Romanian Gymnastics Seeks A New Path Forward

An interview with Romanian sportswriter Andreea Giuclea.

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When the documentary The Golden Girl, which premiered on HBO Europe last year, was finally translated and released stateside, I reached out to two people immediately to discuss it: Bea Gheorghisor, editor of the Couch Gymnast and my own personal Romanian gymnastics guru; and Andreea Giuclea, a Romanian sportswriter who has covered gymnastics and many other sports for the several publications including Decât o Revistă.

(Disclosure: I was a speaker at the 2016 edition of the Power of Storytelling conference, which is run by the crew behind Decât o Revistă, which is where I met Giuclea and many other smart, talented people doing really interesting work.)

When I reached out to Giuclea, who, in addition to her work on gymnastics has profiled former world tennis #1 Simona Halep as well as Cristina Neagu, one of the all-time handball greats, she told me that she had a longform piece about abuse and the Romanian gymnastics system that would soon be translated to English. I looked forward to reading this translation of Giuclea’s work the way some of you nerds look forward to a new Star Wars movie. (I have never watched any of those films. My epitaph will read, “Never watched Star Wars.”)

A couple of weeks ago, she sent me the link to her story, which was well worth the wait. She interviewed many notable gymnastics figures for the piece, including 1999 world all-around champion Maria Olaru and 1996 Olympic bronze medalist Alexandra Marinescu. Both gymnasts have spoken publicly about the abuse they experienced while training: Marinescu in 2002, and Olaru in 2016.

After reading Giuclea’s story—which is something that you should do, too—I had even more I wanted to discuss with the reporter. I sent her a bunch of questions and she sent me back a bunch of thoughtful answers.

Here’s the email Q&A, lightly edited for clarity.

Dvora Meyers: Before you started reporting on women's gymnastics in Romania, what did you know about it? What were your general impressions of the sport?

Andreea Giuclea: I grew up loving the sport, as I assume many Romanians do. I remember watching gymnastics at the Olympics and being mesmerized by the gymnasts—their grace, their artistry, the level of difficulty, and of course, the many medals they won. I knew, of course, about Nadia, who was like a myth back then, about all the other great gymnasts Romania had, and how important this sport seemed to be for our country, even if I didn’t fully understand what it all meant back then.

As I grew older and read more about their life in Deva, I realized how hard they work, how young they are when they start, how different their childhoods are from the rest of us, even from other athletes. I admired them even more for their incredible resilience and toughness, but also started wondering if it’s not too much for a kid to go through all that. But I still loved the sport, I still watched and admired the gymnasts when they performed, but with these questions in the back of my mind.

DM: How has the sport's reputation with the general public changed over the last decade plus?

AG: I think the lack of results in recent years, especially the two missed Olympic qualifications, turned the narrative around gymnastics from it being the most successful and representative sport, the country’s symbol and international ambassador, towards one that cannot find its way back on track. Words like decline, failure, disgrace, disaster, have been used often when talking about the sport’s current situation, as opposed to its glorious past. This is why the present situation hurts so much, because people constantly compare it to the memory of the golden age. 

[The 1988 Romanian women’s gymnastics team]

And I think this approach may have also prevented those in charge from looking at things more realistically and coming up with solutions for a new future for the sport, one that’s anchored to today’s possibilities and realities, and not trying to replicate the past. 

Also, I think parents nowadays are less willing to let their kids go through the excruciating training, and kids themselves are less willing to put up with it and with being away from their parents for such long periods of time. I’ve spoken with mothers who told me they wouldn’t want their girls to pursue gymnastics, at least not at an elite level, as they think the sacrifices, the pain, the injury risks, are too high and the coaching too severe. 

I don’t know how it was before, but I’ve attended national championships with very few spectators in the stands, [and] I [think] this could also be a discussion of how you promote and sell the sport. The European Championships in 2017 was a success in terms of audience. The arena was packed and there were lots of children cheering in the stands. I remember speaking with a young girl who practiced gymnastics herself and wanted to be like her idol, Cătălina Ponor. But her mother, standing next to her, was worried about the many hours she was practicing a day, about how tired she was at night, about her sore hands and not wanting her to neglect school.  

