30 September 2023

Nadia's Well-timed Escape, 1989

From Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, by Stejarel Olaru (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 225-226:

Nadia Comăneci never showed any intention to take advantage of a trip abroad in order to defect. It would have been too hard for her to be so far away from family and friends. Sometimes, when she returned from a trip, when her brother Adrian would half-jokingly ask why she hadn’t stayed abroad, she would answer that she felt happier at home, in the kitchen, with her pots and pans, at which everybody would laugh. Although she sometimes fell prey to emotion, she was otherwise highly practical. She refused to believe in foreigners, to allow them to inveigle her into projects that seemed unachievable at first sight. She was optimistic by nature, and only acted after making a thorough examination of the situation in which she found herself. In other words, Nadia was not one to daydream. Consequently, it is all the more obvious that it was the absurd restrictions imposed on her after 1985 that caused her to accept the proposal to flee the country, when the opportunity arose, even if it meant placing her life in danger. All the restrictions in her life convinced her that she should abandon caution and do something that was not in her nature, especially since she knew that if she left Romania, she would never see her family again.

The episode of her escape was rightly regarded as spectacular and captured the imagination of the West, as Le Figaro declared on 1 December 1989: ‘Dramas now come to us from Eastern Europe, rather than from Hollywood. In Romania the plots of films are happening in real life. The former champion escaped the country on Wednesday, after she had once been a heroine of the communist system. Real life beats fiction. Many episodes in Nadia’s life surpass the fictional.’

In the days after her escape, as the Western media debated all kinds of outlandish theories, there was uproar in Bucharest, too, not in the press, but in government cabinets, and the fury was the greatest at the headquarters of the secret police. As is often the case of intelligence services, the Department of State Security’s reputation was often exaggerated. The Nadia Comăneci Case is a good example, revealing as it does Securitate incompetence. Incapable of preventing Nadia’s escape and finding out about it only once it had actually happened, the Securitate was caught by surprise, an embarrassing and blameworthy situation for an intelligence service. Nadia Comăneci’s escape even created a genuine crisis within the Securitate, which was exacerbated from outside the country by massive international coverage of the event and inside the country by the fury of Nicolae Ceauşescu, in despair at having lost the gymnast who had been the country’s ‘best advertisement’, as The Independent aptly put it at the time.

But if the Securitate was incapable of preventing it, when and how did the authorities in Bucharest learn the news that Nadia Comăneci had defected? The information came in the next day, 28 November, at four o’clock in the afternoon. It was received by military counterintelligence officers from Department Four of the Securitate. It was not thanks to their own operational capacities, but sooner an accident – or maybe a deliberate act of defiance on the part of the Hungarians – since they obtained the information from other fugitives who had illegally crossed the frontier the day before and been sent back to the Romanian side surprisingly quickly. Alexandru Cinca, Maria Balea and Maria Ezias, the two women being accompanied by their sons, both minors, had escaped across the border on 27 November and at the Kiszombor border post they had met Nadia Comăneci and the other six members of her group the next morning. Maria Ezias, a Romanian citizen of Hungarian ethnicity, was asked by the Hungarian border guards to translate a part of their discussions with Nadia. Then, at around four o’clock in the afternoon, Alexandru Cinca and Maria Balea and her son had been surrendered to the Romanian authorities, while Maria Ezias and her son had been allowed to remain in Hungary.

28 September 2023

Romanian Delegation to LA Olympics

From Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, by Stejarel Olaru (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 222-223:

Nadia Comăneci’s attendance of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, not as a competitor but as a special guest, was painstakingly negotiated by the Romanian authorities with their U.S. counterparts. Peter Ueberroth, the head of the organising committee, negotiated patiently, but accepted most of the Romanians’ demands in order to persuade them to take part, given that it was boycotted by the Communist countries, headed by the U.S.S.R. It was said that one of the conditions was that any sportspeople who attempted to defect would not be allowed to stay on U.S. soil but sent back to Romania. The Securitate was satisfied to note that Ueberroth showed a ‘receptive and favourable attitude’ and ‘in press conferences, official contacts with the Romanian delegation and in other circumstances, Peter Ueberroth expressed positive opinions of the Romanian S.R. During the press conference held for Nadia Comăneci, Peter Ueberroth interrupted to put Nicolae Munteanu, an editor for Radio Free Europe, in his place when he asked tendentious questions about the political conditions for our country’s presence at the Olympics. At the same time, through his intervention, hostile declarations made by Béla Károlyi about the social-political situation in the Romanian S.R. were prevented from being published in the Los Angeles Times daily.’

Nadia Comăneci remembers that she was shocked when she found out that she would be able to travel to the U.S.A.:

I did not think that the 1984 Olympics would involve me. There was no way I would be allowed to travel to the United States when I wasn’t even allowed to go to Europe. But I received a phone call from a government official saying that I would be part of the Romanian delegation. I remember staring at the phone I held in shock because I couldn’t believe the government was actually going to let me get on a plane! I was assigned a ‘chaperone’ for the trip, but I really didn’t care that I was going to be watched. I was travelling to America, and I planned to eat, shop, and meet as many fun people as possible. For a brief moment, I felt almost free.

In the Romanian delegation to the Los Angeles Olympics, among the sportspeople, trainers, judges, medical personnel and reporters, the Securitate had a network of ninety-eight agents: forty-six informers, forty-five officers with operational missions, and seven officers tasked with maintaining official relations. They were co-ordinated by three officers, under the usual cover of being advisers or sports instructors. Some had the mission of keeping Nadia under constant watch. The ‘chaperone’ referred to by Nadia must have been judge and teacher Elena Firea, who had been recruited as an informer as long ago as 1966, and who accompanied her everywhere. The only room into which she did not manage to follow her was the one where Ronald Reagan received her, welcoming her to Los Angeles.

