November 19, 2008

The Karolyi Scandal: A Few Contributions by Adrian Goreac, Ecaterina Szabo and Rodica Dunca

While we were busy following the Brazilian scandal, another scandal made headlines elsewhere. As we're sure you've read by now (if not, check out Gymblog), former Romanian national team member Emilia Eberle (a contemporary of Nadia Comaneci's, now known as Trudi Kollar) has denounced Bela Karolyi, accusing him of very harsh treatment indeed. She's not the first former Romanian gymnast to speak out on Karolyi's brutish ways; earlier, Rodica Dunca, Melita Ruhn and Ecaterina Szabo gave interviews in which they mentioned being starved, slapped, beaten up or otherwise abused by Karolyi, and last year even Adrian Goreac, Karolyi's successor as Romania's head coach, indicated that all was not well in Deva when Karolyi ruled there (more on that below). What's different now is that Geza Pozsar, the former Romanian team choreographer and probably Bela Karolyi's closest collaborator (other than his wife Martha), has confirmed Eberle's story, and added a few convincing details of his own. Moreover, the stories have been picked up by the American media, which could lead to an interesting situation. Will this be the end of the Karolyis' career in American gymnastics? Somehow we doubt it. U.S.A.G. has stood by the Karolyis too long. The organization would bring itself into disrepute by launching an investigation into them.

Bela and Martha Karolyi (photo:

As far as we're concerned, it should be the end of the Karolyis, though. We've been hearing for years about their brutal training methods, both from Romanian gymnasts and (to some extent) from American gymnasts. The reports were quite consistent, and consistently awful. Based on those reports, we don't think people like the Karolyis should be put in charge of children, much less be revered for the way they treat those children. So we're going to present you with a few choice quotes about the Karolyis from three people who worked with them in Romania and were brave enough to speak up: Adrian Goreac, Rodica Dunca, and Ecaterina Szabo. To back up the Eberle and Pozsar stories, so to speak.

Firstly, let's hear from Adrian Goreac, the man who took over from the Karolyis when they defected to America. Under Goreac, the Romanian team blossomed. It was the era of Ecaterina Szabo, Lavinia Agache, Daniela Silivas, Aurelia Dobre, and Gabriela Potorac - the Golden Age of Romanian gymnastics, or so many fans believe.

In December 2007, Adrian Goreac (who left Romania in 1990 after a conflict with the Romanian Gymnastics Federation and has lived in France ever since) granted two interviews to Romanian newspapers about his days in charge of the team and the reasons for his departure. In the interviews, he also touched upon his predecessor, Bela Karolyi. If anyone is interested, we'll post translations of the whole interviews at some point, but for now we're going to focus on the passages which have a bearing on Karolyi.

Adrian Goreac (left) receives a presidential distinction in 2007 (photo:

The first interview, published by Evenimentul Zilei on December 8, 2007, has a headline which says it all: "Bela Karolyi was a dictator."

Evenimentul Zilei: "Let's start at the beginning. What was the team like after Karolyi's defection?"
Adrian Goreac: "It was a difficult moment, because the team had just come back from the [1981] World Championships in Russia, where it had failed to win a single medal. Nadia Comaneci and her contemporaries had reached the end of their careers. I asked them what they wanted, and they told me they wanted to stay in Deva to continue their education. I moved them [from the gymnasts' hostel] to the Party hotel. Tavi Belu, who was my second in command, had more to do with them than I. Slowly, Ecaterina Szabo, Daniela Silivas, Aurelia Dobre, and the others began to emerge."

Evenimentul Zilei: "So you basically rebuilt the team?"
Adrian Goreac: "I wouldn't say that. Romania had excellent club coaches all along, who provided us with our 'raw material.' However, Bela Karolyi had halted other coaches' access to the national teams, because he was completely in charge. I opened the door to them and relied much on other coaches. I only wanted one thing: To demonstrate that there was more to Romanian gymnastics than Nadia and Bela. I don't know whether I succeeded, but I do know that my girls were less tormented than Nadia."

