If we had asked Diana-Andreea Teodoru a few years ago about her experience in competitive gymnastics, she doesn’t think she would have told us everything. She would have said perhaps that she ate little, but she wouldn’t have talked about the nights when she went to bed hungry after a dinner consisting of yogurt and an apple smaller than her fist, or about the days before competitions when all she ate was a piece of meat with salad. She would have said she trained a lot but not that this meant seven or eight hours of intense effort every day and how she sometimes trained on injuries because the coaches would have said she was lying because she didn’t really want to train. She wouldn’t have mentioned the yelling in the gym – “Faster! Move it! What are you stalling for?” – nor the horror she felt when she was told to leave the gym and had to beg forgiveness to be allowed back in.
She would have said the coaches used bad language but she wouldn’t have mentioned that they called her “lazy” and “a fat cow” when she was 12 years old and weighed 29 kilos. She wouldn’t have talked about how the happy and talkative child who took up gymnastics at 4 years old because she was full of energy had grown too afraid to even tell her own mother that she could no longer bear life away at training camp and wanted to come home.
Diana, who is now 21 and lives in Belgium, was afraid that if she had talked about all that, she wouldn’t be believed, just as she wasn’t believed in 2014 when her parents told officials of the gymnastics federation how she was being treated and they said she was lying.
She was afraid she would be told she was doing it for the attention.
She was afraid she would be alone.
But this summer, in late July, she wrote on Facebook that in the past few days of reading the stories of gymnasts from other countries on social media, she understood that it’s OK to tell your story because some people will believe you.
A wave of confessions
The summer of 2020 was the summer without the Tokyo Olympics, postponed for 2021 due to the pandemic. It was also the summer when more and more gymnasts from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium or the Netherlands talked in interviews or on social media about the insults, beatings and the fear they endured while training for the promise of Olympic glory. They talked about their coaches’ intolerance to their injuries; of their coaches’ obsession over their weight; of the anxiety, depression and health problems they faced after quitting the sport.
Their testimonies were especially prompted by the release of Athlete A, a documentary which tells the story of how former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar abused over 250 athletes in the past 20 years and how USA Gymnastics ignored any suspicion or complaint. Gymnasts – artistic but also rhythmic and a few male gymnasts – then took to Twitter and Instagram to tell of their own experiences of abuse under the hashtag #GymnastAlliance, which started in the UK.
Some federations started investigations and said publicly they would not tolerate any kind of abuse; others suspended coaches and opened helplines where athletes could report incidents. The European gymnastics governing body started a series of webinars on preventing abuse and the Netherlands temporarily halted the Olympic team’s activity and sent gymnasts to train at their clubs, the most drastic measure so far.
The stories included some from gymnasts in Belgium, where Diana trained for a few months after leaving Romania in 2014, after six years of being part of the junior and senior Olympic teams. She had felt the Belgian system was gentler but now she wonders if she might have felt that way because she was coming from “a place that was much worse”. Gymnasts on the Belgian team also lived in dorms but they were allowed to go home every weekend; in Romania she had to go for weeks without seeing her parents. In Belgium they were weighed once a week, not daily, and coaches didn’t tell them what to eat for every meal. If someone was afraid of an element, they took two steps back and tried again, they were never yelled at to do it faster.
Because she didn’t get fast-track citizenship and she couldn’t train with the national team without it, Diana quit gymnastics and enrolled in a pastry-confectionery school. Working among sweets was a dream of her candy-deprived childhood but now she can go a whole day without feeling the need to eat chocolate.
“I think I’m over it,” she told me. “I ate crazy amounts of chocolate in the beginning.”
Reactions to her testimony – which ended with the question “Why do we agree with this?” – didn’t roll in right away. She could see people liking and sharing her post but it was a few hours before she started getting messages from friends congratulating her for her courage and strength, former schoolmates in Belgium saying they now understood why she avoided talking about gymnastics, people in Romania telling her they hadn’t expected her to do this or that she was the first gymnast in Romania to speak out in recent years.
She wondered if others would follow.
In the past few years since I have been writing about the decline of Romanian gymnastics – next summer Romania will be absent for the second time in a row from the team competition at the Olympics –, I have talked to gymnasts from different generations. I wanted to understand how they relate to the sport to which they dedicated their childhood and adolescence and which some ended on the world’s podiums, with shiny medals around their necks – 72 Olympic medals for the men’s and the women’s teams, of which 25 were gold –, and others abandoned with their dreams, confidence and bodies all shattered.
For 40 years, gymnastics reached a level of success and performance rarely seen in Romania. I, too, grew up loving this sport for the spectacle I would see on television. But for the past few years, since I started to understand what this sport does to the bodies and psyche of young female athletes, I have been looking at it with increased skepticism.
Many of the international testimonies that criticized coaching methods in recent years pointed to the system created in Romania in the ’70s by star coaches Márta and Béla Károlyi and then exported to the USA in the ’80s: a system based on fear, strict control, centralized and nontransparent training and, very often, violence, both verbal and physical. Romanian gymnasts, too, have spoken over the years of Károlyi’s cruelty, most notably Ecaterina Szabó, four times Olympic champion in 1984, who talked in a 2011 interview for the newspaper Jurnalul Național about the red, blue and black stripes he would leave on her body.
But gymnastics training continued with aggression and humiliations even after the Károlyis defected to the USA, and even after 1990, when sport was no longer an instrument of communist propaganda. Maria Olaru, who won team Olympic gold in 2000, wrote in her 2016 autobiography about the heavy hand of Octavian Bellu, the most successful Romanian coach, about beatings from assistant coaches, fear of the scale, the humiliations and terror of training in Deva in the ’90s; Alexandra Marinescu, Olympic bronze winner in 1996, and Oana Petrovschi, world vice-champion in 2002, also spoke about that period.
But for every gymnast who criticized the system there were others who defended the coaches and said their own experiences had been very different; they said they had not been hit, that competitive sport requires sacrifices and that you can’t berate the coaches who made you into a champion.
I wondered why the stories they tell about their experiences in training gyms were so different. Why for some the pain, hunger, being away from family and the strictness of coaches seem to have been worth it because it helped them win, while for others it was too much, too painful to endure and too difficult to understand why this was the only way to the top.
I also wondered how we should look, from the outside, at the decline of a sport that brought the most Olympic medals for Romania when we know the price the athletes paid for those medals. What would it mean to accept that the glorious story we tell ourselves about this sport and its role in shaping our national identity is (also) built on abuse?
And what to do with this legacy?
How Nadia Comăneci changed the sport
A story always has three versions, Nadia Comăneci wrote in her 2004 autobiography Letters to a Young Gymnast. “Yours, mine, and the truth.”
The story we tell ourselves about Romanian gymnastics starts with Nadia’s perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal – the first 10 in Olympic history. It starts with her brown hair tied up with red ribbons in a pony tail, her bangs covering her always serious gaze, her V-necked white leotard and the perfect lines and angles that her perfectly trained child body drew through the air.
And with the screen that displayed a score of 1.00 seven times because it had not been programmed to show the maximum score.