Fo[u]r years later at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Nadia Comăneci was not part of the delegation. The decision was so aberrant that even the Securitate’s informers were surprised by it. On finding out, ‘Monica’ and ‘Cristian’ made inquiries at the N.C.P.E.S., where they were given the disarming answer that it was ‘an order from above’, while Nadia Comăneci herself said, ‘she was expecting it, she would have liked to have gone to Seoul, but “that’s the situation” ’. The Communist régime was not prepared to risk her defection, and from 1985 she was not allowed to travel abroad except to Communist countries.

26 September 2023

Soviet vs. Romanian Gymnastic Rivalry

From Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, by Stejarel Olaru (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 185-186:

The rivalry between the Romanian and the Soviet schools of gymnastics began in earnest in the mid-1970s. It was to last for decades and proved to be one of the fiercest clashes in the history of sport. It was often lacking in fair play, with some results being decided before tournaments even began, but the gymnasts from the two countries knew nothing of these behind-the-scenes machinations and in every contest, they gave their very best to win on each apparatus. Communist jargon held that the Soviet experiment was the prime factor in developing the creative spirit of the working class. In gymnastics this was by no means an empty slogan. The Soviets were genuine pioneers, bold innovators. In every major competition, the Soviet gymnasts stood out for their acrobatics and exceptional grace. In the decades immediately after the war, the Romanians watched Soviet women’s gymnastics with admiration and tried to learn from it as much as they could during educational trips and exchanges organised as part of the two countries’ bilateral relations. They took part in competitions held in the U.S.S.R. and maintained links with trainers there, not only because they said it was a pride to learn the secrets of the sport from ‘the big brother to the East’, but because the Soviets genuinely were the best.

In 1973, the Romanian Gymnastics Federation took a decision that showed collaboration between the two countries had become closer than ever, hiring Soviet trainer Aleksandr Bogdazarov as manager of the women’s national squad. Bogdazarov was given the task of training the team for the 1974 World Championships in Varna and supervised four groups of Romanian trainers: Ioan Pătru, Gheorghe Condovici, Gheorghe Gorgoi, Atanasia Albu, Norbert Kuhn, and Elena Leuşteanu, alongside whom worked choreographer Géza Pozsár and pianist Carol Stabişevshi. Bogdazarov’s results were not spectacular, but by 1976, the Romanian team had risen two places in the ranking, compared with the 1972 Munich Olympics.

From 1975, the comradely spirit between Romania and the U.S.S.R. began to deteriorate. It was in 1975 that Nadia Comăneci first made an international name for herself, winning the Champions Trophy in London. The Soviets saw that their supremacy was in danger. Mircea Bibire, a gymnastics trainer in Oneşti and a longstanding informer, confessed to a Securitate officer in late April, after returning from a trip to the U.S.S.R., that the young gymnast from Romania had caught the Russians’ attention: ‘On return from the U.S.S.R., prof. Bibire Mircea recounted to me the enormous interest that the Soviet specialists have in gymnast Nadia Comăneci from Gh. Gh. Dej [Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej = Oneşti]. He even found it suspect that they were obsessed with knowing as much about her as possible and he confessed his fear that they might undertake “unsporting” measures against her in question, who threatens their supremacy in women’s gymnastics. He signalled to me that the sanitary assistant who takes care of the gymnast’s food is of Russian ethnicity and he is afraid that they might act via her to ruin the gymnast’s form.’

24 September 2023

New Spy Network for Nadia

From Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, by Stejarel Olaru (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 138-139:

The Securitate adapted to the new situation, deploying a new ‘network to influence, protect and defend gymnast Nadia Comăneci,’ as it is named in the archive documents, and simultaneously conducting surveillance and covert recording. As Géza Pozsár was no longer part of Nadia’s entourage, his reports from the first part of 1978 make only intermittent references to her. As a result, the secret police sought other solutions, and the measures they took starting from December 1977 entailed total monitoring: recording equipment in the gymnasts’ rooms at the 23 August National Sport Hotel, background checks on all the members of the team that had been assembled, talks ‘with a view to softening them up, in order to discover and prevent any action that might injure Nadia Comăneci’, alerting Section 5 of the Militia to provide additional security and protection measures in the area of the sports centre, and the instruction of the ‘three intelligence sources within the team of trainers and medics.’ Although Department One’s report gives us to understand that there were already three informers tasked with monitoring Nadia Comăneci, in reality the number seems to have been higher.

Even if the documents show that the trainers were kept under surveillance, it was also true that they had already collaborated with the secret police, albeit not all to the same extent. In February 1978, Iosif Hidi was an ‘operational connection’. He presented Captain Nicolae Ilie reports that he signed with his real name, followed by his title, ‘I.E.F.S. head’. Gheorghe Condovici was recruited as an informer in 1966 and was given the code name ‘Iosifescu Dragoş’ but in the archives it has not been possible to find any reports he may have written on Nadia, which suggests that for unknown reasons the Securitate did not use him as a source. But Atanasia Albu, alias ‘Monica’, was a secret police collaborator so devoted that the Securitate probably regarded her as more valuable even than Géza Pozsár.

Carmen Dumitru, who was esteemed by gymnasts and trainers alike for the skill with which she practiced as a physician, was an ‘official source’. She was not recruited as an informer by the usual procedure, but when information was required of her, she provided it. A specialist in cardiology and sports medicine, Carmen Dumitru treated members of a number of Romanian national squads, but the Securitate was interested in obtaining from her information about Nadia Comăneci’s evolving state of health in particular. In the same period, the Securitate also drew upon another informed, codenamed ‘Lili’, who was probably a nurse at the sports complex’s medical office, but whose identity remains unknown. From her reports it may be concluded that she was instructed to win Nadia’s confidence, and for a few months, she succeeded. Pianist Corneliu Grigore, who signed his reports under the pseudonym ‘Lazarovici Traian’, was recruited as an informer while doing his military service. Those who knew him describe him as a very good pianist, in love with what he did, a serious-minded and generous man, but overly timorous and lacking in courage. As an informer he filed only sporadic reports on the members of the national squad. As the intelligence machinery still included Nicolae Vieru and Mrs Mili – who continued their careers as informers ‘Vlad’ and ‘Lia Muri’ – the Securitate remained a presence in both Nadia’s professional and personal life.

