BUDAPEST, Hungary — Nadia Comaneci, who charmed the world with her pixie face and flashy style at the 1976 Olympics, fled to Hungary from her native Romania in a pre-dawn dash to freedom, the state-run MTI news agency said today.
Comaneci, 28, who at age 14 scored the first perfect "10" in Olympic history in gymnastics, reportedly told border guards that her escape had been organized "in advance under the guidance of a Romanian man," who was not further identified.
MTI said she told the guards she had left behind a "neatly furnished flat, a car and financial security for the sake of freedom."
Her exact whereabouts were not immediately known.
Bela Karolyi, her coach 13 years ago in Montreal and a 1981 defector to the United States, urged her to make her way to America, "the country with the greatest respect for Nadia and at the same time a country still with the greatest opportunity."
Her Olympic achievements, three "10s" and three gold medals, made her famous in the West and a Hero of Socialist Labor in Romania. She was even linked romantically with Nicu Ceausescu, son of Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu.
She reportedly lived a comparatively plush life in a country that has become notorious for its chronic consumer goods shortages, as well as for the Ceausescu brand of neo-Stalinism that has refused to bend to the wave of reform sweeping the East Bloc.
But MTI said Comaneci had complained to Hungarian border officials that her government had refused to let her work or even travel abroad.
MTI initially reported that Comaneci had applied for political asylum, but later it said she had received a temporary residence permit, valid for three days, from police in the town of Szeged, about 15 miles from the Romanian border.
Hungarian radio reported that Comaneci crossed before dawn Tuesday into Hungary by car at the nearby border town of Kiszombor with six other Romanians, who were not identified.
Citing unconfirmed reports, MTI said that Comaneci and her companions left the Szeged hotel, where they had been lodged by police, in a car bearing non-Hungarian plates and had not been seen since.
The Interior Ministry refused to disclose Comaneci's whereabouts and said the former Olympic star did not wish to give any interviews.
Comaneci has said in the past that she had been offered coaching jobs in the West, but it was not known where specifically.
After ending her competitive career, she turned coach and referee.
Karolyi defected while on an American tour with the Romanian gymnastics team and became an American citizen last spring. He lives in Houston and said he did not have any specific plans to meet with Comaneci.
He did say, however: "I'm ready to help her in any manner if she needs it."
Karolyi was in Clarens, Switzerland, where he was coaching the U.S. women's team at an international meet. He said Comaneci's defection "is what I was really wishing would happen one of these days."