Romanian gymnasts had won individual medals before – Elena Leușteanu brought the first Olympic bronze medal in 1956 – but the sport looked different before Nadia. The athletes were grown women in their 20s performing exercises with low levels of difficulty, scored mostly for their grace and elegance.
Nadia, who started gymnastics at 6 in Onești because she loved to swing on tree branches, play soccer and feel her body in motion, was 13 when she won four gold medals and one silver at the 1975 European Championships. One year later, in Montreal, she introduced the Comăneci salto on the uneven bars, a maneuver in which she let go of the high bar, performed a straddled front somersault and then grasped the same bar. (It is still considered a high difficulty element.) She won three gold medals – on balance beam, uneven bars and individual all-around, the first Olympic title for Romania after years of domination by USSR gymnasts –, and she also won bronze on floor and silver with the team. At the 1980 Olympics she won four more medals: two gold on balance beam and floor, and two silver, one with the team and one for the individual all-around.
The team Olympic medals were proof that the state-funded experimental gymnastics school set up in 1969 in Onești was working.
It was a sports boarding high-school where gymnasts studied, slept, ate and trained under the coordination of Béla Károlyi, a physical education teacher who had practiced boxing and athletics and had studied gymnastics at university. It was there where he met his wife Márta, also a coach. The Károlyis visited schools to select girls as young as possible. Among them was Nadia, whom Béla had seen cartwheeling in the courtyard and had searched for classroom to classroom.
Gymnasts started getting younger and younger ever since the ’60s. In 1964, a 15 year-old gymnast won the USSR national championships and in 1972 Olga Korbut from Belarus won three Olympic titles at 17. Watching the 1972 Olympics at home, Károlyi thought that had he participated with his team of children – Nadia was 10 at that time – they would have won third place.
Károlyi believed it was easier to make champions out of children. They learned easily, they had no fear, they flew higher and in time were able to perform increasingly difficult elements. Children were also easier to dominate and this became the ideal approach in gymnastics. Following Nadia’s success, coaches everywhere started looking for younger, shorter, thinner gymnasts, proliferating the cult of the child-athlete. To protect the athletes, the international federation started introducing minimum ages for senior competitions: 14 in 1970, 15 in 1980 and 16 as of 1997. The answer of countries like China and Romania was to lie about their athletes’ ages. Daniela Silivaș, three times Olympic champion, was 13 at the 1985 World Championships where she won gold on balance beam with a score of 10. (The Romanian federation had changed her birth year from 1972 to 1970).
The gymnasts’ success was appropriated by the communist regime as political validation and a tool of propaganda, and Nadia was at the center of it all. “I was considered a national treasure because I made my government’s rule and way of life look good, and state officials were determined to protect that at all costs,” she writes in her book. In November 1989 she fled the country via Hungary, walking for hours. She got to the USA where today she owns a gymnastics school.
After Montreal, Ceaușescu received Nadia with celebrations and decorated her as a “Hero of Socialist Labor”. The Arădeanca factory manufactured a Nadia doll, a gymnast with the Romanian flag across the chest. In a country where shortages were the norm, her coaches received cars and privileges: they had good salaries, they were able to buy meat and eat at the best restaurants in town.
In return, their gymnasts had to keep winning.
Pain is normal in gymnastics
Gabriela Geiculescu, a former gymnast a few years younger than Nadia, knows exactly when she injured her back. She was 11, she had been practicing gymnastics since she was 7 at the Triumf School Sports Club in Bucharest, and she was at a competition in Poland. She fell from the uneven bars and landed with her back on the bar. She stiffened and couldn’t move. But she got up and continued to compete because she still had to perform on the balance beam, floor and vault.
After the competition she took a break but the pain came back. Pain is normal in gymnastics, her coaches said, especially back pain. “If you said your back hurt, they wouldn’t even look at you,” she told me in a talk over Skype from Nashville, Tennessee, where she owns her own gym. “If you broke a leg, that was visible. You’d get a cast that came off way sooner than it should have. I was told back pain was normal but they didn’t understand that my pain was atrocious.”
She couldn’t brush her teeth or bend down and could barely walk.
“How did you get through your exercises?” I asked.
“Out of fear! And beatings. Just like circus animals.”
Beatings were the preferred educational and motivational method for children in communist Romania at home, in school and in sports. Károlyi took the strictness of training to a whole new level. He didn’t allow anyone in the gym except for the choreographer, the pianist and the nurse. He controlled the girls’ schedule strictly: how much they trained, when they did their homework, what time they went to bed and when they talked to their parents on the phone, conversations on which he listened in. If he heard them giggling in their room after 10 p.m., he sometimes took them out to run in the yard. If they didn’t follow his instructions, didn’t perform their elements correctly or didn’t make progress, he yelled at them, punished them with extra conditioning and sometimes hit them – with his palm, with sneakers, sometimes until their noses started bleeding. Not always, not every day, but it happened a few times a week.
“Nadia is the only one who escaped unbeaten,” said the team’s choreographer at the time, Geza Pozsar, in a recent interview for Adevărul.
Although he saw how the children were treated, he continued working with Károlyi both in Romania and the USA and for a long time didn’t talk about it. He kept silent, Pozsar says now, because he considered Károlyi family, because he didn’t want to lose his privileges in communist Romania and because he told himself his dancing class gave the girls some respite. (For a few years now, Pozsar has been criticizing Károlyi’s methods in international interviews, supporting gymnasts who talk about his methods and says he regrets not having done it sooner.)
Perhaps Nadia “escaped unbeaten” because she was also an exception, an athlete who was able to do whatever was asked of her and more. If she knew she could handle 15 stadium laps, she told her coach she could do 10, to save some energy. “Béla pushed me hard,” she wrote in her memoir, „but the reason he could never break me is because he never truly knew my limits.”
Although after Montreal she no longer accepted the strict training camp and moved to Bucharest for a few months, Nadia never spoke publicly about her coach’s harsh methods and in her book she writes that he was not cruel to her but that his disciplining was tough. He was, however, a good motivator, whom she trusted with her life and career. She, too, trained on pain but only what was tolerable and she says she never associated gymnastics with sacrifices, abuse or torture. On the contrary, it was a chance to do what she loved and have a better life. In a country where many people were starving, Nadia writes, gymnasts on the national team had food, shelter and heating. “For gymnasts in communist countries, the sport gave us more than it could ever take away.”
Her outstanding qualities and endurance raised the bar for the next generations.
Nadia was like a little Mozart, Pozsar said on the podcast The End Of Sport. “Coaching Nadia was like playing a Stradivarius. It’s a big difference from a violin from the store next door.”
After Montreal, Károlyi opened a new gymnastics school, in Deva, and tried to find another Nadia. Geiculescu, who at 13 trained with the Olympic team for a few months while they were preparing for the 1980 Olympics, remembers the hunger that drove them to eat toothpaste and hide candy in mattresses, in the lining of coats or the toilet tank; how they felt they were being watched all the time; being afraid to say when they got injured; and the coaches’ verbal and physical abuse, directed particularly at one of the gymnasts, Gertrude Emilia Eberle.