Yep, the man said "tormented."

Bela Karolyi (photo: Gazeta Sporturilor)

Then there's this bit:

Evenimentul Zilei: "Was life at the Deva center as tough as they say?"
Adrian Goreac: "You could say it was a soldierly regime, but the girls knew that and accepted it. [Note: We think he's talking about his own term as head coach here, not Karolyi's.] Romanian gymnastics began to slip after Bela Karolyi. Don't get me wrong, I don't envy him, but he was tough, a dictator. He wasn't a specialist, but I've always admired him for his incredible drive, workwise. He was a success because he had an exception: Nadia. I won't lie to you, I also shouted at the girls and sometimes gave them a parental slap, but only when I caught them trafficking wine, cigarettes, etc. I abhor violence and never hit any gymnast for a mistake she made in the gym. But one way or another, on top of [Karolyi's] perseverance and hard work, there was talk of brutishness, which here and there is still going on today."

(Goreac uses a very strong word for "brutishness": bestialitate.)

Evenimentul Zilei: "In what respect was Bela Karolyi a dictator?"
Adrian Goreac: "Bela had oligarchic tendencies, because he had tasted power. In the end he could even pick the Securitate officials who accompanied the team on trips abroad! He had connections. He was a friend of Ilie Verdet's [a high-ranking politican of the time, also brother-in-law to Nicolae Ceausescu], with whom he went hunting. He made himself indispensable and built a mob around himself. After Montreal, every country on earth wanted Nadia to come and do exhibitions, but often the money the organizers of such events paid ended up in the pockets of Karolyi and his cronies. Some 20,000 to 30,000 dollars, it was rumored. It went to his head. He would give high-ranking communists instructions, telling them: 'If that doesn't suit you, why don't you come to the gym tomorrow yourself!' He'd fill his Mercedes up at the gas station and tell the assistants to send the bill to the provincial authorities! It infuriated the Securitate. When Bela felt that things were getting complicated, he stayed in the United States, with a suitcase full of money from the the tour they were on. He'd gotten scared."

This seems to jive with the stories Emilia Eberle and Geza Pozsar just told the Romanian media. The similarities are remarkable.

In a way, even Octavian Belu, no stranger to harsh training methods himself, subtly admitted that something was not entirely right about Karolyi's methods. Asked for a response to Goreac's allegations about Karolyi, the ever diplomatic Belu told Evenimentul Zilei: "Everybody assumes responsibility for his own declarations. I don't want to enter into this controversy. All I want to say is that we have Nadia, and that we owe her to the Karolyis."

We don't know about you, but we read that as a "guilty as charged."

Ecaterina Szabo (photo: Getty Images)

But there's more.

A few months ago, Goreac and Belu's pupil Ecaterina Szabo (1983 world champion on floor and quadruple gold medalist at the 1984 Olympics) also had some unkind words to say about the Karolyis. In an interview with the Romanian magazine Fanatik, Szabo, who as a promising junior was on the American tour from which the Karolyis defected, had this to say about the man with whom she briefly trained before becoming a star: "We were still in America in 1981 when the Karolyis stayed behind. I remember that we returned to Romania on April 1, 1981, and I was so happy on the plane that I'd escaped them! We partied so hard that the flight attendants were no match for us and I believed the plane might crash with us aboard. I'll never forget the slaps in the face and the beatings I got from Bela Karolyi!"

She doesn't go into detail, but there's no mistaking that last sentence.

(If anyone is interested in the whole Szabo interview, let us know and we'll translate it.)

However, until Emilia Eberle and Geza Pozsar's allegations, the most damning indictment of the Karolyis came courtesy of Rodica Dunca, who represented Romania at the 1979 and 1981 World Championships and the 1980 Olympics. We couldn't find the original interview, which we believe was published by ProSport in 2002, but we found excerpts of it reproduced in a Romanian blog. Translated, they read as follows:

Asked by the journalist whether Karolyi's methods were tough, Dunca answered, "I think 'tough' isn't the right word when you're lucky if you escape with merely a beating. Some days we were beaten until the blood streamed out of our noses. Hunger was our eternal enemy."