And there is still a pretty big community of devoted fans who follow all the news and competitions and desperately want to see the sport rise and [for the Romanians to] win again.

DM: For a long time, Nadia Comaneci was the most famous Romanian in the world, held up as the symbol of the country. What do you think it means for a person to be turned into a symbol of her country at such a young age? And what does it mean for a country to be primarily known for a young girl who does flips and leaps? 

AG: I can only assume it must be overwhelming for someone to become so famous at such a young age, even more so in a communist country where her success was appropriated by the regime and used as political validation and as a propaganda tool. She talks in her autobiography, Letters to a Young Gymnast, about how difficult it was to be seen and treated as a national treasure, which led to her being watched and controlled all the time. It got even worse after she retired from the sport and after the Karolyis’ defection when she wasn’t allowed to travel internationally. She wasn’t allowed to advance in her career and she was paid very poorly. All of these [restrictions] made her eventually flee the country.

As for a country taking so much pride in the performance of a teenager, it was in accordance with a communist regime obsessed with creating a positive image abroad and with justifying its rule. And also with the way children were treated, how they were used for political parades and rallies, and the value parents put on their accomplishments, even the grades they got in school.

[The 1976 Romanian women’s gymnastics team]

DM: As you noted in the story, while the Karolyis [Bela and Martha] perfected this strict, abusive kind of training, other coaches employed similar tactics, and not just in women's gymnastics. Can you talk a bit about the sporting culture of the 70s and 80s in Romania?

AG: There was a lot of violence directed at children in those times. It was the known way to educate and motivate them; teachers at schools disciplined kids like this, parents at home, and sport was just the same. Gabriela Geiculescu, a former gymnast I interviewed for the story who now lives and owns a private gym in the US, told me this is how society was back then—violent towards children and towards women. This was what was considered acceptable at home, so they thought it was normal [for it] to happen in the gyms as well.

In addition, people were very poor and didn’t have many options for a better life, and sport offered them a way out. So they put up with a lot in order to succeed. They left their homes at early ages. They trained as hard as they humanly could. They struggled, and they accepted the abusive coaching methods as the way to succeed. 

I think this is why most of the athletes who grew up in that system, and especially those who became successful, don’t talk about the system as being abusive; they probably don’t even see it that way, but as the way they earned a better life. And some of them have leadership positions in sport today, so that’s why things change so slowly. 

DM: In The Golden Girl, there is a lot of never-before-seen training footage from Deva that shows Octavian Bellu and Mariana Bitang belittling and berating the gymnasts as they trained. These videos seem to validate what gymnasts like Alexandra Marinescu and Maria Olaru had said about their experiences at Deva. I know that initially neither of the gymnasts' disclosures of abuse were taken very seriously, but is the tide starting to turn in their favor? Are people ready to believe that these things happened?

AG: I think people are more willing to believe them, yes. Or less willing to look in the other direction for the sake of Olympic glory, as they did for a long time. Because I think people knew or suspected this was going on; it was a kind of open secret. They just didn’t want to accept it or to believe it was as bad as it was. It was like a collective lie we told ourselves to justify our fascination with winning, which came on top of a tendency, as a society, to not believe children and not care that much about their well-being.

There are still people in the gymnastics community who told me the gymnasts are overreacting or are only focusing on the bad parts and it couldn’t have been bad every day. There are still comments on social media from fans who say elite sport can’t be done without sacrifices and the girls should have quit if they couldn’t take it. It’s frustrating, but I see it as the legacy of a system in which things were done this way for a long time. And it will take a long time for it to change, not just in sport but also in politics, and in other aspects of society.

