The Fall (and Rise?) of Romanian Gymnastics

A Q&A with Bea Gheorghisor

Almost everything I know about Romanian women’s gymnastics, I have learned from Bea Gheorghisor. Bea, blogger extraordinaire, writes about the Romanian program and other topics over at the Couch Gymnast. Without her, I’d have only the most rudimentary understanding of the Romanian women’s program. She makes me appear much more intelligent than I actually am.  

Bea is also incredibly generous. Anytime Bea shows up at a gymnastics competition, she brings you stroopwafel from Amsterdam where she now lives. And when I was working on my book, Bea translated excerpts from a Romanian book about Nadia Comaneci for me. She refused to accept any sort of payment for this work. This means that I’ll either be forever in her debt or that she’ll claim my first born. I really hope it’s the latter because I hate being in debt and I don’t want to change diapers.

At least Bea let me buy her this pizza for dinner. Bea really likes pizza.

I’m afraid we now must move on to matters that are not quite as happy as pizza—the state of Romanian women’s gymnastics. The program, which was made famous by Nadia’s Perfect 10s in 1976, spent several decades at or near the top of the sport. During the communist era, they tussled with the dominant Soviet Union and occasionally even bested them. And after the fall of Communism, the Romanians went on something of a winning spree, taking all of the world team titles from 1994-2001 and the Olympic team golds in 2000 and 2004. In addition, their athletes won several individual world and Olympic medals, including the 2000 Olympic all-around.

Things, however, started to noticeably decline after the 2004 Olympics. The Romanian women’s team gold winning streak ended and they failed to medal in the team competition in 2010 and 2011. But at least they were still a top five team with athletes capable of medaling individually. They won the team bronze at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

But in 2016, the program hit rock bottom. For the first time since, basically, ever, the Romanian women didn’t qualify a full team to the Olympics. Since Rio, the fortunes of the program haven’t improved. Larisa Iordache, the last Romanian gymnast to really have a shot at an individual medal, tore her Achilles right before the start of qualification at the 2017 world championships. Iordache, the 2015 all-around bronze medalist, had been one of the favorites to win in Montreal. Since then, Iordache has been out of action, dealing with the fallout from that injury. At the most recent world championships, which served as the team qualifier for the 2020 Olympics, the Romanians placed 22nd in a 24 team field. Once again, Romania wouldn’t be sending a team to the Olympic Games.

I sent Bea a few questions about the decline of the program and what the future of gymnastics in Romania might look like. Here’s our Q&A, lightly edited for clarity. 

Dvora Meyers: So typically with trends, by the time most people start recognizing a trend, it was already underway for some time. In your opinion, when did Romanian women's gymnastics start to decline? What were some of the early signs?

Bea Gheorghisor: First time I remember this being spoken about was 1999/2000 era, but probably earlier. It was at the height of the Romanian team success with team world gold in 1994, 1995, 1997 and 1999. And still after each success, I remember Octavian Bellu [Romanian head coach] coming back and saying, “This is a great result but it is going to come to an end soon.” (I am paraphrasing.) He was talking specifically about lack of resources, financing, low number of children starting gymnastics across the country, reduced number of gymnasts at the national training center. He always made a point to mention the fact that the results were achieved with seven healthy gymnasts when the team required seven team members. “We are one injury away from zero team medals.” 

In 2002, the Romanian team did not go to Euros because they were in a process of reconstruction. So few gymnasts were left at the national center in Deva that Bellu and Mariana Bitang had to scout and bring in gymnasts that had not been on the national team as juniors but were the right age for the Athens Olympics. This was how Catalina Ponor and Andreea Munteanu were spotted.

One of the reasons Bellu and Bitang first left in 2005 after Athens was that there were fewer and fewer gymnasts at the national centers and they knew they could not build gold [medal] winning teams year after year anymore. If you look at the 2005-2008 quad, Romania had Sandra Izbasa and Steliana Nistor and a couple of gymnasts that, while far from their level in the all-around, had merit on 1-2 events. This sustained the team in 3rd-4th place for a few more years. But you could already see the decline.