Rodica Dunca and Nadia Comaneci in 1983, two years after the Karolyis defected. They looked considerably happier then than they had before. (Photo: Tom Theobald)

The blog continues: And then she tells shocking stories, with revelations about girls fleeing from training camps and Securitate officials arresting 13- and 14-year-old girls in stations, forcing them to go back to the "prison" in Deva. About the threats they received on their return to Deva: That if they ever tried to escape again, their parents would suffer for it. We hear how Nadia Comaneci hid in an unused toilet for three days because she was so afraid of her coach. But the most frightening passage in Rodica Dunca's confessions is this:

"Because of hunger, we often put ourselves in extreme situations. And the methods by which they kept us away from food probably could have killed us."

ProSport: "What were those methods?"
Rodica Dunca: "I remember that in 1979, before the Fort Worth World Championships, Nadia was a few pounds too heavy. We were on a training camp in Germany. Geza Pozsar, our choregrapher, and Bela Karolyi slept in our room with us. In front of the door to the toilet. When we needed to go to the toilet, we had to pee with the door open."

ProSport: "Why?"
Rodica Dunca: "They were afraid that we'd somehow drink water. But we'd go into the bathroom, do what we had to do and wait a while before flushing the toilet. We'd climb onto the toilet with a glass in our hands and drink from the overhead cistern. That's how we drank our fill."

ProSport: "You could have gotten some disease that way."
Rodica Dunca: "That didn't matter. The same thing happened when we took a shower. They kept an eye on us, and we weren't allowed to raise our chins, so we couldn't ingest any water."

ProSport: "What did you eat before competitions?"
Rodica Dunca: "In the morning we'd get one slice of salami, two nuts, and a glass of milk. In the evening we'd get the same menu, only without the nuts."

ProSport: "Did you ever eat to your heart's content?"
Rodica Dunca: "Only twice in my career as a gymnast."

ProSport: "Just twice?"
Rodica Dunca: "No, actually, there was a third time. We were at an exhibition in Spain. One time we left the hotel. I don't know why the coaches weren't around at the time. At a few meters' distance from the building there was a field of strawberries. We all swooped down on them like termites and ate as many strawberries as we wanted. But it came out later, because the owner of the strawberries made a scene at the hotel."

ProSport: "Did you ever suffer any serious health problems?"
Rodica Dunca: "Many times. Broken feet, a broken shoulder, among other things. I remember that when we began to menstruate, the assistant took us to her office and gave us an injection. The injection probably contained hormones, because after that, I didn't menstruate for almost two years. The same thing happened to the other girls."

Rodica Dunca (photo: Tom Theobald)

ProSport: "What kind of pills did you take?"
Rodica Dunca: "We didn't actually take any pills ourselves; they practically shoved them down our throats! The assistant would stand next to everyone to make sure we swallowed the pills. In the morning we'd get 14 pills, for lunch we'd get 20 pills and 4 little envelopes full of powder, and in the evening we'd get 10 pills. I still don't know what kind of pills they were, but after I left gymnastics, I had problems."

ProSport: What kind of problems?
Rodica Dunca: "I was dependent on them, and afterwards I was forced to buy [the pills] for another year. The pharmacist crossed himself when he saw how much I could ingest."

So there you have it. Add all these quotes to the stories told by Emilia Eberle and Geza Pozsar, and you should have enough material for a serious investigation, we should think.

Not that we're holding our breath.


  1. yuck. stories like this and the trudi kellar story and the brazilian stuff leave a foul taste in my mouth. i'm not liking the sport much this month.

  2. That is insanely disgraceful. I have heard people say (over on Gymnastics Coaching, mostly) that the Karoyli's should not be removed from power...but your story makes it obvious they must be. Whatever Bela is like now, it is enough that he did this in the past. He and Marta should be removed ASAP. Not that it will ever happen.