In Eberle, who now coaches in the USA and changed her name to Trudi Kollar, Károlyi saw the new Nadia. At 12, the gymnast from Arad was a national champion when the coach called her to ask her to come to Deva. She arrived there happy and her mother left a piece of bread in her closet and told her not to forget to eat. Once she was left alone, Károlyi opened the door violently and slapped her across the face so hard she fell back on the bed, she told the Heavy Medals podcast. Then he took the bread and said he would kill her if he ever saw her eating anything like that again.
When she made mistakes, the coach turned violent. “You know, he has huge hands, and it hurts,” the gymnast, twice world champion in 1979 and twice Olympic vice-champion in 1980, told a television station in Sacramento in 2008. “I can say he was brutal. I had blood coming out of my body. I had my skin ripped behind my ears. Occasionally, [Márta] scratched us. She stuck her fingernails in the back of our necks and she shook us.”
Besides physical violence, pain was not tolerated in Károlyi’s gym. “We had broken palms and still practiced on the uneven bars, we never stopped training. We sprained our ankles, we kept training. It was painful but we had to do it, we had no choice,” Eberle said in a 2013 episode of the show În Premieră on Antena 3, which tells the story of Eberle and Teodora Ungureanu, Olympic vice-champion of Nadia’s generation.
“At the university championships, from the uneven bars I went straight to the hospital with appendicitis. When I hurt myself there on the bar it was painful but I finished my exercise, I didn’t stop, because that’s not how we were trained. Pain or no pain, you finish and then come what may. And then came the ambulance.”
Coaches were violent at clubs as well, and not just in gymnastics. “It’s been 28 years and I can still remember every punch and kick that crushed my child body and mind”, a former male gymnast from 1977–1988 wrote on Facebook in 2016. Pozsar also spoke about the tough regimen in ballet school. Gabriela Geiculescu told me about the beatings she endured at her club: “In general, a coach had a scapegoat. At my club, he beat me the most, every day. Not a day went by that I didn’t get beaten severely.”
Although she was considered a young hope, she didn’t make the Olympics. At 14, after three years of training on pain, she took her first X-ray. She learned she had a dislocated vertebra and risked paralysis. It was her last day as a gymnast, although her coach tried to persuade her to continue. “They only cared about what you did that day, how many medals you had to win, what elements you needed to work more on. It didn’t matter that you were in pain, that you couldn’t do it. Your future didn’t matter at all. If you broke right there and then, were gone for good, very well, on to the next.”
How Károlyi changed American gymnastics
In 1981, at the end of a demonstrative tour in the USA, the Károlyis and choreographer Pozsar disappeared on the streets of New York and never got on the plane back. The gymnasts were happy they could eat on the flight home. In America, Béla and Márta laid the ground for a new dynasty that dominated gymnastics to the present day.
In 1984, with Károlyi as a personal coach, Mary Lou Retton became America’s first all-around individual Olympic champion. Although many of the gymnasts who won Olympic medals in the next years came from his club, he was not appointed head of the Olympic team until 1999, after a period with no results in the World Championships. He then imposed a semi-centralized system that brought gymnasts on monthly camps at his ranch in an isolated forest in Texas. The rules were similar to those in Deva: no phones, no internet, no visitors. Little food, obsessive weight control, many hours of training and no tolerance for pain. If the athletes couldn’t handle it physically or mentally, there were plenty more to choose from. The age and weight of American gymnasts went down as well: if in 1976 the average was 17 and a half years and 48 kilos, in 1992 it was 16 years and 37 kilos.
Károlyi’s ranch was also the site where doctor Larry Nassar sexually assaulted some of the gymnasts, for which he was convicted in early 2018 to 175 years in prison. Over 150 victims testified against him and said the isolated environment and the fear in which they lived allowed him to hurt them under the guise of medical treatments that he administered at night, unsupervised, in the girls’ rooms. In recent years, Olympic champions such as Simone Biles and Aly Raisman criticized the Federation for giving coaches full control and for turning a blind eye on abuse – even covering up complaints –, as long as they brought medals and medals brought sponsors.
Károlyi took the centralized system from Romania to the USA, but coaches were violent before he got there. They yelled, they hit, they sexually abused athletes. He perfected and validated this approach because it had produced champions.
“Béla Károlyi was tough, a dictator,” said in a 2007 interview for Evenimentul Zilei coach Adrian Goreac, who took over the Olympic team after Károlyi defected. Together with a technical team that included Octavian Bellu, who later became team coordinator, Adrian Stan, who later coordinated the British team, and Maria Cosma, Goreac coached until 1990 and wanted to show that there was more to Romanian gymnastics than just Károlyi and Nadia.
With a generation that included Ecaterina Szabó, Lavinia Agache and Cristina Grigoraș, he brought the first Olympic team gold in 1984, plus dozens of other medals. He says his gymnasts were not as tormented and none of them spoke of his methods. “I won’t lie, I, too, yelled at them and sometimes slapped them like a parent would. But that was when I caught them smuggling wine, cigarettes and things like that. I have always detested violence and have never hit a gymnast for her failures at the gym.”
In an interview for NBC in 2018, the only interview they gave after the Larry Nassar scandal, the Károlyis (who retreated at their ranch) said training was intense but not abusive. Béla admitted to hitting gymnasts back in Romania but said he stopped in America. “Verbally, we were not abusive. Emotionally, it depends on the person,” said Márta, adding this was the only coaching method she knew. “You have to be a strong person to be able to handle the pressure.”
This is one of the myths in the coaching world that justifies excessive behavior: the excuse that it makes one stronger, builds character, makes one a champion. If you can’t handle it, then you are too weak or too sensitive, you aren’t strong enough to succeed. You’re the one to blame.
This was repeated often by Octavian Bellu and Mariana Bitang, the other famous duo in Romanian gymnastics that made history after 1990: that performance is achieved through suffering, that gymnastics is a tough sport that can’t be practiced with feathers and rose petals and the strictness stems from the high risk and the need to control the children for their own safety.
Watching gymnastics is fascinating because it pushes the boundaries of what the human body can do. Over the past years, elements have grown increasingly difficult and even the scoring system was overhauled so it is no longer limited by scores from 1 to 10. Starting 2006, the final ranking is the combined total of two scores: one score for difficulty and one for execution. The focus has shifted from grace and artistic impression to acrobatics and difficulty.
The bodies of gymnasts have also changed because you need force to rise and spin in the dizzying and gravity-defying manner of Simone Biles, considered the best gymnast of all time. Among such elements is a double-double beam dismount, the most difficult beam dismount there is, and a triple-double on floor, an element so difficult that no other female gymnast and very few male gymnasts are able to perform.
But if the limits can be pushed and pushed, who decides when it’s too much? Especially when it comes to children.
“People side with the idols”
While Károlyi is the most renowned (and controversial) coach in world gymnastics, the one who won the most medals coaching in Romania is Octavian Bellu. A former gymnast himself, graduate of the Institute for Physical Education and Sport, he was 39 in 1990 when he took over the team after being on the technical staff for nearly a decade.