DM: In your opinion, what are the most important factors in the decline of the sport in Romania? (Structural, economic, social, cultural)

BG: For gymnastics, it was first and foremost an institutional failure. The Romanian Gymnastics Federation does not own the clubs; the local administration (the towns) owns them. So it's up to them to bring resources, equipment. The local bodies have some financial resources but there was so much need for investment in infrastructure that it was not considered a priority to invest in sports clubs. Of course this meant that the money eventually went mostly down the drain due to massive corruption and that is something that has affected all aspects of life in Romania, not just sports.

Coaches’ salaries were another issue. They are government employees. That is why, slowly but surely, all the experienced or inexperienced but enthusiastic coaches (such as former gymnasts) left the country. 

Then even the big centers had a lower pool of talent due to low birth rates across the country and the fact that fewer parents were willing to let their children live away from home starting when they are as young as 5-6 years old.

DM: A Romanian friend of mine has talked about the rise of other sports for women in the country, like tennis and handball. (Obviously Simona Halep's success has played a big role in the former.) Are Romanian parents less enthusiastic about gymnastics these days? Were they ever truly enthusiastic about the sport? 

BG: Handball has always been big in Romania. I come from a handball town myself (Slatina). My county has produced many national team players. What I noticed was that children could start playing handball at a later age when they could go to practice by themselves, and you needed far fewer resources to coach a handball team since you can play outside for eight months of the year. In this sport, there is still a huge internal league. To be noticed at the national level, it's still a big deal. So handball seems to be less expensive, less dependent on whether the parents will take their children to practice, has many more centers across the country, and the internal competition never died.

Tennis is more of a family project. The parents have to be so supportive and dedicated and take their child to the right coaches and invest all of their resources. If the child is talented like Simona Halep, they will succeed. It's also a sport that has a bit of a patron in Ion Tiriac, an extremely wealthy businessman and former tennis player. He has been known to help Romanian tennis players at different stages of their careers. He will not help just anyone though, so first comes the parents' sacrifice and belief that their child can be someone through tennis.

I don't think gymnastics has a great reputation in Romania so I think Romanian parents are not enthusiastic about gymnastics. They grew up with stories about golden gymnasts but also about how abused those children were, physically and psychologically. 

Two of the most successful gymnasts in recent years, Diana Bulimar and Larisa Iordache, came from sports families. Diana's dad had been a football player while for Larisa, her mother had played handball when she was young and her older brother is a football player. So these are families that have faith in sports as a way of life and believe in gymnastics as a sport that can make a contribution to a person's development.

I think this is a common trait among parents who encourage their children to do gymnastics these days—most of them have practiced a sport or are one degree separated from someone who has.

DM: Can you discuss some of the shifts in Romanian culture over the last couple of decades that might have contributed to the sport’s diminished standing? 

BG: The general public still loves gymnastics. However, most would not allow their children to be involved in this sport. In the 1990s, at one point we heard that it had become unacceptable for teachers to hit children in school. We all found it odd and impossible to enforce. I was hit by my teacher in primary school. (I started first grade in 1990.) She had a glass fiber stick painted blue that was locked in her cabinet and was pulled out routinely when the class misbehaved. I don't know for how long she used it, but by the end of the '90s it had become illegal, for sure...During the 2000s, it started becoming less acceptable for parents to hit their children. It still happens today but it's less and less the norm and less and less acceptable.

Given these shifts and the stories of the abused gymnasts we heard from time to time, it's not surprising that more parents have chosen to keep their children away from gymnastics. From before the fall of communism, many [former gymnasts] have spoken out. Emelia Eberle and Ecaterina Szabo were perhaps the most vocal, but we also heard from Alexandra Marinescu, Oana Petrovschi, Maria Olaru. [Eberle now goes by the name Trudi Kollar.] 

There is also the aspect of motivation. I was recently watching an interview with Andreea Raducan from 2010. She was born in 1983, practiced elite-level gymnastics in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She was talking about how they were motivated, how they felt like they were soldiers going to competition in order to make their country proud, to represent their country with honor. Other gymnasts have spoken about this as well, how it all seemed appropriate: the tough training, the harsh coaches, the no-complaining. It was all necessary for good preparation. The reward was winning the medal for your country, seeing the flag, hearing the anthem. That made it all worth it. 

I am not sure you can motivate a child or a parent today like that. I don't feel like that and I don't know many who feel like that anymore.

Children today want to make their country proud and would like to make everyone happy but don't see it as a reason to sacrifice. I am not sure whether young Romanian gymnasts have found their "why" and whether it is strong enough to keep them going into a senior career.