The freedom Nadia hoped to enjoy in Bucharest was limited, as she was not allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied or without giving her reasons and planned route in advance. Her daily schedule and trips were known in advance by Securitate officers. When she did manage to slip outside the sports complex without permission, the authorities would enter red alert. An army of Militia and Securitate officers would set out in search of her, while top officials from the Party and N.C.P.E.S. went to the 23 August Centre anxiously to wait for the officers to bring her back or for her to return by herself. It was said that in such situations, even the borders were closed, to prevent her being taken out of the country against her will in the event that she had been kidnapped. Nadia lived out her life in the sports complex, which, no matter how comfortable it might have been, was too small and suffocating a world for a curious, developing adolescent.

20 September 2023

Romania's Minority Gymnasts

From Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, by Stejarel Olaru (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 66-67, 69-70:

There was no law forbidding persons from Romania’s ethnic minorities from holding positions of responsibility, but it wasn’t encouraged. From 1952 onwards, Gheorghiu-Dej set about Romanianising the central apparatus of the Party, inspired by the anti-Semitic purges that had taken place in the Soviet Union, but it was Nicolae Ceauşescu who imposed an emphasis on nation and state in the political discourse. By 1975, the nationalist discourse was flourishing, promoted in various forms. The media and cultural outlets saturated the public with works that claimed that Romania was a cradle of civilisation, that the Romanian people had a heroic past stretching from Burebista to the emergence of the Communist Party, a discourse that went hand in hand with a reserved attitude towards minorities, which by now were referred to as ‘foreign elements’ and who were denied any significant part in the country’s history.

Therefore, in 1975, the Securitate was trying to gain a clear picture of the Oneşti staff and to recruit as many of them as possible, and each new informer that joined the network was pressured to write reports on his or her colleagues and the working atmosphere. The following year, by which time the number of agents had increased, and the volume of information had likewise burgeoned in consequence, it was as if the objectives on which the secret police thought they should concentrate also came into clearer focus, and the most important of these proved to be Béla Károlyi.

Although in the meantime he had achieved significant successes and had himself been recruited as an informer, Béla Károlyi became a target of systematic surveillance, for a number of reasons. His collaboration with the Securitate left a lot to be desired and it became increasingly obvious that he was going to be dropped as an agent. The Securitate officers in Oneşti and Bucharest, respectively Vasile Miriţă and Nicolae Ilie, didn’t like him, due to his arrogance and even defiance. Agent ‘Nelu’, who wrote a number of reports about Károlyi during this period, signalled that he was saving up money and intended ultimately not to return to the country from abroad. He informed the Securitate that Károlyi sometimes alluded to the fact that Hungarians were discriminated against in Romania and was in the habit of making tendentious remarks about national leaders. But above all else, he reported that Károlyi was abusive towards the gymnasts he trained.


At the beginning of 1976, the relationship between Károlyi and the Securitate deteriorated further, and he was accused of a number of faults, including ‘a nationalist-chauvinist position.’ ...

During the Montréal Olympics, one of the Securitate officers in the Romanian delegation claimed that Károlyi ‘pressured Romanian judge Liţă Emilia, demanding that she ask the other judges in the uneven parallel bars brigade to award higher marks to a Hungarian gymnast so that she could win the silver medal instead of Teodora Ungureanu. I mention that Károlyi Béla exerted this pressure because he is friendly with the trainer of the Hungarian team, the gymnast in question being his wife. The Romanian judge categorically refused to do so, replying that Teodora Ungureanu was clearly superior to the Hungarian gymnast.’

The Securitate continued to make a great deal of the fact that the Károlyi’s were more Hungarian than Romanian and might even be secretly involved in what it termed ‘hostile actions’. In December 1977, by which time a surveillance file on ‘Katona’ [= Béla] had been opened, a study draw up by Department One stated that during his frequent trips abroad ‘he might be contacted and lured into disloyal actions by reactionary elements hostile to our country. To this can be added the fact that being a citizen of Hungarian nationality the target might be in the sights of hostile elements inside the country, as well as among reactionary Hungarian emigrants.’

Did Béla Károlyi harbour nationalist prejudices? Even if only privately, did he proclaim Hungarian superiority over Romanians? Károlyi was too pragmatic to be a ‘nationalist-chauvinist’, and we believe the Securitate’s accusation to have been ungrounded. Károlyi was enough of an opportunist to favour gymnastic talent regardless of ethnic background, and his preference for working with Hungarian gymnasts and trainers was only natural; any ethnic Romanian in Hungary would have done the same.

However, when the Károlyis later had serious conflicts with the Romanian Gymnastics Federation and frequently claimed they were marginalised because of their Hungarian ethnicity, such a position was also at odds with the truth. Ethnic insults were flung from both sides. During telephone calls recorded by the Securitate, Romanians whose relationship with the Károlyis was tense used to claim that Béla ignored all contrary opinions because he was a bozgor [an ethnic slur for a Hungarian], while in 1976 Béla was recorded stating his agreement with the opinion that ‘it’s still the Hungarians who have to do the Romanians’ jobs for them.’

18 September 2023

Romania's Gymnastic Nest of Spies

From Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, by Stejarel Olaru (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 58-59, 98-99:

At the beginning of the 1970s, when sporting achievement was barely getting underway in Oneşti, the secret police did not find it necessary to make any intelligence checks on the nucleus of teachers, trainers and gymnasts that was beginning to form. They had little reason to do so. The local authorities didn’t even pay very much attention to the disagreements that arose, given that Béla Károlyi was often at odds with the other technicians. It was thought to be only natural, as Károlyi was known to be both ambitious and difficult to get along with. Moreover, in a small town like Oneşti, it would have quickly come to light if the atmosphere within the squad was ‘unjust’, as they used to say.