  3. No, we don't think they'll be removed from power either. We can only hope that they have enough integrity to resign of their own accord. We doubt that will happen though.

    We're wondering to what extent the Karolyis have changed. Obviously they can't be as violent in America as they used to be in Romania, 'cause there'd be giant lawsuits if they were. But they still give off an unpleasant vibe. Do you think they've changed much? We don't, really.

  4. Thanks for posting this story. I wonder how much hidden stories circulate within the gymnastics world that haven't made it to the "outside", if you know what I mean. I cannot even imagine what these athletes went through, and what some are still going through.

  5. You're welcome. We're asking ourselves the same question. Romania's horror stories are fairly well documented, but there must be countless similar stories in China, the former Soviet Union, and even the U.S.A. We wonder if we'll ever hear them, and if so, whether there will be any repercussions. For some reason coaches seem to be able to get away with this kind of behavior. Worrying, isn't it?

  6. Thanks for posting these stories. You do such a great job of investigating. I would love to read the complete Goreac and Szabo interviews, if you were able to translate them. Many thanks!

  7. Thanks, Emily. You're welcome. We're glad to see there's some interest in the Goreac and Szabo interviews. We'll probably post them next week!

  8. This is sick! It is really true? When I red Nadia Comaneci's autobiography she did not mention anything of this. She said that she loved Bela, and that he was like second father for her. She also said that she naver saw any kind of drugs. And that they had plenty of food every day. She also said she had a safe and happy childhodd, but ofcourse it was hard sometimes. But if you are a top athlete, ofcourse it is hard times..

    And when she in 1978 was beeing moved away from Bela. She was very unhappy, and did actually pretending suicide, just because she wanted people to understand that something was not good. And if he was that horror-coach, why did she want to come back? If he was that ''bestialitate'' man, how can the US team be allowd travel to his summercamp, and stay there for several weeks. They all say that he is a nice and funny man. (just ask Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin)

    1. What I think is that maybe Bela was nice to the athletes who brought him the best achievements, and treated those top athletes better. If you don't want to be slapped by him, you better be good and stick every rountine in competitions. Something like that.

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  10. Anonymous, there've been many debates on whether these stories are true or not, and most people agree that they must be. There are simply too many similarities in the stories for them to be complete fabrications. Even Nadia said bad things about Bela when she first arrived in the United States. Then she realized that Bela was "big" in the U.S., and that she needed him for business purposes, and that's when she began to cozy up to him. She hasn't badmouthed Bela since, but she hasn't denied any of her former teammates' allegations either. Ever. Which leads us to believe that she's quite happy to let her former teammates tell her story for her, without getting burned herself.

    As for Nadia's autobiography, that's generally assumed to have been heavily censored, and not quite truthful.

    We can think of several reasons why the U.S. team is allowed to train at Bela's ranch. One is that Bela isn't actually coaching anymore. He doesn't get to work with the girls in that capacity anymore. Another is that U.S.A. Gymnastics is simply in too deeply with the Karolyis to start investigating their past now. They would incur a hefty loss of face by doing so. And finally, there is a possibility that the Karolyis may have cleaned up their act somewhat since they got to the U.S. They must have realized pretty quickly that they would get sued for every cent they were worth if they treated their American charges the way they had treated their Romanian ones. Don't be fooled into believing Bela is this lovely, big, cuddly bear though. Several American former Karolyi students have confirmed that he could be a very unpleasant coach to work under. Some of them admitted they needed his approach and wouldn't have reached the top without it; others have claimed it broke them. Martha too has come in for some criticism, both from Romanian gymnasts and from American ones. Run a google search and you'll find plenty of evidence suggesting that the Karolyis are not the kind people the American audience generally perceives them to be. And if you don't believe that evidence, look up some Emilia Eberle videos on YouTube, and notice how scarily thin and unhappy she looks in every single one of them. She was not a happy gymnast under the Karolyis. Not at all.