In 1993 he was joined by Mariana Bitang, a former gymnast of Nadia’s generation, retired at 12 due to hepatitis. Together they coordinated the team until 2005 and then again in 2010-2014, after serving as presidential advisers for sports. During those years, Romania’s team won five consecutive world titles and two Olympic team golds in 2000 and 2004. The gymnasts they coached, such as Lavinia Miloșovici, Gina Gogean, Simona Amânar, Andreea Răducan, Cătălina Ponor and Maria Olaru, won nearly 300 medals, of which 16 Olympic gold. In 2007, the World Record Academy named Bellu the most successful coach and in 2009 he was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
But their successes were not without controversies.
In 2002, four years after retiring, Alexandra Marinescu, two times world champion and team Olympic bronze winner in 1996, spoke on the show Nașul on B1TV about the three spinal surgeries she needed for a fracture worsened by overstraining, about having her age falsified and about the time she spent locked in a room in Deva for three days with no food except for an orange, to lose weight. She was allowed to leave the room only to go to training and only after the second night did another coach bring her a chocolate croissant for breakfast. She was on B1 to promote a book about her experience in gymnastics, Secretele gimnastei (The Gymnast’s Secrets), fictionalized by journalist Andrei Nourescu.
Nourescu, who had been going to competitions since 1992 and who sometimes secretly bought chocolate and ice cream for the gymnasts, wrote investigations about how gymnasts from the national team were being treated and about their ages being faked, a fraud about which he says he notified the international federation and domestic authorities but nothing happened. “If I were to publish such an investigation nowadays, it would have a huge impact,” he told me. “At that time, there was a different mentality. Because they said: ‘Yes, I changed her date of birth but I did it for Romania, for her to win the gold medal, to be champion. If I hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have won gold.’ That’s all that mattered. But the essence was: for this gold medal, you risked her health. But nobody thought about that.”
The book, too, would have had a bigger impact nowadays, thinks Nourescu. In 2002, he decided with Marinescu to change the names of the coaches and gymnasts (Octavian Penu, Marilena Bismark) to avoid a potential lawsuit.
In the book she talks about the slaps she received at both the junior and senior team, about colleagues who were beaten severely, gymnasts who vomited and took diuretics to lose weight, insults like “idiots”, “cows”, “imbeciles”, “stupid”, about competition finals where the federation decided someone else would compete instead of her, the fistful of pills she took for her back pain and the 30% of the competition and demonstrative tour prizes she had to give her coaches according to an unwritten agreement that existed in Deva.
Marinescu wanted to write a book to “take the load off”, to have it written down so she could move on, she told me recently. She was hoping her story would have an impact beyond her own healing process, that at least a few people would start questioning life in Deva; she was hoping other gymnasts would come forward with their own stories.
But she was alone.
Moreover, she felt there was a public campaign to drown out her voice and her story. Coaches Bellu and Bitang said on the Marius Tucă Show they were sorry for what had happened to Alexandra but she had been given the all-clear by the sports medicine center (where Alexandra remembers superficial check-ups and Nourescu remembers that all-clears were issued under pressure from the federation because there were very few gymnasts); that all gymnasts have back pains and that she was probably just airing her frustration over what she failed to achieve as a gymnast.
She also felt she was not believed. “I kind of expected that. Who do you believe, a child – I may have been 20 years old but I was still a child – or the adult? Especially when the adult is who he is,” says Marinescu, who after her sports career worked as a DJ and had an online radio show that she gave up to get a fourth spinal surgery. She felt that she had said her piece in the book and that she couldn’t continue promoting it.
The following year, Sabina Cojocar, a world team champion in 2001, spoke about a medication doctors prescribed her for a liver problem about which she later found out was banned for use in children. She had muscle pains and felt tired but coaches and doctors told her to continue taking that medication until she was forced to retire at 17.
Bellu and Bitang were again invited on Marius Tucă Show, where they dismissed the accusations as “manipulations of these girls who, for more or less objective reasons, fail to achieve their dreams”, “speculation of these children’s naivete and appetite for presenting their so-called tragedies or their so-called hardships in Deva”. They said other countries also falsified the ages of their gymnasts, that the accusations were part of a plan to destroy Romanian gymnastics and they threatened to resign.
The following year, Romania’s team won Olympic gold in Athens, three other gold medals, one silver and one bronze. “People side with the idols, the statues,” says Nourescu. “I was writing negative stories about the dirt in gymnastics and two months later Bellu stepped in waving gold medals and the Romanian anthem. Any battle, any war against an idol is lost from the start.”
In 2005, Oana Petrovschi, 2002 world vice-champion on uneven bars, sued the Federation and the coaches for moral damages after she suffered spinal injuries. She needed the money to get surgery for a herniated disk she believes she got when she was forced to train on the uneven bars with her leg in a cast: twice a day, for two weeks, with a sandbag tied to her other leg. The gymnast ultimately dropped the lawsuit after insurance company ARDAF, which sponsored the Federation at the time, made her a financial offer, part of a deal to stop talking about the coaches. She later received financial aid for her 9,000 euros surgery from a businessman.
Bellu and Bitang resigned as coaches of the national gymnastics team in 2005. The team was taken over by Nicolae Forminte and won team bronze at the 2008 Olympics and a gold medal for Sandra Izbașa on floor. Bellu and Bitang returned for four more years in 2010, and at the 2012 Olympics won team bronze, gold for Sandra Izbașa on vault and silver for Cătălina Ponor on floor.
“Strictness is one thing. Abuse is something else.”
In 2016, Maria Olaru’s book came out. World champion in 1999 and Olympic champion in 2000, she knew what to expect when she published Prețul aurului. Sinceritate incomodă (The price of gold. Uncomfortable honesty.), where among other things she talks about how she felt her life in Deva was a “never-ending purgatory”. It was not the occasional slaps that hurt her the most, she writes, but the insults and humiliations. When Mariana Bitang called her “crass”, “stupid”, “indolent”, “a stupid peasant from Moldova”, when she told her to leave the gym, when she wasn’t allowed at dinner after failing in a competition, or when Bellu told her, right before a competition, that her mother had made a fool of herself again in an interview because she had been drinking. These are methods Olaru sees as excessive, unfair and even brutal. “When I was on the apparatus, I gave it my all,” she writes. “Neither insults nor beatings made me give any more.”
“Strictness is one thing, it means following rules,” she told me recently. “Abuse is something else. Because anyone must admit that this is abuse; physical and psychological.”
Olaru, who after retiring was a referee, a teaching assistant at the Physical Education Faculty in Timisoara and a TV sports news presenter, expected to be labeled “crazy” or “weird”, especially since she came from a broken home. She expected that, like Marinescu, she would be alone and would be asked why she was talking after such a long time.
Some wounds never heal, she says now. It would have been a different book had she written it at 19, when she lacked the maturity she had at 34. She wanted to publish it also out of a sense of duty towards future generations. “Because they will get the same treatment. OK, perhaps not so much physically anymore, but psychologically. And this psychological trauma is much worse. A slap hurts, true – I’m not condoning it – but this psychological tension and what was happening to us children. I often want to congratulate myself for hanging in there.”
She also wrote her book because she wanted other children to have the courage to say: “No, not like this”.