Many of those who became informers were also members of the Communist Party. For this reason, they weren’t assigned ‘network’ files, as informers’ files were termed. After 1968, there weren’t any files at all on those Party members who collaborated with the secret police, since Nicolae Ceauşescu wanted the Party to control the Securitate, rather than the other way around. Whenever the Securitate was faced with an operational situation in which they needed the collaboration of a Party member, they had to request the permission of the local Party bosses. Once permission was granted, the person in question would assist the Securitate for a limited time period, but without undergoing the usual recruitment procedure and therefore without having a network file opened on him or her. Nevertheless, the names of informers and Communist Party collaborators were recorded in a separate database, which has yet to be located in the archives, and the Securitate officers were referred to in various ways: ‘official person’, ‘official liaison’, ‘operational liaison’, and sometimes ‘official source’ or simply ‘source’.

It should be said from the outset that the most significant informers, recruited not only to carry out comprehensive surveillance in Oneşti, but also to gather information and engage in operations to influence and control Romanian gymnastics, were leading figures in the sport. Maria Simionescu, for example, ‘the first lady of Romanian gymnastics’, was also held in high esteem by the Securitate, proving to be a valuable collaborator under the code name ‘Lia Muri’. Likewise, Nicolae Vieru, the general secretary of the Romanian Gymnastics Federation, in his sober and conscientious style, collaborated with the secret police right up to its final days, in December 1989, hiding behind the code name ‘Vlad’.

In the Securitate documents identified to date there are no details about the period when they became collaborators, how they were recruited, or whether or not they were subjected to pressure or blackmail. But ‘Vlad’ and ‘Lia Muri’ left deep traces. In the voluminous ‘Sport’ dossier their earliest reports and briefing notes date from 1974–75. Incontrovertible proof of their collaboration can be found in their personnel files, in which the officers of Department One record at an unstated date that they are ‘source / 161 NI’, which clearly demonstrates their status.

Nevertheless, thanks to Securitate officer Nicolae Ilie, who for many years was her liaison and sometimes annotated her reports, we know that in November 1974 Mili Simionescu was already a ’trustworthy person’ and had undergone a fresh recruitment process. At the time, Ilie noted, ‘Simionescu Maria is a Party member. She was the informer to our organs and was let go in 1973, when she became a p.m. [Party member] (…) Permission from the Party organs will be requested to use the aforementioned Simionescu Maria as a source to inform the Securitate organs.’ In February 1975, Ilie made a further note, at the end of one of his agent’s reports: ‘permission has been sought from the Party organs to make use of her,’ and by March she was a ‘candidate’. After which, she became a ‘source’.

As far as Nicolae Vieru is concerned, he seems to have broached his collaboration with the Securitate more cautiously, at least in the initial phase. It was only later, in the 1980s, that he agreed to a code name and ‘source’ status, as his first reports are signed in his own name and presented as professional documents. Undoubtedly, his recruitment to the network of informers was a major success, since Vieru, after his appointment as secretary general of the federation, became one of the most influential people in the sport, contributing to every major decision regulating gymnastics and lives of gymnasts and their trainers until the mid-2000s. Those who knew him sustain even today that his achievements were remarkable. The Securitate sometimes noted in their reports that he had ‘ascendency’, by which was meant he enjoyed authority and influence, that he was esteemed or feared by his colleagues, an assessment that was wholly accurate. If we look at Romanian gymnastics as one big family, then it might be said that Vieru was the paterfamilias, even if he was subordinate to a number of people with political backing who served in the management of the federation or on the National Council for Physical Education and Sport up until 1989. He was also influential internationally, not only because he was a member of the Executive Committee of the International Gymnastics Federation and deputy chairman of the organisation over the course of a number of mandates, but also, above all, because he managed to develop a significant circle of relations and because he had a good reputation with foreign partners, be they sportsmen, trainers, journalists, or businessmen representing global concerns.


After the team’s glorious homecoming from Montréal, the Securitate intensified its surveillance measures, with Nadia becoming a top priority. The secret police drew up a family tree, identifying her parents’ relatives in order to examine their backgrounds, the family telephone was bugged, and friends of the family were also thoroughly checked. In the archive documents can even be found a diabolical plan on the part of the Bacău Securitate, mooted in November 1977, to monitor the relationship between Nadia Comăneci and Teodora Ungureanu: the Oneşti Securitate was ordered to recruit informers not only among the lycée’s teaching staff, but also among the gymnasts’ classmates, who were minors, aged just sixteen: ‘categorise and study the girls in the class in question, and select from among them those appropriate for inclusion in the network.’ While Béla and Marta Károlyi were under surveillance because they were deemed disloyal to Romania and abusive in their relationship with the gymnasts they trained, Nadia Comăneci and her parents were monitored to protect them from Károlyi’s actions and to prevent any reactions on their part that might have damaged the image of the Communist régime.

In the second half of 1976 Nadia Comăneci and Teodora Ungureanu began to make it more and more obvious that they wished to break off their relationship with their coaches. But Károlyi made no concessions to them as a means of defusing the situation. At the seaside, where he had obtained official permission to take the gymnasts on a short holiday, Károlyi tried to stamp out what ‘Nelu’ claims he viewed as a ‘star-like attitude’ and subjected the girls to the usual spartan schedule: ‘Very little food and limited physical training. (…) Gabor refused to follow this regimen and was kicked out of the team. The source found on the pupil a notebook in which she complained about the highly strict working regimen and in which she described the insulting words that Béla Károlyi addressed to the gymnasts before the Olympics, as well as the unkept promise to give them two weeks off after Montréal.’