At the same time, I did see a lot of positive reactions as well, especially from younger generations, people who look at the world differently and who don’t want to justify athletic success by any means. Romanian sport is still very much dominated by old mentalities and practices, but in recent years it [has] interacted with foreign coaches who worked with Romanian athletes, such as Darren Cahill, who works with Simona Halep, or several Danish or Swedish coaches who trained women’s handball teams and the women’s national team. They promote a more positive approach to coaching. They speak about trust, communication, motivation. They focus on mental training and sports psychology, and I think seeing them work can have an impact on other coaches, and also on the way fans perceive coaching. But it’s a process.

DM: This brings me to the Gymnast Alliance. It has really taken off all around the world. What inroads, if any, has it made in Romania? 

AG: Following Gymnast Alliance stories over the summer, I wondered why it didn’t have a bigger impact here. There was only one gymnast, Diana Teodoru, who detailed her experience on social media, and she said reading stories of other gymnasts gave her the courage to do it. But there wasn’t anyone else, and I still wonder why—whether it’s the fear, after seeing how those who spoke before, like Maria Olaru or Alexandra Marinescu, were treated, or is it this belief that speaking against the sport will be perceived as harming it at a time when it’s already struggling so much. 

But I know that people in the gymnastics community are following the international stories and are up to date. The federation—who recently elected a new president after Andreea Răducan resigned—is working on making some changes in their code of conduct and on the methodology for training the coaches, and they also set up an ethics committee. The new president, Carmencita Constantin, a former rhythmic gymnast and current manager at General Electric Romania, told me athletes’ safety is important for her, so I’m curious to see how these measures will develop.

And I think watching Athlete A, and the Gymnast Alliance stories, also helped the gymnasts who spoke about the abusive culture in the past and were treated so badly when they did, and they retired from the public eye for so many years, like Maria Olaru or Alexandra Marinescu. They saw their stories reflected in this new international context, they realized it wasn’t just them, it wasn’t just Romania, and it gave them some hope things would start to change.

DM: The theme of "coaches as proxy parents" comes up a lot in gymnastics and sports in general. In the NBC broadcast of the 2000 women's all-around—which was absolutely heinous—the commentator speaks at length about how coaches like Bellu and Russia's Leonid Arkayev are like "fathers" to all these girls who don't have fathers. (Blech.) Something similar was invoked when the gymnasts defended Bellu and Bitang. Corina Ungureanu, in her dismissal of what Olaru wrote in her memoir, said, “[The filth] she dared to say about these two people who were like parents to us." How important is this proxy parental relationship in terms of understanding how the gymnasts perceive their treatment at the hands of coaches, especially when it crosses the line into abuse? 

AG: This is, I think, one of the major disadvantages of the centralized system Romania had in place for so many years: The fact that coaches had total control over gymnasts, and they all lived together, far [away] and isolated from their families. When you leave home at such an early age and spend all your time with your coaches, who are responsible for every aspect of your life—from your training, to your meals, to your school, to your birthdays or Christmas presents—of course there’s a special connection that develops. And this connection makes it confusing and difficult for children to separate the abuse, to respond to it, even to understand it, as psychologists told me. If you accept this from your parents, you will accept it from the coaches who are, more or less, substitutes for your parents while you’re training. And so it will be even harder to speak up, as you don’t go against your parents. As a famous Romanian saying goes: “You don’t wash your dirty laundry in public; you do it at home.” 

People in the community of gymnastics speak a lot about this gymnastics family, and don’t like it when you disturb it, and they say you can’t understand things from the outside. But I come back to what Denisa Morariu-Tamaș, one of the directors of The Golden Girl, told me: “It’s not about the gymnastics family, it’s about people who are paid by the Romanian government to coach children. I believe what happens there is of public interest.”

DM: You made a really good point towards the end of the story about how it was natural for the gymnasts to not quite know what to make of their experiences—how to feel about a coach who screamed at them one minute but was caring at other times—but that officials looking in from the outside should've been able to see the situation more clearly. Except, as we know, they didn't, not in Romania and not in the U.S., and not in many other countries. Why do you think people who should've understood that what was going on was wrong either didn't realize there was a problem—or realized, and simply didn't care? 

