Gymnastics prodigy Nadia Comaneci was only six years old when Bela Karolyi spotted her and a friend performing cartwheels in a corner of their school playground in a small town in Romania.
Karolyi, who was training a gymnastics team to earn international acclaim for the vicious communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, famously described going from classroom to classroom until he finally found them.
And in Comaneci, the first gymnast to score a perfect ten in the Olympics (and only 14 when she did it), the stony-faced Karolyi and his equally formidable wife Marta found a superstar and prodigy who matched their determination to win — whatever the cost.
Indeed, Comaneci said she would simply grit her teeth through pain and adversity as a little girl, refusing ‘to give people the satisfaction of seeing me cry’.
Gymnastics prodigy Nadia Comaneci (seen in 1976) was only six years old when Bela Karolyi spotted her and a friend performing cartwheels in Romania
She’d even heard, she once said proudly, ‘my old coach, Bela Karolyi, say that I was the only young gymnast he could never break.’
Comaneci, who under the Karolyis’ tutelage achieved unmatched glory at the 1976 Montreal Olympics when she scored seven perfect tens, has described their relationship as a ‘happy triangle’.
However, a new book claims the relationship was anything but sunny.
According to a newly declassified cache of reports on Karolyi’s gymnast training programme, buried in the records of the feared Romanian secret police, the Securitate, Comaneci and other girls were regularly starved, beaten and verbally abused.
The couple also allegedly stole some of the money they earned in competitions and denied them access to doctors.
Comaneci, easily the most celebrated Romanian of her era, became so crucial to the interests of the state that President Ceausescu was kept regularly informed of her progress.
Nadia Comaneci attends HBO’s Official Golden Globe Awards After Party in January 2017
In a new book, Nadia And The Securitate, historian Stejarel Olaru says the Securitate used informants and tapped phones to monitor what he called the ‘abusive relationship’ between Comaneci and Karolyi, who went on to coach the U.S. women’s gymnastics team.
The Securitate had so many people — such as coaches, doctors and gymnastics officials — providing information they could track her every move.
And, says Olaru, even hardened Securitate agents were shocked at the way Karolyi abused the young gymnasts.
Reports talked of the atmosphere of ‘terror and brutality’ dating back to the late 1960s.
In 1974 — two years before Comaneci’s Montreal triumph, an informant wrote: ‘The girls were hit until their noses bled and punished through physical exercises to the point of exhaustion.’
The bearish Karolyi habitually insulted the girls, calling them ‘fat cows’ and ‘pigs’, and would often deny them medical treatment.
‘Starving the gymnasts was a regular practice by the Karolyis,’ writes Olaru. ‘The girls ate toothpaste at night — this is how hungry they were.
In some cases they talked about drinking water from the toilet tank.’
Comaneci herself has said how gymnasts cannot afford to put on too much weight and Olaru says some of the Romanian girls suffered from bulimia.
‘They became experts in stealing food, which they hid in places they thought no one would discover, like the hem of the curtain,’ he says.
In 1977, Comaneci gave an interview to two Romanian journalists in which she confirmed she had been slapped and insulted, deprived of food for up to three days at a time and once lambasted for putting on just ten ounces.
Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci and Bela Karolyi speak in the 1970s
‘Too many things have happened… I can’t even look at him any more,’ she was recorded saying of Karolyi.
The interview was never published — but Olaru found a record of it in the Securitate files. Six months after the Montreal Olympics, at which she was 5 ft tall and weighed 85 lb, Comaneci refused to continue training with him, says the historian.
Her mother complained to the Romanian gymnastics federation about the star’s treatment and asked to speak directly to Ceausescu.
A meeting was organised but cancelled at the last moment.
Ceausescu ‘used (Comaneci) for propaganda purposes’ and named her a ‘heroine of socialist labour’, says Olaru, ‘but she was nevertheless tormented, intimidated’ — even if she was beaten less often than the other gymnasts.
