Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Romania: 'Golden Girls' Myth Shattered

Female gymnasts were persecuted to promote the country's communist image.
By Marian Chiriac

Most Romanians were bewildered by President Ion Iliescu's decision last week to bestow a medal on Gymnastics Federation official Nicolae Vieru for outstanding service to Romanian sport over the last three decades.


Memories remain strong of the scandal in which Vieru, 70, was accused of faking the passports of four girl gymnasts so they could take part in events for which they were too young.


It was all part of the pattern of disclosures that Romania's "Golden Girls", whose gymnastic successes was hailed as a measure of the country's superiority, had in reality been beaten, starved and bullied into making ever greater efforts to achieve victory in international events.


Women gymnasts were seen as legendary in Romania. The late president, Nicolae Ceausescu, cited their victories in five World Championships and in Olympic events, as proof that his communist regime surpassed all others.


In reality, the gymnastic teams were short of cash and lacked special food and hi-tech equipment. Although former trainers have denied it, they are said to have routinely beaten girls to push them to achieve more and starved them to reduce their weight.


An article by Mihai Paul in the daily Pro Sport said, "Our so-called golden girls are seen as a symbol of Romania's strength as a nation, a metaphor for its collective aims. The reality is dramatically different. Gymnastics was developed during the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu as part of the official propaganda to demonstrate the superiority of communism."


The article said gymnastic success was achieved by depriving young girls of their childhood. At the age of six they were taken away to live, work, eat and sleep in special schools. They usually trained for seven hours a day, or 42 hours a week. International Gymnastics Committee rules permit only 30 hours of training a week.


Training methods were often brutal. In 1992 a coach was jailed for eight years after hurling an 11-year-old girl to the ground when she made a mistake. The girl broke her neck and died two days later.


"If I had a daughter I wouldn't let it happen," said Maria Vladu, a former swimmer-turned-engineer. "In other sports they start at 14 years, so they stay with their parents for their early years."


The trainers insist no cruelty was involved. "Nobody is pushed into it," said national team trainer Octavian Belu, a stickler for discipline. "On the other hand, gymnastics means hard work and spending a lot of time in preparation."


Despite the harsh methods, parents eager to escape lives of poverty pushed their daughters into gymnastic centers during the 1980s. Their ambition was for their girls to emulate Nadia Comaneci, the star who amazed the world when she achieved her famous "perfect ten" at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.


But Comaneci's life was far from happy. Shortly before the 1989 revolution, she fled from Romania to escape alleged harassment from Ceausescu's youngest son. She returns occasionally but never speaks of her past.


Other ex-gymnasts, however, are eager to break the silence. "I was forced to add one year to my age to compete in a world competition. I thought it was strange but I had to obey," said Alexandra Marinescu, a bronze medallist in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In recent years, the Gymnastics Federation has twice raised the minimum age to compete in senior level contests to protect child athletes from injuries.


Back problems forced Marinescu to quit gymnastics in 1997 and she has undergone three spine operations. "I must speak the truth to protect other young gymnasts from being sacrificed for sport," she said.


Marian Chiriac is a Bucharest-based journalist.