AG: I think in Romania, at first, it was because that was the system, as I mentioned before. That was how things were done, in other sports as well, in other areas of life as well, and that is what people thought was acceptable. Then there was this national obsession with winning, this pride we took in those medals that made people who were in charge look away. Also, the coaches were extremely successful and popular, and who would risk replacing them while their system was producing results? I think it was hard for anyone to stand against them. Besides, there weren’t many other good options anyway, as most Romanian coaches left the country in search of better salaries and better lives. 

DM: You wrote about the decline of the women's program in recent years in the story. (This is something I've spilled a lot of ink on over the last few years.) When I interviewed Bea Gheorgisor, who writes about gymnastics for the Couch Gymnast, she brought up the reputation of gymnastics in Romania as a factor in diminishing recruitment numbers. Do you think that's playing a role? Where are the current and future generations of gymnasts being recruited from? 

AG: It probably played a role, as I spoke to several parents who told me that they didn’t want their daughters to go through the intense training regimen required by gymnastics. People from the sports community also believe that the scandals from the recent years have pushed parents and children away from the gyms. But Octavian Bellu and Mariana Bitang have been speaking about the decreasing number of gymnasts ever since the early 2000s, so the problems were there before, and include a vast range of factors (social, cultural, economic). In fact, the results of the early 2000s were achieved by overworking a couple of seniors, not by having a large pool of gymnasts to select from. And the decline probably contributed even more to this situation, as you can’t create the same enthusiasm and adulation around a sport that’s suffering as you did when you had success. 

The current gymnasts are not that many. As several of them retired in the last years (even Denisa Golgotă this spring), there is Maria Holbură, Ioana Stănciulescu, Silvia Sfiringu, Antonia Duță, Daniela Trică, and Larisa Iordache training separately for her comeback after her Achilles injury (I spoke to her about the injury last year).

As for the future, a lot of hope and expectations rely on the national selection program started by Bellu and Bitang in 2014, called Țară, țară, vrem campioane (Romania, we want champions, or something like that). The gymnasts seem to be promising and most of them are currently training in Deva and Constanța, but it will be interesting to see how they make the transition to senior level and if they can stay healthy, which has been an issue for Romanian gymnasts in the past.

Last year, the [Romanian] Gymnastics Federation implemented another selection program aimed at helping local clubs attract children and offering them support and know-how for developing better connections with the local authorities with possible local sponsors. As the clubs do not belong to the federation, but to the local authorities, the federation can only do so much, the former president, Andreea Răducan, told me last year. 

DM: Do you think Romania is headed towards a similar reckoning with coaching abuse as is happening in places like the U.S. and Great Britain?

AG: I really hope so, but I’m not very optimistic it will happen soon. I think we’re a bit behind in terms of how we understand notions of positive coaching, sports psychology, and the difference between tough coaching and abuse. We never had these kinds of debates openly, and some of the reactions I got after publishing this story were in the same direction: that we shouldn’t talk about it, it would only harm the sport, that the gymnasts are overreacting and it wasn’t all bad and they should also talk about the good memories, not just focus on the negatives. But we’ve focused on the good parts for so long. And how can we move forward without recognizing what went wrong in the past, without addressing it properly, without coaches admitting they were wrong, as they have started to do in Western countries? The gymnasts here didn’t receive any of that—any apologies, any public recognition of their experiences. That must be very painful.

I think an honest conversation and reckoning would also be important for all those involved in the gymnastics community—coaches, parents, officials, fans, athletes. It would help everyone understand better the line between what’s wrong and what’s acceptable; to reflect; and then maybe start to change. But those who are now leading the sport were raised in the same system. As we’re still so reluctant, as a society, to talk about painful things, and we still hide them under the rug, I’m not too optimistic about us being able to have an open conversation about abuse, or other complicated topics anytime soon.

Photos are from Comitetul Olimpic si Sportiv Roman