But as it happened with Alexandra Marinescu, her voice, too, was silenced by those who questioned her motives. Opinion pieces were written in Romanian media about “Romania’s beaten children” and training in “suffering camps” but also about how she should have spoken up back when she was a gymnast, not after all those years, at a time when the sport was on the decline. (The book came out the summer when Romania’s streak at the Olympics stopped, as the team failed to qualify after 40 years of always being on the podium.)
There were people who appreciated her for her courage and others who said she was trashing the people who had made her into a champion or that competitive sports aren’t built on kisses but on draconian rules and exhausting work. The gymnasts who had spoken before her – Szabó, Marinescu, Petrovschi – confirmed her story but coaches, sports officials and other colleagues blamed her.
“This is all I remember about Maria Olaru: that she is a gymnast who was world champion, Olympic champion, European champion,” Bellu said in an interview for Republica website. “If she now regrets having pursued gymnastics and becoming a world and Olympic champion, that is a different matter.”
“I can’t imagine Mariana [Bitang] saying those things, nor Bellu beating athletes, there’s no way,” Elisabeta Lipă, five times Olympic champion in rowing and minister of youth and sports at the time, said in a TV show on DigiSport where Olaru was present. When asked whether she had ever been hit in her career, the most decorated rower in Olympic history said: “Even if I have, I will never tell. Because my coaches who made me Olympic champion, Olympic vice-champion, World and European champion, even if they had tread on me, if I were asked about it today, I would never tell.”
After the show, Olaru remembers that Lipă hugged her and said: “Yes, Maria, I know that’s how it was but you shouldn’t say it,” which the journalists on set also heard.
It seems that what bothered the sports community was not the experience Olaru spoke about so much as the fact that it came out. “We are used to, as a nation, to sweep the dirt under the rug and move on,” says Marinescu. “Don’t stain the image.”
“Everyone has different memories from gymnastics”
Among the most vocal defenders of coaches Bellu and Bitang, who retired in 2016 after two years of quitting and returning, were other gymnasts of the same generation as Olaru. Cătălina Ponor, Monica Roșu, Sandra Izbașa and Corina Ungureanu said on the TV show Sinteza zilei on Antena 3 that they did not relate to Maria’s recollections.
“You have no idea how torn I am inside because I found myself in this book in a reality I don’t recognize,” said twice World and European champion Corina Ungureanu, now a coach. “How dare you? Who do you think you are? You’re one of us! (…) [The filth] she dared to say about these two people who were like parents to us.”
“Do you think if I had been beaten or mistreated I would have returned to gymnastics so many times?” said three times Olympic champion Cătălina Ponor, who at 29 was the only Romanian gymnast to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. “These two people made me who I am. Perhaps we had discussions, tougher training sessions, strictness, but without all this there would have been no achievements. Nor will there be going forward. And this strictness and these discussions strengthened my character.”
“Everything that was said, how hard it was. It’s true, we worked very hard but that’s the only way,” said Andreea Răducan, team Olympic champion in 2000, who said in a phone interview that she asked journalist Cătălin Tolontan to remove her photo from an article in the Gazeta Sporturilor newspaper titled Romania’s Beaten Children because she didn’t identify with that headline.
“If Maria Olaru found her peace by publishing this book, I don’t know if the price isn’t a bit too high,” she added. “I believe, and I’ve spoken with Nadia and my colleagues as well, none of us is allowed to trash a sport that ultimately made us.”
Their reaction was hard to understand for gymnasts who had criticized the system before Olaru. On a Facebook discussion group for Olaru’s book, they accused the athletes who defended Bellu and Bitang of lying although “they were there and lived the same life”.
But perhaps they are not lying.
If from a very young age you grow up in a culture that normalizes pain, risk, injuries and abuse, if you see everyone around you accept all that and the adults around – federations, parents, sports officials – don’t step in, you will think that it is normal. Even more so when you are an ambitious child with big dreams, who thinks sport can provide a better future and is told this spartan training will bring success.
It is natural for their stories to differ, says psychiatrist Gabriel Diaconu, who worked with elite athletes, because “when it comes to abuse, there will never be two perfectly symmetrical stories. Ultimately, it is a sign of authenticity that the stories are different, as the aggression is very well camouflaged.” Diaconu also says the victim is psychologically transformed when she first realizes she is being abused and, instead of walking away, telling the authorities or giving up, she continues to conform.
That “no one was keeping them there by force” is one of the answers coaches give most often. But some of the gymnasts I have interviewed said they didn’t feel they had a choice, being away from their families at such young ages; others said they loved gymnastics too much and wanted to achieve what they dreamed of after working hard for years; others felt they couldn’t tell their parents what was going on out of shame, not to worry them or out of fear of hearing from the coaches the next day: “Let your father coach you on the beam” or “Run 10 extra laps”.
“Sometimes you tend to let some things slide just because you have worked hard and your goal is to compete in a World Championship or the Olympics,” Olaru told me. “For me the biggest punishment was to be told to leave the gym,” said another gymnast, who quit at 15 because of an injury, talking about the rods and slippers across the legs and hair pulling that occurred at her club. “I would have preferred to be slapped than be sent out of the gym.”
“No child should be emotionally abused in order to become an elite athlete,” says Diaconu. “And yet if you want to make it to the top you will be told that you need to accept certain things. Coaches will say there needs to be aversion conditioning to minimize fear: fear of the balance beam, which is very narrow, fear of the deadly salto on the uneven bars, fear of the vault. But you don’t minimize fear by instilling an even bigger fear.”
Many former champions say coaches hardened them not just for competitions but for life and that they were so well trained that they could perform if barely risen from their sleep. “You get to the competition and you’re not nervous at all,” Larisa Iordache, world vice-champion and part of the team that won Romania’s last Olympic medal, bronze in 2012, once told me. “You get on your apparatus and you know you can do it.”
Athletes often see the emotionally abusive methods employed by their coaches as a necessary part of the training process, according to a study published in 2014 in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma. And the level of discipline and obedience required by elite gymnastics doesn’t allow athletes to reflect on themselves or their sport, shows a 2010 research on Australian gymnasts published in the Sociology of Sport Journal. When you are taught that your voice doesn’t matter, that you have to be obedient and not protest because coaches know best, when you are controlled all the time, you lose the ability for self-reflection, independence and responsibility.
If you are told so many times that you are mentally weak, that you are faking it, overreacting, that you are lazy, you end up questioning your reality. To avoid breaking down, many former American gymnasts have said, your mind blocks everything. You become a docile athlete. Or, as one former gymnast says about life in Deva: “I was a little soldier”.
“We all want to defend our best memories”
The experiences that gymnasts remember may also be different because what we call memories is in fact a modified representation of reality. Recent research in neuroscience shows our mind reconstructs a memory and edits it a little every time we bring it up.
When we remember, we take fragments and arrange them into a coherent narrative, says Daniela Schiller, neuroscience professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “We think we are the sum of our memories, we think that memories determine who we are, but in fact we determine our memories.”
That is why the story you tell yourself about who you are and your life experiences – a concept that psychologist Dan P. McAdams calls “narrative identity’ – influences the way you remember the past. If you tell yourself you are a strong person who overcomes pain and doesn’t show weakness – like most athletes are –, you can’t be a victim at the same time. If you survived, you were not abused. If the coaches turned you into a champion, they did you a service.