  11. Emilia aka Trudi is a wonderful coach ,teacher,and a great mother to her son. She is kind hearted and very caring. She takes her time and pours all of her heart and soul into her girls. She has not let her past keep her from the sport that she loves.We are so blessed to have her in our childrens lives. Thank you Karolyis for making her a wonderful person. You taught her what not to be.She has learned from your mistakes. That which does not kill you will only make you stronger! and in Trudi's case she is stonger!!!! WE LOVE YOU TRUDI!!!!!!

  12. as much as I believe in brutal ways of some coaches, there's one question that keeps bugging me. The gymnasts trains many hours a day, it's difficult for me to believe that it's possible with as extreme diet as the one that Szabo described. I mean, common, even for a normaly functionning human being it wouldn't be enough and at some point the body would stard consuming itself. For a gymnast, it would be a very fast process. But they all, while look slim, thin even, they definitely do not look like anorectics or victims of concetration camp (which is basically what they are describing). How's that possible?

  13. LG, find yourself some old photos and/or videos of Emilia Eberle and you'll be shocked. She was shockingly thin throughout her career, not to mention distinctly unhappy-looking. It's not hard to believe she was starved and otherwise maltreated. The girls on the 1979 Worlds team (including Nadia) were rail thin. They looked distinctly unhealthy. It was blamed on food poisoning at the time, but Rodica Dunca's story makes it sound like the girls were subjected to an extreme diet under which they weren't even allowed to drink water. We have our reservations about some parts of Dunca's story, but that part, unfortunately, sounds true.

  14. As a Romanian gymnast during Bela’s “regime”, I can attest that we were subjected to beatings, starvation, and long hours of training. We were kept away from family and not allowed to make phone calls. We all went to the same boarding school and kept under constant and strict supervision. I was beaten with thorny branches from a rose bush outside. I broke my arm during a training exercise and was forced to train for a week w/o seeking any type of medical care. I mustered up the courage to sneak out and call my mom in the middle of night to complain. Needless to say, after 3 years of mistreatment and abuse, my mom finally learned of what was happening and pulled me out. Oh yeah, and the doc had to re-break my arm in order for it to heal correctly. Just reading these stories brings me back to that era of a small frightened child. The end does not justify the means.

  15. It is all about exploitation of the athletes.
    In Russia,some coaches used to take a big
    portion of their star athletes money that was
    earned in different international exhibitions
    and used to beat and starve their athletes.
    Now that Russia and Romania are not communist
    countries anymore,I think that the athletes
    nowadays should not let coaches mistreat them
    in anyway and hopefully their parents protect
    them from coaches that give them harsh

  16. Something not mentioned here is the possible effect that Bela and Marta Karolyi's training methds may have had on other gymnastics coaches in the United States. Were they popular as trainers of trainers initially when Mary Lou Retton started getting results and became 1984 Olympic champion? Do they still have some indirect influence on training and preparation methods?

    Another thing I'd like to know is whether the Karolyis exerted any or much influence over the selection of gymnasts for the US national teams from the mid-1980s on. Did the Karolyis prefer their own gymnasts over those of other coaches? Should coaches who are selected as national coaches even have any say over the selection of gymnasts to the national team?

  17. Bela Karolyi is so mean...he was abusive to the young girls. But I don't know why! Why the crap did he do that to her?

  18. I believe these stories. It's horrible to treat people like this. The thing is, we're judging them by current standards (many of us, American standards). Even in the US, during the 60's and 70's, it was acceptable to use physical punishment on children. They even spanked, paddled, hit, slapped, etc. in schools here. Some didn't stop until fairly recently. It's not fair to compare modern America, where we coddle children to communist Romania in the 60's and 70's. Yes, this treatment would have been seen as terrible in Romania at the time, but not nearly as bad as Americans are viewing it today. It doesn't make it OK, it's just something to think about. You have to consider the time and place when analyzing history.

