Romanian Stars No Longer On Run : Track and field: Athletes tell of their country's revolution as they prepare for meet at the Sports Arena.


With a bright sun streaming in on the warm breakfast room, slicing though dark clouds outside, talk of cruelty and torture and revolution seemed far removed.

The three Romanian athletes were laughing at their ability to laugh, to find humor and hope in their experiences during their country's violent 11-day revolution that ended a day after Christmas. The three--Paula Ivan, the world record-holder at one mile, Maricica Puica, former Olympic champion at 3,000 meters, and Violeta Beclea, a rising star at 800 meters--were having breakfast Saturday at a Los Angeles hotel. Their odyssey had taken them from Bucharest--where the airport, heavily damaged in the fighting, "looked like Swiss cheese" Puica said--to Warsaw, to Frankfurt, to London, and, after 23 hours of travel, they had touched down here.

Puica, the eldest and now a coach, had cried when she was greeted by old friends Friday night. It was like coming out of a dream, she told them.

Now, retelling the horrors of the revolution that overthrew the 24-year regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Puica paused and wondered, "I can't believe that now we can laugh about it."

It is hard to believe they are even here. Ivan and Beclea are here to run in the Sunkist Invitational track meet at the Sports Arena Friday night. Ivan in particular will be chasing the indoor world record for the mile, 4 minutes 18.6 seconds, held by countrywoman Doina Melinte. Ivan ran 4:18.99 last season. Meet promoter Al Franken is offering $100,000 to the man or woman who can break the record at his meet.

A big payday, ever the great incentive in amateur sports, is not the greatest incentive for the Romanians to be here. They are here because they are free to be here.

And, after months of negotiations and agreements with the Romanian government and refusals by the government, Puica, Ivan and Beclea are nearly giddy about their freedom to travel where they wish. They might well have come here without the meet.

All three live and train in Bucharest and each observed the revolution up close, while the rest of the world was watching it unfold on the evening news. Snipers, tanks in the streets and house-to-house fighting helped put sport in perspective at a time of social upheaval.

"I was scared to death. It was a war," Puica said through interpreter Valdimir Moraru. Moraru, who lives in Glendale, had been a sports writer in Romania for 15 years before he defected in 1984.

"I had strange and mixed feelings," she said. "Sometimes I felt like I was in the movies. Then I realized I could get shot. It was a kind of anarchy. Some civilians got weapons. Also, terrorists changed their clothes and you didn't know who was who."

What had been horrible fighting, but far removed, became something else on Dec. 21. On that day Romanians were beginning to hear about the massacre of thousands in Timisoara. Puica, Ivan and Beclea attended a rally with thousands of people in the Palace Square in Bucharest. Ceausescu addressed the crowd, which began to boo and shout, 'Give us our dead.'

Never before had Romanians dared to jeer the dictator.

"Then someone came out and said, 'The Minister of Defense has committed suicide,' " Puica said.

Ivan quickly disagreed, "No, he was shot," she said. "People began to chant, 'Down with Ceausescu.' "

It was at that rally that many Romanians understood that what was happening in their country had moved from being isolated uprisings and unrest and had bloomed into a full-scale, bloody revolution. Standing there, in the electricity of the throng in the Palace Square, Ivan said that everything suddenly changed.

"At first we were excited," she said of the new-found show of dissent. "Then we were frightened. It was easy to see that it was a revolution. The fighting started."

Said Puica: "We were happy, but also scared to death. It was a profound sadness because people were dying and the number of dead was so many."

Moraru repeated scenes that the women had described in which children had stood in front of tanks, saying there were not Fascists. "They crushed them like they were not there," he said. "You cannot imagine. They crushed them like they were not there ."

Puica, who understands some English, shakes her head when she hears this, still incredulous.

One of the many battles in Bucharest was over control of the state-run television station. After civilians wrested control from the army, the station broadcast remarkable hours of a country being born: new leaders talking with army officers, asking them to lay down their guns, patriots, poets and common people speaking to the nation. Puica, a national sports hero, asked for time to speak.

"Someone drove me about half a mile and then people surrounded me and protected me and walked me to the TV station," she said.

Puica spoke to her people of patriotism and freedom: "I am proud to be a Romanian and I'm proud of the youth of this country who sacrificed their lives to give freedom to the people. I did not give blood in the fighting, but I am going to give blood to the wounded. When I was an active athlete, I had many offers to defect. But I did not want it. I said, 'If we have to die, let us die together.' "

That night, after she got home, Puica received a telephoned death threat. "The man said, 'I saw you on TV. You are going to see what happens to you.' I took it very seriously," she said.

A byproduct of the seemingly random violence was the way in which it restricted movement. To venture out to buy bread, Puica said, was to mount a tactical plan that depended on speed, knowledge of the neighborhood, and not a small amount of luck. "Nobody put a (gun) to my head. But we knew we could be shot at any time. At any time."

Without safe modes of transportation, there was uncertainty about the safety of family members in other parts of the country. Beclea, Puica and her husband, and Ivan and her husband were together in Bucharest and knew from day to day that all were safe.

Ivan, however, grew worried about her parents, who lived 18 miles from the city. An army unit was holding the area and there were reports of fighting. Ivan and her husband finally drove to the village, through several civilian checkpoints, and found the family scared, but safe.

Priorities were drastically rearranged. Even for world-class athletes, training became secondary. It was also unsafe.

"I did go to practice, but I did not know what to do," Beclea said. "I did not know if I should go or stay inside."

The timing of the revolution ended the holiday spirit.

"Nobody celebrated Christmas," Puica said. "We were happy that we were free but everybody was thinking of the dead."

Sad, but still defiant. Moraru told of a Romanian Christmas tradition of preparing an elaborate pork dish. This Christmas, there were no pigs to be slaughtered. "Houses were hanging banners that said, 'Christmas without the pig.' You know who the pig is."

New Year's Eve was not festive, despite the fact that the "people" were solidly in control. Pockets of Ceausescu's security forces were still at large. "People were afraid of gathering together," Moraru said. "After they executed Ceausescu on Christmas Day, the security people still fighting sent out flyers, saying, 'Christmas was yours, New Year's Eve will be ours.' There was still some isolated shooting last Wednesday when they left."

Puica said that the Romanian people were moved by the world-wide response to their uprising. "We got tremendous, incredible help," she said. "We were overwhelmed by the response. I was impressed by the French. They were the first to react and send help. Some French journalist died in the fighting. They were the first to send food, medicine, milk for the kids. All the countries in Europe were helping."

Now, sitting comfortably after breakfast, the women were clearly struggling with mixed emotions. Telling unbelievable stories of torture chambers and thousands of missing, while knowing it was all over but not forgotten. Sitting in sunshine while Romania experiences one of its harshest winters on record. Eating fruit while some Romanians have been without water. So many contradictions.

Asked which was the greater emotion, the joy of freedom or the sadness of the cost, Puica said quietly, "Both."

With that, they went quietly to find a place to train, the worst of their running behind them.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World