“It’s complicated to hold competing ideas in your mind,” former gymnast Jennifer Sey, a supporter of change in this sport and the producer of the documentary Athlete A, which sparked many of this summer’s testimonies, told journalist Dvora Meyers. „To be proud of your achievements, to revel in some of the experience as an athlete but to also admit to some dark days and to reconcile your own memories with what I would call child abuse. I can hold these two opposing ideas and experiences in my mind. I can appreciate all the good and say that bad stuff should never have happened. And I think others are now coming [around] to this way of thinking.”
But changing the story you tell yourself, the mental framework through which you look at the world and the past, is not easy, adds Sey in the GymCastic podcast. “A lot of people don’t want to deal with how bad it feels. Because it’s a lot of work once you sort of go: I’m not quite right. I’m not quite whole. And then you gotta go all the way down to come all the way back up. And sometimes it’s easier to stay in that half-whole part. And I think we all want to defend our best memories.”
Two years after she quit gymnastics, Gabriela Geiculescu had nightmares in which she couldn’t tell her coach that her back hurt and woke up crying. She couldn’t even go by the gym on the bus. Alexandra Marinescu stopped watching gymnastics for 10 years because she would start crying – and says she would give all her medals back for a healthy spine instead. Oana Petrovschi, who now lives in the USA, doesn’t introduce herself as a former gymnast, doesn’t want to enter a gym ever again and no longer watches competitions because every Olympics is a reminder of her failed dream to get there.
“It’s always hard to talk about it,” Emilia Eberle said recently in the Heavy Medals podcast, “because in many ways it’s such a private part of my life that I don’t like to remember. But unfortunately, I do remember many things, which have been haunting me for over 30 years now.”
But not all gymnasts remain traumatized, says Diaconu, because people are resilient. Over time, some have said they consciously choose to only remember the good memories. “Everyone has different memories from gymnastics,” Daniela Silivaș, who won six Olympic medals in 1988, said in an interview for the PressOne website. “I choose to think about the good side of things, of what was positive in my experience.”
“Most of [the details] that I don’t want to remember, I don’t. It’s a Romanian talent,” jokes Nadia Comăneci in The Golden Girl, a documentary about Andreea Răducan, in a discussion about their athletic past. “It’s called selective memory,” adds her husband, former gymnast Bart Conner. “She’s an expert at it.”
Nadia also wrote in her book that people who ask her about the tough methods in gymnastics training want to know about the darkness in a sport that for her was always filled with light.
How to have a conversation about the dark side of a sport we love
Perhaps the connection between an athlete and the coach who helps him overcome his limits, his fear and to win is hard to understand from the outside. Perhaps that is why Nadia wrote in her memoir she would have walked through fire for Károlyi if that had made her a better gymnast or why Andreea Răducan wrote in her own book her coaches were like an extra set of parents.
Life at training camp is like being part of a family. It’s the coaches you talk to when you have a problem or when you get sick, they are there to share your joy when you learn a new element or win a competition or you recover from an injury. They handle your school, your meals, your medication, your birthdays, your Christmas presents. Sometimes, they are the ones who teach you to drive or become godparents to your own children or help you get surgery abroad, things that Bellu and Bitang have done for some of the gymnasts. Károlyi, too, played cards with the gymnasts and cheated to make them laugh, let them tie his hair in ponytails and hugged them at competitions.
After you’ve slapped somebody, the fact that you give them cake reaffirms and validates you even more than the slap, says Diaconu. “It is this alternation of hot and cold, good and bad that creates confusion, surrender, hopelessness, obedience, total submission.”
It is a complicated relationship in which it is hard to tell what is real. How much you are to blame for being yelled at, how much it hurts, how hungry you are, how much more you can endure. How much a coach pushes you because they want to make you better and when do they step over the line into abuse, a line many have said is blurred in elite sport.
But just because it may seem blurred when you are in the gym day after day trying to keep your balance on the beam, from the outside this line should not be blurred. From the outside, the adults – be they federation officials, parents, doctors – should see things clearly and should impose limits, control systems and protection mechanisms. Because abuse, violence, insults, intimidation are not subjective and do not leave room for interpretation. How you perceive them, internalize them, how they influence the rest of your life, this may differ. Your memories of them may differ. The versions of the story may be different, as Nadia says, but the truth is the same.
That is why the collective story we tell ourselves about what went on behind the closed doors of gyms filled with mats, mirrors and magnesium powder where top athletes were made matters. It’s not about “trashing a sport”, like Andreea Răducan said, but about making room for a public conversation about its darker side. It’s about accepting the conflicting emotions we feel when we watch a sport that fascinates but also infuriates us for how hard it is; it’s about giving a voice not only to the gymnasts it made stronger but also to those it shattered, because their stories are just as important.
By enabling a dialogue that encompasses different points of view, anthropologist Michael Jackson writes in The Politics of Storytelling, the act of sharing stories helps us create a world that is more than the sum of its parts. “There is no automatic or magical efficacy in speaking one’s mind unless the institutional framework of a community, a profession, or religion, contextualizes and recognizes the act.”
This is what is missing from Romanian sports, where coaches insist they have done no wrong and throw the blame onto the athletes who speak out; where coaches like Gheorghe Tadici and Florin Bercean, about whom handball players and judokas have said are violent, continue to coach; where a former athlete, now part of a club’s management, told me in an off-the-record discussion that Maria Olaru ruined Romanian gymnastics because coaches no longer have authority.
This is what Marinescu, Petrovschi, Olaru, and Teodoru did not get. Beyond the media scandals, the articles about the camp in Deva and beaten children, the opposing views highlighted on television, the sports community did not accept their experiences and did not discuss them openly. Coaches were not suspended. Neither the gymnastics federation, the Olympic Committee, the ministry of youth and sports, nor us, as a society, took the next step.
“We are learning from our mistakes so we won’t repeat them”
This summer, perhaps because there were no Olympics to dilute the impact of Athlete A, perhaps because the pandemic allowed gymnasts to distance themselves from the sport, to look at it more critically and see that they could take breaks (after a long time of hearing from coaches that they could not), has held a mirror to the international gymnastics community from which it can no longer run.
Apart from investigations and protective measures instituted by higher forums, what Marinescu or Olaru wanted is now happening in some countries: some coaches admit publicly to their mistakes, saying it was the only way they knew to get results, the only way they were taught. There are also different reactions. Svetlana Khorkina, two times Olympic champion and former vice-president of the Russian Gymnastics Federation, said in a Russian interview gymnasts who speak out against abuse are nobodies who seek fame and attention, who don’t understand the path to performance and who could have chosen to leave or to speak sooner.
Sometimes, change may be attempted without a public testimony.
Although she defended her former coaches, when she became president of the gymnastics federation in 2017, Andreea Răducan said she would not tolerate maltreatment in gyms, but also that she would take legal action against false accusations in the media. She also gave gymnasts her phone number and, after the sexual abuse scandal in the USA, she thought about setting up a separate helpline, but the federation lacked the necessary resources.