Because she had been keeping a diary recording his abuses and encouraged the other girls to insubordination, Károlyi had Georgeta Gabor removed from the squad. He did so in a dishonourable manner, claiming not only that she ‘instigated the girls not to work’ – making Nadia and Teodora give written statements in support of this – but also that ‘she admired those who left the country’ and ‘provided no moral guarantees regarding her behaviour abroad,’ which was hard to imagine in a fifteen-year-old who had spent almost all her life in a gym. For this reason, Gabor was placed in the situation of having to discuss the matter with a Militia officer but the Securitate knew the truth, as is apparent from a report filed by the Bacău County Inspectorate on 22 October 1976: ‘from investigations it transpired that the real reason was the discovery by Béla Károlyi of notebooks in which Gabor wrote down her impressions of daily training sessions and the position of the two trainers.’

Nadia kept a similar diary.

I don't think I've ever read a biographical work so heavily dependent on secret police reports. It makes me wish I could see the Securitate reports about my Fulbright research year in Romania in 1983-84. I wonder what my code name was. I know we were watched very closely. So were my Chinese and East German classmates.

17 September 2023

Cold War Gymnastics

From Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, by Stejarel Olaru (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 46-48:

More than two decades later, in 2001, Nellie Kim was to recall the Montréal Games and her clash with Nadia Comăneci in an interview with Jean-Christophe Klotz, the presenter of Les Grands Duels du Sport on the Franco-German Arte channel. Even after so many years the disappointment Kim had felt at the time obviously still rankled when she said that while Nadia was a great gymnast and almost perfect, she was by no means superior to anybody in the Soviet team. ‘I can’t say that she was better than we were. Her routines were as difficult as those of Turishcheva, Korbut and myself. On a few apparatuses she was better than Turishcheva and Korbut, but on others, not quite. But the press turned her into the “goddess of gymnastics”,’ she said, suggesting that it was not so much Nadia’s performance that had counted, but the influence of Western journalists, who deliberately exaggerated her prowess.

Kim’s opinion is only partly justified. Given that the Cold War was still at its height, Western journalists must have felt a bias towards anybody able to rock the myth of Soviet sporting invincibility. This had been the case of Olympic, World and European champion Věra Čáslavská, who at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics was done an injustice by the judges: the Czechoslovak gymnast had been forced to share the top of the podium with Larisa Petrik of the U.S.S.R. and had bowed her head and turned it to the right when the Soviet national anthem was played. Čáslavská was protesting not at the unfairness of the scoring to which she had fallen victim during the competition, but at the fact that her country had fallen victim to an invasion by the Soviet army just weeks before.

And the Western journalists loved her for it. But four years later, they also fell in love with little Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut at the Munich Olympics, recognising even then the decisive rôle she was to play in gymnastics. They dubbed her ‘the darling of Munich’, so captivating was her performance, which gives us to believe that regardless of political circumstances or personal sympathies, the international press was still able to preserve its objectivity in the face of obvious talent.

By the time of the 1976 Montréal Olympics, Romania had indeed gained its own separate image internationally, as Czechoslovakia had in 1968. The country was part of the Communist bloc, but a number of past political gestures on the part of Nicolae Ceauşescu had created the impression that Romania distanced itself from and sometimes even defied Moscow, an impression that was also bolstered by Bucharest’s closer and closer ties with Washington and other Western capitals. Which is why the sympathy towards Nadia Comăneci on the part of both press and public could be viewed as all the more genuine.

But political circumstances could have no influence on how Nadia’s performance was judged, where technique and artistic elements that were all that counted, and journalists could not award points in place of the judges. It was the fullness of Nadia’s performance that was her secret, and it distinguished her from the Soviets, as Cathy Rigby remarked in her commentary for ABC: ‘Oh look at that amplitude!’ Nadia controlled her body in a way that stood out, without any tremor to betray hesitation, and with the ambition to control her balance to the utmost degree. She was fast, but at the same time elegant and certain, which made some of her movements seem unreal. The elements in the routines that won her scores of ten were achieved with flawless poise, seamlessly combined, in a style that Nadia was to make uniquely her own.

The International Gymnastics Federation’s scoring code for the uneven parallel bars now includes the Comăneci Salto and Comăneci Dismount, named after the moves Nadia pioneered at Montréal. In the first, ‘the gymnast begins in a support position on the high bar. She casts away from the bar and performs a straddled front somersault and regrasps the same bar’ – an element deemed to be of an extremely high level of difficulty. In the second, the ‘gymnast begins in a handstand on the high bar and then pikes her feet onto the bar and does a sole circle swing around the bar. She then releases the bar first with her feet and then with her hands as she performs a half-twist immediately into a back somersault dismount.’ Such moves are only a few of those that were to inspire future generations of gymnasts, leading them to tackle elements of increasing complexity and even risk. In Munich in 1972, Olga Korbut had done the same thing. Likewise, Japanese gymnast Mitsuo Tsukahara revolutionised gymnastics with the spectacular vault that now bears his name. To this day, each generation of gymnasts takes inspiration from the daring of their predecessors.

The impact around the world of Nadia Comăneci’s achievements at Montréal was remarkable. The popularity of the sport suddenly increased, and Nadia became an inspiration not only for younger gymnasts and even those of her generation, but also for countless little girls who dreamed of becoming like her. Some of those little girls went on to become champions, such as Mary Lou Retton, who watched Nadia at Montréal on television and was electrified by her refinement and natural grace.

16 September 2023

Who First Discovered Nadia Comaneci?

From Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, by Stejarel Olaru (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 29-30:

On 30 September 1976, after Miriţă and his colleagues finished their investigation, the head of the Securitate from Bacău and the heads of Department One of the Securitate in Bucharest received the report from Oneşti, from which, for the time being, we shall quote only the conclusions as to who discovered Nadia Comăneci and when, since the document stretches for eleven pages and includes ‘a number of unusual aspects’ relating to the lives and professional careers of the Károlyis:

We report the following:

In 1965, in Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej Municipality, under the supervision of teacher-trainer Duncan Marcel, a female gymnastics sports nucleus came into being, which operated within the Flame Sporting Association. Subsequently, at the beginning of 1966, gymnast Nadia Comăneci was selected by Duncan.

In the same period, husband and wife Maria and Gheorghe Simionescu, specialist teachers, were assigned to the Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej Municipality, who together with teacher Duncan Marcel made their contribution to training and laying the foundations of competition gymnastics.

The first competition gymnastics group began its activity in 1968 at the Flame Sporting Association, female gymnastics section, run by trainer Duncan Marcel until 1969, of which, among others, Nadia Comăneci and Georgeta Gabor were part.

Husband and wife Marta and Béla Károlyi were assigned to the Gheorghe Gheorghe-Dej Municipality during the course of 1968, respectively to the General Culture Lycée No. 1 and the Sports School.

In 1969, when the Female Gymnastics Lycée was established, teacher Marta Károlyi was selected and assigned to this school, where she took over the small group that had been trained by Duncan Marcel, and together with teacher Munteanu Valerică from Bucharest they worked with the group until 1972.

In 1972, when teacher Munteanu Valerică was recalled to the Romanian Gymnastics Federation, Károlyi Béla was appointed to replace him, having theretofore worked in the handball department of the local sports school. This competition gymnastics group, whose members included Nadia Comăneci, Teodora Ungureanu, Gabor Georgeta and others, was taken over with a view to continuation of training by the Károlyis under the supervision of federal gymnastics trainer Maria Simionescu and her husband Gheorghe Simionescu, who at the time was director of the lycée. This group, which included the best gymnasts, took part in national and international competitions, including the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Canada.

Duncan Marcel operated within the Municipality until 1969, when he left with his whole family, initially going to Galaţi, and at present he is in Israel (legal emigrant).

Husband and wife Maria and Gheorghe Simionescu are at present in Bucharest, the first a federal trainer and international gymnastics referee, and the second a gymnastics teacher at a lycée in Bucharest. Munteanu Valerică is also in Bucharest, teaching at a sports school.

15 September 2023

Building Romania's New Gymnastic Training Camp

From Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, by Stejarel Olaru (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 21-22:

Taking inspiration from the methods of Soviet gymnastics, which at the time dominated the sport internationally, Maria Simionescu understood that a handful of trainers and just a few girls who loved gymnastics were not enough to win medals. What was needed was a new vision, as well as a team of devoted trainers, each of them specialising in a separate apparatus and willing constantly to better their achievements; a large number of gifted gymnasts, selected at an early age and enrolled in an intensive training programme; doctors; psychologists; physiotherapists; choreographers; musicians. In other words, an entire human infrastructure. But this was impossible to create without the physical infrastructure of a modern sports hall and a school to provide the young gymnasts with all the educational comfort they needed, without their parents feeling they had abandoned them far from home. It was a two-track enterprise. Trainers would be lured with the promise that the project would be up and running within the shortest possible time, while the investors would be eager to complete it in the shortest possible time given the great expectations of all those with a stake in its success.

With the support of Valerian Ghineţ, the town’s mayor, and Andrei Erdely, the director of the Oneşti Industrial Constructions Trust, work on the gymnastics facility was completed at the end of 1967 and it was inaugurated in 1968. A year later, in September 1969, the Physical Education Lycée opened its doors. The school’s first headmaster was Gheorghe Simionescu, Mrs Mili’s husband. Mayor Ghineţ, who was also head of the local branch of the Romanian Communist Party, continued to be generous and allocated twenty-six one-room flats for gymnasts and five flats for the trainers who had settled in the town. The town council also provided the trainers with medical services – the gym had been built in the centre of town, next to the hospital – and meal tickets at the town’s best restaurant, where they had a room set aside specially for them, as well as other perks significant for the time. In Oneşti [renamed Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej from 1965 to 1990], a small town which, at the beginning of the 1950s, had only one P.E. teacher, Romania’s first experimental gymnastics school began its work in earnest. The rudimentary huts located in the town’s industrial district where the young gymnasts had once practised were now a thing of the past.

In the meantime, changes had taken place in Bucharest which had a positive influence on the development of the new sports centre in Oneşti. In July 1967 a national sports conference was held. It was decided that the Union of Physical Education and Sport should be replaced by a newly founded National Council for Physical Education and Sport, which was the nationwide body supervising development in the sector. At the same time, general meetings of all the federations were held and they adopted new statutes and, above all, new managers. Elena Poparad was elected chairwoman of the Romanian Gymnastics Federation, and Nicolae Vieru secretary general.

The political context was also changing at the time, including the aberrant propagandistic discourse that had surrounded sport. In the 1950s, at the beginning of the Cold War, the drive to develop sport for the masses was extolled, as well as the exceptional merits and superiority of athletes from the Communist bloc. The new sport, which followed Soviet training methods, was treated as infallible, based as it was on Marxist-Leninist doctrine, and it was polyvalent, simultaneously constructing socialism and fighting for peace and friendship between nations – sport and peace were inseparable notions, since only if there was world peace could sports competitions be held. On the other side of the sporting Iron Curtain were ‘imperialist’ athletes, trained to become ‘cannon fodder’ for the West’s armies. In the eyes of the Communist bloc, Western athletes were either opportunists out for their own personal gain, or they were ruthlessly exploited by their countries’ capitalist régimes.

In Romania, Communist propaganda was to use sport as a weapon in the decades that followed, particularly after notable sporting achievements started to be made in the 1960s. But the discourse also become more nuanced. Taking advantage of sporting achievements, the régime was able to promote itself both domestically and internationally, claiming that such successes were based on a new type of thinking developed by Romania’s communist system. Soviet sport was now no longer a model to be copied, but part of the competition.

