chaos following it must have helped them get lost. But they had left their 7-year-old daughter back in Romania, and the communists agreed to let her go in the months following the defection. Bela was making rounds in the press, sending letters to various people in Romania, interviewing with Radio Free Europe, bad-mouthing the communist regime. Maybe it was their way to make him shut up, by sending the daughter. Or maybe Bela is smarter than I would give him credit for.

[Ed. note: As Mike Davis at the Medal Count wrote a while back, the Karolyis found a powerful ally in Texas House Rep. Bill Archer, who was a senior member of the committee charged with renewing “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) status to countries. Romania was a MFN and their status was coming up for renewal. That definitely played a big role in helping the Karolyis get their daughter out of Romania after they defected.]

DM: The gymnastics world is in the midst of a great reckoning about abuse. How has this reckoning manifested in Romanian gymnastics? Have coaches and other authority figures been held accountable as some have been in the U.S.?

BG: There was almost no reaction from the Romanian gymnastics community. No gymnasts telling their stories and no coaches acknowledging what has been going on (I did not closely monitor the Romanian press but I am sure there were the usual complaints a la Nelli Kim—“gymnasts come after you 10 years after you coach them”). Puia Valer, the former Deva choreographer, was the only adult that comes to mind to have had a reaction and showed remorse. He publicly apologized in a post on social media; he has a very unique style of writing so I really did not manage to understand a lot beyond him admitting to having hit gymnasts and apologizing for not knowing better at that time. 

Photo credit: Comitetul Olimpic si Sportiv Roman