After failing to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, the second such failure in a row for the Romanian team, Răducan resigned, saying she lacked a team within the federation that would understand her vision and be willing to change. (Among other things, she wanted new coaches for the Olympic teams.)
The new president, Carmencita Constantin, a former rhythmic gymnast and currently manager at General Electric Romania, says the safety of athletes is an important and even urgent issue in her mandate. At the first virtual meeting with the clubs she told coaches that any abuse would be punished, but the federation must first define what is abuse. “Where is the limit and how do I get a child to recognize abuse?” she told me. This will be a job for an ethics committee set up on August 19: to define the concepts and create a methodology to train coaches, who will then be required to sign agreements committing to observe the code of ethics. Any form of physical violence is banned, she says, but emotional violence must be defined clearly because “more sensitive” children can perceive it differently.
“Considering the international context, we need to realize that this approach is part of the sports culture, unfortunately. It’s hard to change a culture and mentalities. But we will do it.”
It is important to learn from past mistakes, says Constantin, who believes there have been private conversations among coaches about the training methods. “We are learning that we have emotionally impacted children and we promise ourselves to stop. To help them no longer feel impacted.”
She also says she wants to listen to gymnasts who speak about their suffering, about what they would have liked to have and lacked, to help the community learn. But she would also like them to talk about what they have gained from gymnastics as well, so the conversation covers all sides. “I wouldn’t want to broach just half the issue. We need to approach it as a whole. Think about 50 years of glory, of generations that created role models. We cannot erase that.”
Even though she disapproves of the work methods of coaches Bellu and Bitang, which she says should have been and will be “adjusted” in the future, Constantin thinks we cannot brush them aside because we have no other coaches of their caliber. “They are titans and we should create this aura around them because any elite sport needs role models.”
Beyond the gymnastics family
An ethics committee – that should not be just for show – is one of the solutions wanted by the former gymnasts, along with psychological testing for coaches, involvement of child protective services or the creation of an independent organization, overseeing federations, with the power to investigate abuse (organizations that exist in other countries). Former gymnasts also propose abolishing centralized training and raising the age limit for senior athletes. “An 18 year-old understands things differently than a 14 year-old child who has no say, who must keep their mouth shut, accept and do what they are told,” says Marinescu. “We need to stop using minors like this.”
It is true that to perform the Tsukahara’s and triple-doubles that bring high scores an athlete needs to practice for a long time, but perhaps a longer career would allow more time for the body to recover and avoid overstraining, reasons that gymnasts believe have caused their serious health issues. (Olaru, too, has a titanium rod in her spine.) It is one thing to practice difficult elements on foam mats, says Marinescu, but the hard surfaces at competitions grind your body differently.
The average age has gone up in recent years. At 44, Oksana Chusovitina qualified for her eighth Olympics. British gymnast Beckie Downie is 28 and wants to compete in Tokyo, and Romania’s Cătălina Ponor competed until the age of 30. At 23, Simone Biles announced she would retire after Tokyo because she can feel her body breaking down.
Although she is an exception, Biles can serve as an example of how an athlete can flourish alongside a coach who is a guide and not an authoritarian. Aimee Boorman, who coached her between the ages of eight and 19, talks about compassion, communication and connection and about raising happy adults who will have an impact in society. When, at 13, she was first selected on the junior national team, Márta Károlyi told Biles she was not good enough, Boorman and the gymnast’s parents decided to decline a second invitation. As punishment, the gymnast was not invited back on the team for a year. When she did return, Boorman did not allow Márta to overwork Biles’ body or to criticize her weight.
“Exploiting your children, as a society, so that someday in the future people will come and applaud them on some arena, I now think this is something that’s deeply wrong. Degrading, even,” said a friend of mine who trained in gymnastics in Onești until she was 11, and who only realized how wrong it is to inflict something like this on a child only after becoming a mother herself.
“We have been talking about some degree of abuse in gymnastics forever,” said journalist Denisa Morariu-Tamaș, co-director of the documentary The Golden Girl that follows Andreea Răducan’s attempts to reclaim the Olympic title she won in Syndney in 2000 and of which she was stripped after testing positive for pseudoephedrine. “And not just in gymnastics. Competing in sports with minors is abusive, to educate a child to do what you want them to do, to make them understand at 10 years old that they have to work nine hours a day, I don’t think that’s easy. And I think that we, as a society, still beat our children. And these people were parental figures to them.”
Morariu-Tamaș felt that the scenes in the documentary showing the coaching methods were perceived by the gymnastics community as digging too deep into its family. “Everyone talks about a gymnastics family, it’s like a caste, as in any sport. They lived there more than they did in their own families. But I realized it’s not about the gymnastics family, it’s about people who are paid by the Romanian government to coach children. I believe what happens there is of public interest.”
It is important to have these conversations also because, depending on our answer and how we choose to look back on how past performances were achieved, we can decide how to look at current results and our expectations from future generations.
And if the answer is that it cannot be done differently, if gymnastics is a sport that is so tormenting, traumatizing and risky that one cannot convince children to practice it with the self-abandonment required to win Olympic medals without resorting to abusive methods, then perhaps we should question its very purpose, the purpose of all the jumps and twists, beyond our entertainment. And who decides if it’s worth it.
“Many see this as a tragedy, that we no longer win medals”
The last gold medal Romania won as a team was European gold in 2014, won in Sofia by Larisa Iordache, Diana Bulimar, Ștefania Stănilă, Andreea Munteanu and Silvia Zarzu. (After that competition, Bellu and Bitang took a step back and coordinated a team of coaches consisting of Lucian Sandu, Lăcrămioara and Cristian Moldovan.)
It was the most beautiful moment in Ștefania Stănilă’s life, as this was her first senior competition. But after a few months, at the World Championships, she made a mistake on the balance beam. The team lost third place and the bronze medal and she felt guilty and lost her self-confidence. Afterwards, at practice “I just froze, I couldn’t unwind while practicing my elements.”
She kept remembering the disappointment and how they would have made the podium if she hadn’t missed. She didn’t know what was wrong with her and the coaches tried to help her “nicely and then not so nicely”. There was never any question of taking a break and the thought of the Olympics, for which she had worked since she was six years old, no longer motivated her. In 2015 she quit and did not compete at the World Championship where Romania failed to qualify for Rio.
Andreea Munteanu, European champion on balance beam in 2015, couldn’t help the team qualify for Rio either. She was part of the team as a reserve, but she had been feeling down for months. She suffered from insomnia and was unable to rest, she cried often and she experienced crippling anxiety in the gym. She had been constantly on alert, competition after competition, and she was feeling psychologically exhausted. She, too, says the coaches tried to help her but not all of them knew how and some “did her more harm than good”. They enhanced her state and shattered her self-confidence even more but she doesn’t want to say any more.
At the 2015 World’s, one of her teammates suffered an injury the day before the competition but Andreea was unable to replace her, no matter how guilty she felt. She was then excluded from the Olympic team and in 2016 she decided to stop, one of the hardest decisions she has had to make.
