World & Nation

From the archives: Comaneci Vaults Out of Romania

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian athlete who in 1976 earned the world’s first perfect scores in Olympic gymnastics, has fled her native country, the Hungarian government announced. Relatives in this country said they expect her to eventually settle in the United States.

According to Hungary’s official MTI news agency, Comaneci received a three-day permit for unrestricted travel within the country Wednesday in Szeged, which is about 15 miles from the Romanian border, after crossing into Hungary the night before with six other Romanians.

Few details were available about the defection. Comaneci, 27, reportedly told Hungarian border guards that it was carried out with the assistance of an unidentified Romanian man and that she left behind “a neatly furnished flat, a car and financial security for the sake of freedom.”

There were conflicting reports about her immediate destination, although most speculation pointed toward Austria. Employees at the hotel in Szeged where Comaneci spent the night told United Press International that she left Wednesday morning in a car with Viennese license plates.

“I have been expecting her to defect,” said Gezar Pozsar, Comaneci’s former choreographer, who defected to the United States while on a tour in 1981 and now operates a gymnastics school in Sacramento.

Pozsar said that he and his wife are waiting to hear from Comaneci and believe that she will come to the United States.

“I think that this is her final destination,” he said. “She has good friends here among the gymnasts. She also speaks good English and is a very intelligent kid.”

Pozsar’s wife, Maria, who was allowed to immigrate after he defected, is Comaneci’s second cousin. They saw each other last year at a family reunion in their hometown of Onesti, which is in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in northeastern Romania.

“When Maria returned, she said that Nadia was very unhappy. I could tell that from looking at the pictures she took. Nadia’s face was not smiling.”

That same seriousness was also the image that most of the world had of Comaneci during the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. Four years earlier, the Soviet Union’s Olga Korbut had tumbled into living rooms via television from the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich as a pixie in pigtails. Viewers had to adjust the brightness levels on their screens because of her smile.

With the ’76 Games, they were captivated by a much different and sober-faced young girl. Although she was only 14, Comaneci also was much more technically refined than Korbut. No gymnast had ever received a perfect score of 10 from judges in the Olympics. Comaneci got seven of them. She also won three gold medals on the uneven bars and the balance beam and in overall competition at the Montreal Games.

“Nadia changed our sport,” said Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. “She did everything--or at least tried to do everything--perfectly, and that was not something you could say for everyone in the sport before she came on the scene. Nadia put the emphasis on technical mastery.”

But performing such difficult moves with so little apparent effort also made her seem robotic, an image accentuated by her dark, brooding eyes and her stone-faced response even to perfect scores and standing ovations. She looked her age only when clutching her ever-present rag doll, trying to hide her 4-foot-11, 86-pound body behind it during press conferences.

Still, television took to her. ABC-TV, which was televising the Olympics, used the theme song from a soap opera, “The Young and the Restless,” while showing highlights of her performances. After that, the song became known as “Nadia’s Theme.”

Upon returning to socialist Romania, Comaneci received a heroine’s welcome. “Nadia, the Golden Girl of Romanian Sports, a Symbol of the Free Life of Our Youth,” read the headline in the national sports newspaper, Sportul. She became the youngest person in the country ever designated a Hero of Socialist Labor.

Because of injuries and her maturing body, she never again was as successful as she had been in 1976, although four years later at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, she won two gold medals and finished second in the individual all-around competition. At a ceremony to honor her in Bucharest upon her retirement early in 1984, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, presented her with the Silver Medal of the Olympic Order.

Even before that, there had been unconfirmed reports that Comaneci was having personal problems, related in part to the defection in 1981 to the United States of her coach, Bela Karolyi, and choreographer, Pozsar.

Carol Stabisevski, another Romanian defector who was Comaneci’s pianist and now teaches gymnasts in Valencia, said that a plan for her to defect to the United States was devised while she was attending the World University Games in Edmonton, Canada, in 1983. He would not say who was involved in the plan. But she said that it fell apart when she refused to go along with it.

“She was afraid,” he said.

In 1984, a made-for-television movie in the United States depicted her at one point as almost suicidal.

When asked about the movie at a news conference in Los Angeles during the 1984 Summer Olympics, which she attended as a guest of the organizing committee, she said that she had not seen it but had been told that it was exaggerated.

As a successful coach of juniors in Romania and an internationally certified judge, she continued to travel throughout the world for the next few years. She was in Seoul for the 1988 Summer Olympics, in which some of the women she had coached helped Romania win a silver medal in the team competition.

But that was the last trip she was allowed to take. Jacki said that he inquired earlier this year about her availability for a recent tour of the United States by Korbut and Mary Lou Retton, the U.S. gymnast who won a gold medal in 1984.

“Those are the ‘three caballeros’ in women’s gymnastics,” Jacki said. “I wanted to get them together. But I was told in no uncertain terms by an official from the Romanian Gymnastics Federation that it wasn’t possible for Nadia to come. It wasn’t a matter for negotiation. He said that the order came down from above him. There was no explanation.”

Pozsar said that Comaneci’s sudden difficulties with the government stemmed from the termination of her relationship with Nicu Ceausescu, the son of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

“His mother forced him to stop seeing her,” Pozsar said. “Nadia is a very popular person in Romania and lives like royalty, but she is only a gymnast. She is not a princess. Nicu’s mother wanted a princess for him.

“That made Nadia feel like she was in disgrace. The government knew she was unhappy and was afraid she would leave. So they stopped her from traveling. They put her in a golden cage.

“Nadia is a national treasure, the only symbol of success the country has had for the last decade and a half. People there love her like she’s their own child. Now she’s gone. I think that could have a big political impact.”

Despite the reforms undertaken by other Warsaw Pact nations in recent months, Romania has held fast to its rigid socialistic policies. Ceausescu recently said that the government would not change until “the beech tree bears apples, and the reeds bear flowers.”

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