As part of this wave of changes, the Oneşti centre acquired greater importance, but continued to be viewed with reserve from Bucharest, sooner as a one-off experiment. The experiment might be a success, but what if it failed? Who would take the responsibility? Moreover, there were already other clubs – some of them with a long tradition – which laid claim to gymnastics, such as Dinamo Bucharest. Dinamo was Romania’s strongest club, since it was part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which meant its athletes had the privilege of being able to compete internationally. The heads of gymnastics in Bucharest therefore deemed a degree of caution appropriate, allowing the local authorities in Oneşti the satisfaction of providing the Flame club a large amount of support, as well as responsibility to match.

09 September 2023

Roles of English Print Media in 1640s

From The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689, by Jonathan Healey (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 144-146:

The Protestation Oath [of allegiance to the King and Church of England] had now been printed and was being circulated around the country, and people in their thousands were swearing to it. Tonnage and Poundage [import/export duties] was soon abolished. So, too, was Star Chamber, the Councils of Wales and North, and the hated [ecclesiastical] court of High Commission. In the summer, Ship Money would be annulled, and knighthood fines declared illegal. Step by step, the apparatus of Charles’s Personal Rule was being picked apart.

Pamphlets were streaming off the presses, as an excited and literate capital tried to make sense of what had been happening down the road at Westminster. There are just over 600 surviving titles per year for the 1630s, and this figure had risen slightly, to 848 for 1640. In 1641, there are 2,042. It was an astonishing explosion of print. Henry Burton, who had experienced brutal censorship first-hand, recalled how ‘many mouths were stopped, many shut up’, but ‘Parliament hath opened their mouths…it has opened the prisons.’ Or, in the lavishly biblical allusion of another Puritan author, ‘the stone that made the stoppage of the well of Haran is now removed and the flocks of Laban may drink freely’. The works of Prynne, Burton, Leighton were now freely available.

Print helped bring a great flowering of new religious groups especially in and around London. In July, the Venetian ambassador reported drily that there seemed ‘as many religions as there were persons’. Even in the Parliamentary pulpit at St Margaret’s, in the small church under Westminster Abbey, radicals told of tearing down Babylon, building up Zion and the planting of a new heaven and a new earth. That summer, Burton declared that the Church of England had become anti-Christian, and advocated the creation of independent congregations, in which people gathered with no direction from above, to worship together as they pleased. Sometimes, so the reports went, groups met on the dark peripheries of the capital: Hackney Marsh and the hills around Hampstead and Highgate. Other congregations gathered in suburban houses, and by the end of the year there was even one led by the radical leather-seller Praisegod Barebone that met in his house on the Strand.

Religious enthusiasts from humble backgrounds, so-called ‘mechanic’ preachers, were giving sermons in public. One of Henry Burton’s followers, Katherine Chidley, scandalised readers by arguing that true ministers could be ‘tailors, felt-makers, button-makers, tent-makers, shepherds or ploughmen’. The press made the most of it all, and in the journalists’ insatiable desire for sensation, they contributed to a wider sense that old certainties were collapsing. While many stories about weird and worrisome radicals were undoubtedly written for laughs, more nervous readers still trembled at the lurid horror. There were reports of naked Adamites, of Anabaptists and Brownists, even Muslims and ‘Bacchanalian’ pagans, not to mention those worshipping the planetary deities of Saturn and Jupiter. One tract laughed at a mechanic preacher who spoke ‘like a Lancashire bagpipe’ so (fortunately) ‘the people could scarce understand any word’. Another delighted and horrified its readers in equal measure with its cast of concocted female radicals: ‘Agnes Anabaptist, Kate Catabaptist, Frank [< Frances] Footbaptist, Penelope Punk, Merald Makebate, Ruth Rakehell, Tabitha Tattle, Pru Prattle, and that poor silly, simple, senseless, sinless, shameless, naked wretch, Alice the Adamite’.

07 September 2023

Parliament Challenges Charles I

From The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689, by Jonathan Healey (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 131-132:

Charles’s military preparations stopped. If he had been planning a coup against Parliament, then it had been outflanked. With his chief adviser under guard, the king was drastically weakened.

Now that [Thomas Wentworth, Earl of] Strafford was out of the way, and on the 25th had been moved to the Tower through a jeering crowd, Parliament could turn to business. Top of the agenda was the staging of huge public rehabilitations for those who had suffered during the king’s Personal Rule.

On the 16th, Bishop John Williams was released from the Tower by the Lords. Even before that, after an emotional speech by a rather scruffy East Anglian MP called Oliver Cromwell, orders had been made for the release of Alexander Leighton and a spirited young polemicist named John Lilburne – imprisoned in 1638 for importing ‘scandalous’ books from the Netherlands. The biggest celebration, though, came on the 28th, when – on a crisp sunny Saturday – Henry Burton and William Prynne returned from imprisonment to the capital. Church bells chimed amid a chorus of cheers as the men processed slowly through town. There were so many followers, throwing flowers and herbs from their gardens, that it took the procession a reported three hours to pass Charing Cross.

Now, as winter approached, the work of unpicking Charles’s government could begin. ‘[T]here was never, I dare say, so busy a time in England,’ wrote one correspondent. Soon, though, Londoners staged a stunning intervention which threatened to disturb the whole project. On 11 December, braving the icy cold, a delegation of some 1,500 citizens crowded into Westminster Hall bringing with them a printed petition, signed by 10,000. It blamed the bishops for everything from problems in the cloth industry, to ‘whoredoms and adulteries’, to the ‘swarming of lascivious, idle and unprofitable books’. It asked not just for reform of religious abuses, but that the episcopacy itself be abolished, ‘with all its dependencies, roots and branches’. Here was the potential for a complete radicalisation of the reform agenda. More to the point, the sight of so many ordinary Londoners, petitioning publicly for the uprooting of the ecclesiastical order was staggering.

