Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian athlete who in 1976 earned the world's first perfect scores in Olympic gymnastics, has fled her native country, the Hungarian government announced. Relatives in this country said they expect her to eventually settle in the United States.
According to Hungary's official MTI news agency, Comaneci received a three-day permit for unrestricted travel within the country Wednesday in Szeged, which is about 15 miles from the Romanian border, after crossing into Hungary the night before with six other Romanians.
Few details were available about the defection. Comaneci, 27, reportedly told Hungarian border guards that it was carried out with the assistance of an unidentified Romanian man and that she left behind "a neatly furnished flat, a car and financial security for the sake of freedom."
There were conflicting reports about her immediate destination, although most speculation pointed toward Austria. Employees at the hotel in Szeged where Comaneci spent the night told United Press International that she left Wednesday morning in a car with Viennese license plates.
"I have been expecting her to defect," said Gezar Pozsar, Comaneci's former choreographer, who defected to the United States while on a tour in 1981 and now operates a gymnastics school in Sacramento.
Pozsar said that he and his wife are waiting to hear from Comaneci and believe that she will come to the United States.
"I think that this is her final destination," he said. "She has good friends here among the gymnasts. She also speaks good English and is a very intelligent kid."
Pozsar's wife, Maria, who was allowed to immigrate after he defected, is Comaneci's second cousin. They saw each other last year at a family reunion in their hometown of Onesti, which is in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in northeastern Romania.
"When Maria returned, she said that Nadia was very unhappy. I could tell that from looking at the pictures she took. Nadia's face was not smiling."
That same seriousness was also the image that most of the world had of Comaneci during the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. Four years earlier, the Soviet Union's Olga Korbut had tumbled into living rooms via television from the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich as a pixie in pigtails. Viewers had to adjust the brightness levels on their screens because of her smile.
With the '76 Games, they were captivated by a much different and sober-faced young girl. Although she was only 14, Comaneci also was much more technically refined than Korbut. No gymnast had ever received a perfect score of 10 from judges in the Olympics. Comaneci got seven of them. She also won three gold medals on the uneven bars and the balance beam and in overall competition at the Montreal Games.
"Nadia changed our sport," said Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. "She did everything--or at least tried to do everything--perfectly, and that was not something you could say for everyone in the sport before she came on the scene. Nadia put the emphasis on technical mastery."
But performing such difficult moves with so little apparent effort also made her seem robotic, an image accentuated by her dark, brooding eyes and her stone-faced response even to perfect scores and standing ovations. She looked her age only when clutching her ever-present rag doll, trying to hide her 4-foot-11, 86-pound body behind it during press conferences.
Still, television took to her. ABC-TV, which was televising the Olympics, used the theme song from a soap opera, "The Young and the Restless," while showing highlights of her performances. After that, the song became known as "Nadia's Theme."
Upon returning to socialist Romania, Comaneci received a heroine's welcome. "Nadia, the Golden Girl of Romanian Sports, a Symbol of the Free Life of Our Youth," read the headline in the national sports newspaper, Sportul. She became the youngest person in the country ever designated a Hero of Socialist Labor.
Because of injuries and her maturing body, she never again was as successful as she had been in 1976, although four years later at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, she won two gold medals and finished second in the individual all-around competition. At a ceremony to honor her in Bucharest upon her retirement early in 1984, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, presented her with the Silver Medal of the Olympic Order.
Even before that, there had been unconfirmed reports that Comaneci was having personal problems, related in part to the defection in 1981 to the United States of her coach, Bela Karolyi, and choreographer, Pozsar.