Informants described Karolyi, a former boxing champion who was also put under surveillance, as ‘unmoved by human suffering’.
Olaru believes the Ceausescu regime didn’t intervene to stop him out of ‘pure political calculation’, arguing: ‘How could they have boasted of the high level of the gymnastics programme and at the same time lead an investigation against Karolyi?’
Comaneci retired from gymnastics in 1984 and became ‘a prisoner in her own country’ as she was banned from travelling abroad, says Olaru.
The five-time Olympics gold medallist, now 59, defected to the U.S. in 1989, just months before Ceausescu was overthrown, and now lives in Oklahoma with husband Bart Conner, a fellow ex-gymnastics champion.
Bela Karolyi has not commented on the allegations in the Olaru book, although he said in a statement: ‘I am never satisfied: it’s never enough, never. My gymnasts are the best prepared in the world. And they win. That’s all that counts.’
It isn’t the first time he and his wife’s training methods have been called into question. The couple defected to the U.S. in 1981 — leaving behind their seven-year-old daughter — and both of them later became head coaches of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team.
The Karolyis were embroiled in a new scandal in 2016, when more than 265 women, including 19 members of the U.S. national team — among them champion Simone Biles (above) — accused team doctor Larry Nassar of sexually abusing them for nearly three decades
Karolyi, who hails from Transylvania, has been acclaimed as the most successful American gymnastics coach ever, producing more champions than any other coach in the sport.
However, a 1995 book by U.S. sports writer Joan Ryan exposed the toll that gymnastics takes on pre-pubescent girls and described Karolyi as the ‘high priest of insensitivity’, verbally abusing his girls, who he called ‘cockroaches’ and ‘overstuffed Christmas turkeys’.
They were reportedly kept on such a meagre diet that they smuggled bagels into their hotel rooms.
‘Karolyi belittled and ignored his girls for one reason: he got results,’ said Ryan. ‘He winnowed out the weak from the strong.’
The Karolyis were embroiled in a new scandal in 2016, when more than 265 women, including 19 members of the U.S. national team — among them champion Simone Biles — accused team doctor Larry Nassar of sexually abusing them for nearly three decades.
Much of the abuse (for which Nassar was convicted) took place at the spartan Texas ranch training camp run by the Karolyis.
Although they denied any knowledge of the abuse and were not charged, some of the victims said Nassar won their trust by smuggling them food.
Pictured: Nadia Comaneci and Bela Karolyi in the 1970s
Some of Karolyi’s U.S. champions have supported his tyrannical methods, agreeing with him that when it comes to winning medals, the ends justify the means.
However, it also appears that those methods may have been considerably harsher in communist Romania, a state with little respect for its citizens’ basic rights.
Emilia Eberle, a former gymnast under Karolyi in Romania, claimed the couple regularly beat her and her teammates for mistakes they made in practice or competition. ‘In one word, I can say it was brutal,’ she said in 2008.
As a precious champion, Comaneci, however, was previously assumed to have got off relatively lightly.
Although she trained for up to six hours a day along with the other girls, she lived close to the Karolyis’ ‘experimental’ school, so at least didn’t have to board there.
In a 2004 memoir, Letters To A Young Gymnast, she dismissed assumptions that she was a puppet of the Ceausescu regime.
She portrayed herself instead as just as driven as the Karolyis and, although she later rebelled against their ‘total control over my life’, she credited it with putting her on the path to glory.
‘There was no child abuse in my life,’ she wrote, insisting ‘there was more than enough food’ and ‘gymnastics was never a torture’.
Although Comaneci reportedly spoke to Stejarel Olaru for his book, she has publicly said she has ‘nothing more to add’.
Perhaps the champion, who has admitted that ‘my face is an impenetrable wall to the outside world’, may prefer the world to remember her astonishing achievements on the beam and uneven bars, rather than ponder what it took to get her there.