For now, Parliament carried on, confining itself to attacking the worst excesses of Archbishop Laud. Just five days after the London petition, the Canons of 1640 were declared illegal; Laud himself was impeached two days after that, and detained. The most far-reaching proposal in Parliament, though, was not a religious one. It came in the last week of December when, on Christmas Eve, the Devonian MP William Strode introduced a bill mandating annual Parliaments: if passed, it would ensure Parliament’s permanent sitting. The gauntlet had been thrown.

04 September 2023

How Charles I Alienated Scotland

From The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689, by Jonathan Healey (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 109-110:

By 1637 the outcry over the Book of Sports had calmed. In fact, that year had started with a victory for Charles. In February he had written to his 12 judges of the Common Law to shore up the legal case behind Ship Money. He asked two questions, clearly expecting a positive answer. The first question was whether, when the ‘good and safety of the kingdom’ required it, could he demand ships from his people. The second was whether it was he, as king, who was to decide what constituted a threat to that ‘good and safety’. Two of the judges were uncertain, but eventually all 12 fell behind the king and gave him the answer he wanted.

But then, in spring, the government committed a needless and damaging blunder. It was decided to make an example of three of the most clamorous Puritan writers. One was William Prynne, whose confinement in the Tower had done nothing to stall his literary career. The other two were the physician John Bastwick and Henry Burton, former clerk of the closet to Princes Henry and Charles, now a radical and thoroughly disgruntled Puritan. In early 1637, they were tried before Star Chamber for seditious libel and sentenced to pillorying, whipping and having their ears – in Prynne’s case the remaining parts of his ears – cut off. The three were then to be detained in far-flung corners of the realm: Jersey (Prynne), the Isles of Scilly (Bastwick) and Lancaster (Burton). The punishments were harsh, and their infliction on members of the social elite particularly offensive. More to the point, the men behaved like martyrs. Three times, shocked crowds watched as the blood poured down from the pillory, and the victims were cheered and garlanded as they progressed to their places of imprisonment. Far from instilling fear and respect, the government had managed to make themselves look like vicious tyrants.

What brought the king’s peace to a juddering halt, though, was not the prosecution of Prynne, Burton and Bastwick, but events in Scotland. Charles was born a Scot, but he’d left as a toddler and was seen there as thoroughly Anglicised. He didn’t help his reputation much in 1625 when he pushed a radical plan, known as the ‘Revocation’, to reclaim all lands granted by the Scottish crown since 1540, plus any properties owned by the pre-Reformation Kirk. It was a serious threat to the Scottish nobility, who had been the main beneficiaries of the land transfers, although the following year it was announced that they’d at least be adequately compensated. Charles had then waited nearly eight years before coming to Scotland to be crowned as their king, and when he did so – in 1633 – it had been a disaster. The Scottish Kirk maintained a much stronger Presbyterian tradition than the Church of England. In 1618, James had pushed back against this, bolstering the power of the Scottish bishops and trying to enforce such traditional practices as kneeling at communion and the celebration of Christmas and Easter. Charles wanted to go further. He wanted to draw Scotland closer to conformity with England and its now increasingly ceremonialist Church. It was a project that quickly provoked serious disquiet.

02 September 2023

Forcing English Church Decorum, 1630s

From The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689, by Jonathan Healey (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 103-104:

[T]he most significant of [King] Charles [I]’s campaigns to bring order to his English realm was in the field of religion. Charles was personally devout, but religion was also intertwined with his wider project for social order. Charles wanted ‘peace and quiet’ in his Church just as he did in society as a whole. He wanted a ministry that was ‘peaceable, orderly, and conformable’, and subjects who would ‘demean themselves with all Christian reverence and devout obedience’. He didn’t want debate. Predestination, in particular, shouldn’t be ‘meddled withal’, since it was ‘too high for the people’s understanding’. His own preference was for a rich liturgy, with strong emphasis on the ‘beauty of holiness’ so beloved of the ceremonialists. Critically, these were not to be days of latitude. Direction from the top, from the king, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the rest of the episcopacy, were to be followed. The Book of Common Prayer and the canons of 1604 were to be enforced in full. Parishioners would stand for the Creed and the Gloria Patri, kneel at the sacrament and bow at the name of Jesus. Those who, like Londoner and aspiring poet John Milton, preferred a ‘homely and yeomanly religion’ without a ‘deluge of ceremonies’, were deeply worried.

Charles promoted ceremonialists and Arminians. By the middle of the 1630s, Charles had created what was effectively an anti-Calvinist church establishment, particularly among his bishops, and not least when Richard Neile became Archbishop of York in 1631 and William Laud, finally, was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 on the death of Abbot. The losers were men like John Williams, the Calvinist Bishop of Lincoln and sometime Lord Keeper. He fell out with Laud, was pursued in the courts and found himself fined by Star Chamber and imprisoned in the Tower.

The Church itself was suffering under long-standing economic problems, partly caused by inflation. Most visible were its crumbling buildings: indeed, much of Charles’s campaign for the beauty of holiness was really about stamping out the ugliness of neglect. The great London cathedral of St Paul’s was a case in point. Its spire had fallen down after a fire in 1561, and it was so overgrown with stalls and hawkers that it resembled a marketplace as much as a house of God. So unlike a church was it that one old Warwickshire farmer who was visiting London accidentally (‘in a beastly manner’) defiled St Paul’s ‘with his excrements’. He claimed that he did this ‘merely through ignorance & necessity being not able to go any further through his weakness & age’, and he found his explanation was accepted and was let off with a fine.

Charles and Laud’s aim was to bring back order and dignity to the Church. It was a programme that had real rationale, though some ministers took it to extremes, such as an Essex vicar who refused communion to menstruating women or those who had had sex the previous night, all in the name of decorum.