DM: Let's talk about the recent announcement that the gymnasts are being sent back to their clubs to train. On social media, you seemed to regard that as a good thing. Why do you feel this way?

BG: After 2019 Stuttgart Worlds ended, there was a Romanian [Gymnastics] Federation committee meeting in which the two national coaches, Marius Urzica for men's gymnastics and Nicolae Forminte for women's, were questioned. Halfway through the meeting, the coaches were sent away and the committee discussed for a few more hours. The decision was made to dissolve the Olympic teams and to send all the gymnasts back to their clubs. This is for the next two months, meaning that at the start of 2020, the new coaches and the new structure will be announced.

For men's gymnastics, I am not sure if this is a good idea because I don't follow the team very closely, but it seems to me that most are against it. However, I support the decision in the case of the women's team because I hope that the measures will have a medium and long-term reach. But I suspect that it could have also been a ploy to force the current seniors and coach Nicolae Forminte into retirement. If this is what it takes, I am fine with it as well.

I don't think that Forminte and the current staff are the right people to lead the national team. The team was 22nd this year at Worlds with four gymnasts competing, probably the only four seniors that were deemed healthy enough. This generation had been third in team finals at Junior Euros in 2016 but they were not paced or developed further.

For years, despite knowing that the current coaches will never manage to achieve a reasonable level of performance, if I had to choose between dissolving the national team and maintaining it, I would have chosen the latter. I thought that this way the gymnasts would at least get the opportunity to go to Euros or go to Worlds. It was in order to make sure that all the work those individuals had done for 10+ years would not be for nothing. But was this truly the right thing to do? In the end, wasn't it crueler to leave them in the hands of an incompetent coach? Did it do them any favors that at the most important moment of their careers, the Olympic qualification, they had what was perhaps the worst meet of their lives? They were all broken physically and mentally.

Forminte was well-known as a national team coach because he was in charge between 2005 and 2010, Back then, he was removed—among other reasons—because all of his top talent was falling injured within 6-12 months of becoming seniors: Cerasela Patrascu (2007), Anamaria Tamarjan (2007), Gabriela Dragoi (2008), Ana Porgras (2009 and 2010). And let's not forget about Izbasa's devastating injury from 2009. Amelia Racea was already injured by 2010. The issues were and are: lack of physical preparation, lack of consistency in conditioning and training, lack of vision in approaching each competition.

During the current Olympic quad with Forminte back at the helm, we heard about some faint hopes that the team would qualify for the Olympics. There was no talk of an individual route or Plan B for any of the gymnasts. I don't think the coaches even knew what the criteria was. What is the purpose of a national team coordinator then? 

But the word on Facebook is that Forminte is disobeying the Federation's decision and went back to Deva. I heard he is refusing to leave. 

DM: For a long time, I felt that Romania was punching above its weight in women's gymnastics. It was so successful even after the communist period despite not having much in terms of material and human resources. I think it would be unreasonable to expect the program to return to its previous heights but I certainly think it’s possible for the program to reenter the top 10. What would it take for the Romanian women's gymnastics team to become a top 10 team again? Do you think that the process is already underway?

BG: I think that Romania will qualify a team to Paris and even win at least an individual medal there. The project called Tara, Tara, Vrem Campioane [“Country, country, we want champions”] was initiated in 2014 and is being coordinated by Bellu and Bitang. This is Romania's response to a half-centralized system (camp based) that has worked for other countries. The idea is to de-centralize in order to encourage healthy competition among [the various] centers and also stimulate the development of gymnasts and coaches. A member of this group, Ana Maria Barbosu, 2005 born, placed third in the all-around at nationals, beating the seniors. She placed behind two national team gymnasts that competed at junior worlds this year. At the end of October 2019, there was a junior meet in Slovenia at Maribor where the 2006 and 2007 born Romanian juniors dominated; they are all from the project Tara, Tara, Vrem Campioane. It felt nostalgic that the 2006 lot won gold and silver in all of the event finals except for bars. Ah, the good old days :)

In order for this to work long-term, we need some key elements that are still missing: realistic judging in internal/national competitions, more and better prepared coaches, finding a way to transition junior elites into successful seniors, a way to motivate gymnasts without physical and mental abuse.

Lead image photo credit: YouTube