He enjoyed the admiration of the entire planet, however, Nadia Comăneci was not happy. For this reason, in a last attempt to be one, she decided to flee Romania, the country that saw her grow up. She didn’t do it alone. She was accompanied by six other people whom she did not know at all but who fate ended up turning into family.
On the night of November 27-28, 1989, the group ran up and down hills, across ravines, and ran without lighting a match to avoid discovery, as the consequences could be very serious. After hours of dangerous crossing, they managed to reach Hungary and from there, Nadia traveled to the United States. The world wondered then: What is the greatest gymnast of all time doing escaping from her own house?
The question raised by his presence in the neighboring country was logical. Without having intended it, Comăneci became a propaganda icon of the Nicolae Ceaușescu regime, so despite living in a country under a dictatorship, from the outside it was not strange that someone thought that the athlete’s life was similar to that of a queen.
Sport as promotion
Comăneci became a propaganda icon of the Nicolae Ceaușescu regime
Surely, his own compatriots would think the same. Sport was one of the few areas in which Cold War Romania excelled and the regime and its system pushed athletes to the maximum to be the envy and show that great achievements could be achieved in the country. The Romanian historian Stejarel Olaru delves into the archives of the Securitate, the political police of communist Romania, to tell what his life was really like there and how the concept of repression was redefined at the time. His investigations now arrive in Spanish in the form of a book: Nadia Comăneci and the secret police (Oberon).
“Not all Romanian citizens had a file open. A person could be monitored for various reasons: because she was politically, economically or culturally dissatisfied with the regime; because she intended to leave the country illegally—the borders were closed and it was very difficult to obtain a passport; or because they were personalities of the time in any field. And in Nadia’s case it was sports,” Olaru explains to The vanguardwho admits that he did not imagine how exhaustive the surveillance was.
“They began to track him at the age of 13. The Police were not only interested in Nadia, but also in her family and environment. She always used nicknames and hers was Corina, but it could have been any other. Together with her, the people who provided information were also closely studied to verify that they were honest and that they collaborated appropriately with the Securitate”.
If detailed reports were achieved, it was partly thanks to the fact that microphones were installed in the houses where the athlete lived. The wiretaps allowed not only to follow his day-to-day life, but also to learn about the growing conflicts he had with his coaches, Béla and Marta Károlyi, who often resorted to psychological pressure and physical punishment, “even forcing the girls to compete injured”.
spies and reports
The tapping revealed the growing conflicts he had with his coaches, Béla and Marta Károlyi.
Hunger was also the order of the day. “Some gymnasts ended up drinking toilet water or eating toothpaste. They are details that impact. Of course, they were survivors and ended up being very decisive, because when they got a piece of bread they hid it in unexpected places to be able to eat it later at night”.
The Securitate, which was aware of what was happening, “did not take action on the matter. He could have investigated but he wasn’t interested in a scandal. It was a sensitive issue and no action could be taken without the consent of the Communist Party, which was not very keen on the job as long as the results were good.”
Some gymnasts ended up drinking toilet water or eating toothpaste.”
Although the day-to-day life of the gymnasts was not encouraging, it can be said that “Nadia was one of those who suffered the least since she became the youngest person to receive the highest decoration from the communist state. That made her coach very jealous, but at the same time it complicated things for him. It was not so easy to justify hitting a heroine of the homeland, but he could, for example, leave her without food for three days with the excuse that she had the ideal weight. He weighed 30 kilos If a doctor or nutritionist discovered it and objected, then he was fired”.
These situations made Nadia consider leaving gymnastics, despite the fact that she had earned international respect and was in her prime. The Ceaușescu couple did not leave her and she personally ensured that the child prodigy continued to win medals and place Romania on the podium.
“They even went so far as to set the goals to be achieved in international competitions. Nadia more than complied but she did not live in any gilded cage. She lived in Bucharest in a rather modest way since a good part of the economic benefits she obtained went to state accounts ”.
The Ceaușescu couple set the goals to be achieved in international competitions”
The derisory salary compared to his achievements was not, however, what motivated his departure. “Beyond the microphones, of which she was unaware, she began to have travel restrictions imposed on her in the 1980s, after the Károlyis never returned from a tour of the United States. It was foolish because Nadia had no intention of leaving the country until 1989, when she was fed up with following such aberrational rules. She seriously thought about it and she ended up agreeing to leave her life and her family behind to embark on her own path in search of the freedom that she had never had, ”concludes the historian.