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When Discipline Became Murder : Romanian Gymnast Adriana Giurca Was 11 When Her Coach Killed Her in a Relentless Pursuit of Perfection


'It bothered me very much because this was the best time of my life and what we did brought glory to the country," said Karolyi, who defected to the United States in 1980. "And for (Gheorghe), who was about 9 years old when I was coaching there, to turn around and say something like this just shows part of the Romanian mentality. It was outrageous."

Nadia Comaneci, who was coached most of her career by Karolyi, also said students were never hit at the sports schools where she trained. She defected to the United States in 1989, only months before the overthrow and death of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

It was Comaneci who brought prestige to Romanian gymnastics when she received the first perfect score in the sport, a 10, at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Last year, the Romanian women won the gold medal at the World Championships in Dortmund, Germany.

Romanian authorities now worry about that prestige diminishing. One news agency in Bucharest claimed it could not supply a photograph of the trial to The Times because local authorities had confiscated all negatives concerning Adriana's death.

"(Adriana's beating) was a surprise for me," said Comaneci, who was coached by Karolyi in her hometown of Onesti, and for a couple of years, in Deva. "It is not something that has been allowed. This is sad. I feel very sad for the family."

But another former Romanian gymnast, who out of fear of retaliation requested anonymity, said that athletes were hit at the club where she trained. Her reluctance to say more, though, and the refusal of other Romanian gymnasts to talk, would seem to indicate that citizens' fear of government remains.

"It was horrible that (Adriana's death) happened, but it did not surprise me," Karolyi said. "This did not happen in my gym, where I coached. It is hard for anybody to understand who lives here in America that this could happen. But there is a different culture there that is combined with a system that is never based on voluntary participation.

"For an American, it is impossible to understand. You have to live there with the feeling that the secret police could beat the hell out of you at any time. It was natural. The secret police have power and authority even today, even with democracy. It will take a long time for the pattern to change completely."

American gymnasts were generally unaware of Adriana's death, and the circumstances surrounding it, even though it happened only a little more than a year ago. Olympian Shannon Miller gasped recently when she was told about it, "Oh, my God!" she said.

Miller, who trains in Edmond, Okla., said that she has never heard of physical abuse in the United States. The U.S. Gymnastics Federation also says that physical abuse is not an issue, although there are other dangers they actively work against, among them eating disorders and sexual abuse.

Critics complain, though, that even verbal abuse can lead to physical harm. And they contend that the physical pounding some female gymnasts put their bodies through in rigorous training sessions may also be abusive, impairing their development. The USOC said recently it is considering a study on the issue.

But the economic and political conditions in Romania can lead to problems far different from those in the United States, according to Vladimir Moraru, a former sports journalist in Romania who defected in 1984. There, gymnastics is still a way out economically for families, which Moraru says may explain why a family would keep a child in a potentially harmful situation.

"You have to understand what Nadia did," Moraru said. "Every parent wanted their kid to be a Nadia. Nadia wasn't living like an average Romanian. If she (had been) here in the United States, she would have been a millionaire. She never had (that kind of) money over there, but she had advantages, clearly.

"Romania has changed, but there are still some leftovers. Now they have some other kind of bad stuff. It took 45 years to destroy the country and it will take another 45 years to build it back up."

Gheorghe was ordered to pay Adriana's family the U.S. equivalent of $5,600 in "moral" damages. The average Romanian earns about $90 a month. But Adriana's parents said there could be no price for their loss.

"That trainer hit my daughter like a beast and her death was more than manslaughter," Maria Giurca told the Reuters news agency.

The Giurcas are appealing the sentence and want the school to also be held responsible, claiming it knew its coach was a violent individual.

Gheorghe has admitted to Adriana's father, Emil, that he is responsible.

He has also said he has been profoundly affected.

Perhaps, the world will be too.

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