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LEAP TO THE WEST

Dec. 11, 1989
Dec. 11, 1989

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Dec. 11, 1989

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LEAP TO THE WEST

Nadia Comaneci, Olympic heroine, reached the U.S. after escaping from Romania

By William Oscar Johnson

When Nadia Comaneci finally took refuge in the U.S. last week after defecting from her native Romania, she had survived a prolonged and dangerous ordeal. Could that very wisp of a child who captivated the world with her airborne gymnastics in the Olympic Games of 1976 have been subjected to a life so harrowing that as a grown woman, she chose to flee across an armed border?

This is an article from the Dec. 11, 1989 issue

The land Comaneci, 28, fled is governed by a Communist dictator. President Nikolae Ceauşescu, who combines the brute oppression of Stalin's U.S.S.R. with the maniacal terrorism of Papa Doc Duvalier's Haiti. The border she crossed is among the last in Eastern Europe still barricaded with barbed wire and manned by guards who shoot to kill. Indeed, the very thought of her defection presented an enormous risk. Comaneci had once been the lover of Nicu Ceauşescu, the president's bully of a son, and she was still a favored member of the Ceauşescu court; the slightest whisper that she might be thinking of fleeing would have been embarrassing to the regime, which presumably might have used the country's ubiquitous secret police to keep her in line.

But there she was at JFK airport, rouged and smiling radiantly at the rowdy New York press, a Romanian rara avis—free at last. She spoke in a soft voice, audible only to those near her, and said she had first thought of leaving her homeland "a long time ago—a few years ago—because I like life. I want to have a free life."

Except for the lack of freedom, her life in Bucharest was actually not that bad. As the winner of 21 gold medals in Olympic and world championship competitions between 1976 and '84, and as the recipient of the first perfect 10's in Olympic gymnastics, Comaneci was placed on a pedestal that allowed her to live like a rock star. As one Romanian expatriate in the U.S. put it, "She is the most famous of all Romanians—probably not even Dracula was as famous."

Comaneci lived in an eight-room villa in Bucharest with her mother, her brother and several servants. She owned a dacha, wore expensive jewelry and drove a Dacia (a Romanian-made Renault). The Dacia carried a license plate with just three digits—a status symbol in Romania that allows top party officials, diplomats and secret police to park anywhere, drive at any speed and drink all they want before getting behind the wheel. Thanks to the economic policies of the Ceau‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∫escu regime, Romania is the only country in Europe where malnutrition is actually on the rise. While her countrymen lined up for packages of frozen chicken gizzards, heads and feet, Comaneci was allowed to buy fresh fruit and meat at stores open only to privileged officials.

Comaneci performed at the Montreal Olympics when she was an elfin innocent of 14. Before she was out of her teens, both the elf and her innocence were gone. She grew five inches, gained 20 pounds and experienced the dark side of grown-up love. Especially dark was her relationship with the hard-drinking party animal whom Romanians call the Crown Prince. Nicu Ceau‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∫escu, now 39, first took up with Comaneci around 1979, according to close friends and Romanian journalists who covered her career at the time. The relationship was variously reported to have lasted from one to four years, but it was certainly over when Comaneci for a time became the fiancèe of a national team soccer player named Ion Geolgau, in 1984. According to the West German magazine Der Spiegel, a besotted Nicu appeared at Comaneci's engagement party with a platoon of bodyguards and proceeded to molest her. This led to a bloody brawl between Nicu, Geolgau, Nicu's bodyguards and Geolgau's soccer teammates. This sort of behavior seems to have prevented Nicu from becoming heir apparent to his egomaniacal father, who insists that he be addressed as Hero of Heroes, Titan of Titans or First Personage of the World.

Such was the bizarre leadership that Comaneci escaped. Despite her favored treatment, the idea of defection was not new. As far back as 1977, her original coach, Bela Karolyi, had told her, "Nadia, you have to think maybe sometime you will want to change your place and situation. Always will not be the same as you think it is now." Karolyi himself defected in New York in 1981 during a Romanian team tour, and Comaneci had talked for several years about getting out, too. Jackie Fie, an American judge for international competitions and a trusted acquaintance of Comaneci's said last week, "She used to say to me in the early 1980s, 'Oh, I want to hide in your suitcase and stay.' "

When Comaneci was a guest of honor at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, she was kept under constant secret-police surveillance and was not allowed to talk to Karolyi because the Romanians were convinced she was planning to defect. When she returned to Bucharest, the younger Ceauşescu gave her a brutal scolding, and she told Emilia Eberle, a teammate, "Nicu almost tore my fingernails off." From this remark rose a rumor, in all likelihood untrue, that the Crown Prince tortured her by pulling out a fingernail.

After the L.A. Games, Comaneci was not allowed to travel in the West again. She worked as the coach of gifted child gymnasts for about $20 a month. She was rarely mentioned in the Romanian press. She lived with her boyfriend, a gas station attendant, and according to close friends, was drinking more than was good for her. Without consulting her, the state rejected invitations for Comaneci to attend international meets. The organizing committee of the Seoul Olympics asked her to be an honored guest last year, but the Hero of Heroes said no.

This may have been the turning point. "If she had been given a passport so she could travel freely, she would always have returned to Romania," says Margitta von Moltke, a West German sports equipment entrepreneur who has long been a Comaneci confidante. "When she couldn't travel to Seoul, she started planning to defect."

The plan was apparently masterminded by Konstantin Panit, 38, a Romanian expatriate who has a wife in Hallandale, Fla. Comaneci explained to London's Mail on Sunday that Panit, whom she has known for four years, rented an Audi and on the night of Nov. 27 drove her and six other would-be defectors from Bucharest to a lonely road 10 miles from the Hungarian border. "It was midnight when we started walking through mud and open countryside. We were stumbling. Often we crawled through water and ice," she told the Mail.

Panit crossed the border by car so he could pick them up once they reached Hungary. A friend of Panit's guided them through the night on the Romanian side. They saw no border guards, but they heard watchdogs barking in the distance. After six hours they at last saw the spiked silhouette of a barbed-wire fence against the sky. This was the border, and they passed through an opening in the fence and entered Hungary near the small town of Mezögyan. From there they managed to find Panit and continued their flight to Austria and then the U.S.

Her ordeal was over—at least for now. Monday night, Comaneci arrived in Miami in. the company of Panit and said she intends to settle in South Florida, which she has visited before. The years and the miles have taken their toll on the dark-eyed child of 1976. But whatever she has done since and whatever she might do next, the world was delighted to have her back.

PHOTOFALCO/SIPA PRESSComaneci met with the press upon landing at JFK, then disappeared.PHOTOPETER TURNLEY/BLACK STARComaneci fled the rule of the tyrannical Ceauşescu, the self-styled Titan of Titans.PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERComaneci, 14, became the darling of Montreal by earning the first Olympic 10's.