Gold medal for brutality

Gymnastics prodigy Nadia Comaneci was only six years old when Bela Karolyi spotted her and a friend performing cartwheels in a corner of their school playground in a small town in Romania.

Karolyi, who was training a gymnastics team to earn international acclaim for the vicious communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, famously described going from classroom to classroom until he finally found them.

And in Comaneci, the first gymnast to score a perfect ten in the Olympics (and only 14 when she did it), the stony-faced Karolyi and his equally formidable wife Marta found a superstar and prodigy who matched their determination to win — whatever the cost.

Indeed, Comaneci said she would simply grit her teeth through pain and adversity as a little girl, refusing 'to give people the satisfaction of seeing me cry'. 

Gymnastics prodigy Nadia Comaneci (seen in 1976) was only six years old when Bela Karolyi spotted her and a friend performing cartwheels in Romania

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Gymnastics prodigy Nadia Comaneci (seen in 1976) was only six years old when Bela Karolyi spotted her and a friend performing cartwheels in Romania

She'd even heard, she once said proudly, 'my old coach, Bela Karolyi, say that I was the only young gymnast he could never break.'

Comaneci, who under the Karolyis' tutelage achieved unmatched glory at the 1976 Montreal Olympics when she scored seven perfect tens, has described their relationship as a 'happy triangle'. 

However, a new book claims the relationship was anything but sunny.

According to a newly declassified cache of reports on Karolyi's gymnast training programme, buried in the records of the feared Romanian secret police, the Securitate, Comaneci and other girls were regularly starved, beaten and verbally abused. 

The couple also allegedly stole some of the money they earned in competitions and denied them access to doctors.

Comaneci, easily the most celebrated Romanian of her era, became so crucial to the interests of the state that President Ceausescu was kept regularly informed of her progress.

Nadia Comaneci attends HBO's Official Golden Globe Awards After Party in January 2017

Nadia Comaneci attends HBO's Official Golden Globe Awards After Party in January 2017

In a new book, Nadia And The Securitate, historian Stejarel Olaru says the Securitate used informants and tapped phones to monitor what he called the 'abusive relationship' between Comaneci and Karolyi, who went on to coach the U.S. women's gymnastics team.

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The Securitate had so many people — such as coaches, doctors and gymnastics officials — providing information they could track her every move.

And, says Olaru, even hardened Securitate agents were shocked at the way Karolyi abused the young gymnasts.

Reports talked of the atmosphere of 'terror and brutality' dating back to the late 1960s.

In 1974 — two years before Comaneci's Montreal triumph, an informant wrote: 'The girls were hit until their noses bled and punished through physical exercises to the point of exhaustion.'

The bearish Karolyi habitually insulted the girls, calling them 'fat cows' and 'pigs', and would often deny them medical treatment.

'Starving the gymnasts was a regular practice by the Karolyis,' writes Olaru. 'The girls ate toothpaste at night — this is how hungry they were. 

In some cases they talked about drinking water from the toilet tank.'

Comaneci herself has said how gymnasts cannot afford to put on too much weight and Olaru says some of the Romanian girls suffered from bulimia.

'They became experts in stealing food, which they hid in places they thought no one would discover, like the hem of the curtain,' he says.

In 1977, Comaneci gave an interview to two Romanian journalists in which she confirmed she had been slapped and insulted, deprived of food for up to three days at a time and once lambasted for putting on just ten ounces.

Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci and Bela Karolyi speak in the 1970s

Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci and Bela Karolyi speak in the 1970s

'Too many things have happened... I can't even look at him any more,' she was recorded saying of Karolyi.

The interview was never published — but Olaru found a record of it in the Securitate files. Six months after the Montreal Olympics, at which she was 5 ft tall and weighed 85 lb, Comaneci refused to continue training with him, says the historian. 

Her mother complained to the Romanian gymnastics federation about the star's treatment and asked to speak directly

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