  19. The Karolyi's mistreated Dominique Moceanu and after she failed to bring them any glory at the 1996 Atlanta Olypmics, they ignored her. They had basically written off Kerri Strug, until she vaulted on a broken foot and won the team gold for the USA at the same Olympics in 1996. Remember on the first vault, Kerri hurt her ankle and stumbled trying to walk. And Bela telling her "you can do it." He knew she was injured but wanted her to vault again anyway. Then after she vaulted a second time and really hurt the ankle but won the gold for team USA, Bela just couldn't get enough of Kerri. Before that, all of his focus was on Moceanu. She was supposed to be the next Nadia and when she wasn't ... He glommed onto Kerri and took all the credit for all her hard work and sacrifice. Read Dominique Moceanu's book for her stories of Karolyi hell. She tells of starvation at Marta & Bela's hands. Why are these two people allowed to run gynastics in the USA? The last really great USA women's team was in 1996 before the Karolyi's took over. Get the old "Communist" guard out of there and do it fairly where you have to qualify for the Olympics by your SCORE at Olypmic Trials, not picked by abusive dictators.

  20. the Karolyi's defected but their methods remained, just look at "The secret of Deva" documentary. Florin Dunga the uneven bars coach refers to a 10 year old athlete with "stupid cow" shouting at her, and that is with cameras on. Considering the fear in that girls eyes there's no doubt that with cameras off she would have been beaten.. Karolyi's would be nowhere without talented athletes, and that is something one is born with and definitely not built with violence and harsh methods..

    1. Kerri Strug was not Bela's gymnast for very long she was raised and coached by Jim Gault in Arizona. Bela's mythical illusion that you have to be on his team to achieve stardom and endorsements is unfair to the rest of the American Gymnastics community that is out there working hard and coaching great gymnasts. He basically has been a celebrity for the press and that wont go away until he is gone. He is not a nice man and if you think that ruthlessness instead of hard work is right than talk to retired gymnasts and see how they feel. It really is more than Olympic glory because only a small few get there. Many foreigners come to America for the dream of success. Many times they promise parents and gymnasts hopes so they get paid healthy sums. Those are the gymnasts who may retire unhappy when they dont accomplish their dreams. One more thing is I'm horrified at the lack of dance and body placement skills in gymnastics. If you have a real dance backround try getting into the sport.
      Geza Pozsar made a ton of money for hidious choreography and he and Trudi have not produced a gymnast on the podiums.

    2. I was with Bela at a exhibition event with past Olympians. They were older and heavier. He was joking and laughing and making horrible comments about them in the stands while he watched them.

  21. I also trained under Karolyi in Romania until I was 13, when he defected in 1981. He was the sole voice in the gym; we never spoke and never said anything in an international competitions to anyone. We were also told to lie and say we trained 4-5 hours a day, 5-6 times a week, we also had our ages changed in many of the European competitions so we could compete in senior meets. Bela and Marta could be the nastiest people in the world: they were especially good at picking on weak or defenseless gymnasts as well. And yes, I saw them hit gymnasts across the face, and even kick them as well. If you made a mistake in a competition, you would be consoled in front of everyone, and then yelled at and grabbed or shoved into a wall in private and told you would never compete again internationally. Verbally they were very mean as well: using cow, pig, overstuffed turkey to describe gymnasts to their face. they also tried to create rivalries among gymnasts to get the better performances out of them. I think once he left Romania, the entire program improved because we got rid of Geza Pozar too, who was horrendous in choreography and I always wondered how a man could create such "girlie"routines...always seemed creepy to me, but whatever.....I grew too tall and eventually could not do any difficult tumbling on the floor and then when I broke my ankle a second time my parents decided it was enough and pulled me out of gymnastics. I think I was a good overall experience for me, but I think the injuries and stress I had were definitely because the Karolyi's were not good coaches and because they were really more interested in fame for themselves then how we felt as people and athletes.

  22. They should be investigated. I don't know why they weren't. I understand under the Romanian regime doing stuff like that but not in America. Poor Nadia and the like are probably too scared to admit it happened. This being pretty much standard in abuse cases.