After the Rio Olympics, Nicolae Forminte returned as team coordinator. The objective was to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics and one of the new hopefuls was Denisa Golgotă, a European Junior champion. At her first senior competition, the 2018 European Championships, she won two medals: silver on floor and bronze on vault. But at the 2019 World’s in Stuttgart, where Romania again failed to qualify for the Olympics, Golgotă made frequent mistakes. The team came in 22, its lowest position ever, and Denisa said on Romanian National Television she had had a terrible year and didn’t think she could compete anymore. She retired this spring.
Lack of confidence, nervousness during competitions, pressure too high to handle and emotional blockages occur in the stories of many gymnasts during the past two Olympic cycles.
During these past years, the media wrote about the failure, the decline, the disaster and the shame that had befallen Romanian gymnastics. Coaches, former gymnasts and officials of the federation spoke about the gymnast’s lack of motivation or value, about not understanding the sacrifices required for elite sports, about how joy is not something you feel every day in training but when you commit and achieve a goal; how they no longer endure pain the way previous generations did, so their training is inconsistent; how they can’t control their emotions and the pressure of competitions so they use injuries as excuses to flee from responsibility.
“There was indeed a lot of pressure because everyone expected this would be the generation that would get Romania back on the podium,” Andreea Răducan told me last summer, a few months before the World Championship in Stuttgart. “Perhaps they have grown afraid and frustrated and were unable to overcome this obstacle. (…) But I also think they didn’t try hard enough to overcome certain obstacles.”
But perhaps the coaches also failed to find a way to communicate with them, now that they can no longer use coercion and control. How is one to compete confidently when training in a gym where one hears “I’m ashamed to have you in the gym! What a bad state Romanian gymnastics is in”, “Stop twisting from the shoulder, you nitwit!” or “You’re staring at me like the idiot you are!”, as The Golden Girl shows Mariana Bitang yelling at gymnasts from the 1998–2000 and also to those who failed to qualify for Rio. Or when one is told they won European gold by accident, like Andreea Munteanu heard from an assistant coach. Or when coach Nicolae Forminte says in an interview for Gazeta Sporturilor newspaper that “when you produce Trabant parts, you can’t assemble them into a Mercedes”.
There is a lack of empathy in the public discourse that is utterly unfair to teenagers who are expected to save a sport whose history they see every day on the walls of gyms, but which has been ailing since before their time – among other things, because of disastrous conditions at clubs, the low number of coaches left in the country, medical and financial shortages.
Bitang and Bellu (who were recently included in an advisory board at the federation) have been saying since 2000 that gymnastics was suffering and there were too few athletes to choose from. In 2014 they started a national project, Țară, țară, vrem campioane (Romania, we want champions!), in partnership with the Romanian Gymnastics Federation and with financial support from oil company OMV Petrom. They went on a national tour and selected 200 girls aged 6 and 7, who relocated to six training centers in the country. Those gymnasts are now nearing junior age, winning international competitions and fans write on social media that they hope to see them on the podium at the 2024 Olympics.
“Many see this as a tragedy, that we no longer win medals,” says Marinescu, who would have wanted to compete in the Olympics without the pressure. In 1996, when the team won bronze, the coaches were upset and told them they were the weakest generation they had coached. “I don’t see the tragedy. It was nice but times change, we’re not a factory, we don’t come out on conveyor belts. It’s not the end of the world, it’s sports.”
Perhaps if we were less distracted by shiny medals for a minute and looked at the past more realistically, we would more easily accept a present in which we no longer qualify and we could try to rebuild a system where the athlete’s body is not just a -tool on the road to the top, a national asset, like Marinescu says: “At the end of the day, who decides what performance means? It’s us, it’s people who decide. It’s not like there are rules from the gods that we must reach and the only way is through beatings and orders.”
The voice of athletes is starting to be heard
For many of us, gymnastics in western countries seemed more humane. British, Dutch, American athletes seemed more relaxed, less tormented, they smiled more. The disclosures in recent years, especially this summer, broke that spell. “I somehow suspected that the pace of training was the same [in America] but I wanted to believe it wasn’t,” says Olaru. “And now this film confirms that nothing had, in fact, changed. It was only better packaged.”
What recent years have shown is that the narrative of violent coaches from the East is not necessarily true. People turn a blind eye when shown results regardless of geography. It is a philosophy of performance at any cost typical of sports, because it is based on an economic circuit, says Diaconu. “Sponsors want to see record-breaking athletes whom they can dress in their jerseys and shoes to advertise. The athlete is often the mascot of huge financial interests.”
Perhaps we, too, have been accomplices. The parents who entrusted their children to coaches to turn them into champions, the doctors who turned a blind eye to their injuries, the federation that did not punish misconduct, and all of us who watch the spectacle without much interest for the broken bones, inflamed tendons, the pain and compromises behind the glitter and the spotlight. After watching The Golden Girl, several fans told the directors they only now realize the complexity of the life of a child practicing an elite sport. Before, all they saw was a 50-second routine that they enjoyed from their couch.
“There is a void of empathy around this absolutely fabulous idea of sports,” says Diaconu. “In terms of entertainment, people were promised they would see the impossible. Just like with horse races, you don’t think about the horses’ health when you’re on the edge of your seat watching what is ultimately a feat of magic happening before your eyes.”
This is the mirage of sports, but it ignores the voice of the very people who make the magic happen.
But this seems to be changing in 2020. The world can no longer turn a blind eye, thinks Marinescu, when more and more girls – not just in gymnastics and not just in sports – find their voice and the courage to speak out about what is happening to them.
And even though in Romania Diana Teodoru was the only one in recent years to speak about what did not work for her in competitive gymnastics, when I asked other former gymnasts from recent generations if they would lead their children down the same career path, they said it was a tough question; that you need to be strong as the parent of a gymnast and they would be very vigilant, involved and close to what happens in the gym.
When I asked whether they would do it all again, they said they would but wished some things were different. For instance, better communication between athletes and coaches. A less tense atmosphere in the gym. So that their voice was heard as well. To be able to tell their coaches that barking orders at them won’t help them perform better. That if they don’t make progress, it doesn’t help to tell them they’re worthless, but to try again the next day even if they stay on the same element.
If you make an athlete leave the gym to punish or humiliate her, that won’t make her love gymnastics more. She will love it when she overcomes her fear and learns a new element, when she feels that the power of her own body makes her fly, when she is at competitions and the audience applauds her for an exercise, whether it’s successful or not. When she wins and feels her work was worth it but she also knows she has value beyond her medals.
That you don’t have to keep a child for months on end at training camps without allowing them to go home on weekends, without letting them see their parents. “Let the child be free,” says Teodoru. “If they really want to pursue this sport, if they really want to achieve what they say, they will come. They will do their best.”
ABOUT THE REPORTING:
In the making of this story, I read books and interviews, watched TV shows, documentaries and listened to podcasts. I interviewed former gymnasts (Alexandra Marinescu, Maria Olaru, Oana Petrovschi, Diana Teodoru, Andreea Munteanu, Gabriela Geiculescu, among others), as well as parents, psychologists, journalists, gymnastics fans, officials of the gymnastics federation. Although I have interviewed them in the past, Mariana Bitang, Octavian Bellu and Andreea Răducan did not respond to my requests to interview them for this story.
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