Comaneci Says She Was Held as Captive : Defection: She claims that the man who helped her escape from Romania took $150,000 she earned in West.
Former Romanian gymnastics star Nadia Comaneci said Saturday she was held captive for three months by the man who helped her defect to the West last December and later was portrayed as her lover.
In her first extensive interview concerning her relationship with Constantin Panait, Comaneci also said the Romanian carpenter had “stolen” $150,000 she earned in appearances throughout the United States after her defection.
Comaneci, in Seattle for the Goodwill Games, was asked if Panait had threatened or physically abused her. “He was not so good with me,” she said.
Panait could not be reached for comment Saturday.
Comaneci said Panait fled with $150,000 she had earned on her tour of the United States three days after they arrived in Montreal last February to visit Alexandru Stefu, a friend of Comaneci’s former Romanian coach, Bela Karolyi.
Stefu said he sought out Comaneci at the request of Karolyi, who became concerned after hearing Comaneci did not want to meet him.
“Bela told me he thought Nadia had the problem,” Stefu said.
Comaneci, who won eight medals during the 1976 Olympics at Montreal and became the first gymnast to score a 10 in the Olympics, received larely negative coverage in the United States while in the company of Panait, a married father of four. Comaneci, however, denied there was any romantic involvement on her part, and said she joined Panait only after he offered to help her escape from Romania. She said Panait was paid $5,000 to help her escape, and the two crossed the border into Hungary at midnight Nov. 25, 1989. After being detained briefly by Hungarian police, they were released. The couple arrived in New York Nov. 28.
Comaneci said that from the time she joined Panait, he dictated her every move.
“He didn’t let anyone near me,” Comaneci said. “He told me all the time what I must say.”
Comaneci said she met Panait at a family party a week before she defected and had not known him for a year, as she initially indicated.
“I said I knew him for one year because he said it would be better for me to get the visa if I declared that,” Comaneci said. “He told me also to declare that I don’t want to come back in gymnastics or to see my former coach, Bela Karolyi.”
Comaneci said she had no one else to turn to in the United States or Canada and had no way of contacting Karolyi.
“I didn’t know nobody. I was a like a stranger and didn’t know my rights,” she said. “(Panait) told me all the time that if I don’t say what he said, he would send me back to Romania.
“I read the papers and knew that I had a negative press for the first time in my life. But I couldn’t fight against this. I couldn’t find somebody to explain the truth because I was afraid.”
Stefu, who now serves as Comaneci’s personal manager, said he contacted Panait in Los Angeles and asked to meet with her. Stefu said he told Panait he could arrange a major contract for Comaneci.
While still with Panait, Comaneci said, she attempted unsuccessfully to meet with his wife to explain that she was not trying to steal her husband.
“I told Panait, ‘We must go and explain to your wife.’ So he called her and told her when we would arrive, but she called the police and the press. And I couldn’t go in because the police stopped us.”
Comaneci said Panait has returned to his family and lives in Florida. She said he has tried to contact her only once since March.
“I can’t say that I hate him, and I can’t say that I like him,” she said. “He helped me escape from Romania. The money does not mean anything because I have the freedom.”
Comaneci hopes to get her family out of Romania and has established a foundation to raise money for her homeland.
“I have $11,000 now, but I dream to have $200,000,” she said.
Comaneci said she hopes to return to gymnastics as a coach in Canada.
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