Heavy Medals Episode 1

Made in Romania In the middle of the Cold War, Romanian gymnastics coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi turn Nadia Comaneci, a 14-year-old gymnast from a Communist country, into a global symbol of excellence at the 1976 Olympics when she scores the first perfect 10. But Romania becomes too controlled for Bela’s ambitions, and the Karolyis set their sights on the freedom of the United States.

Transcript

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: A word of warning: this series contains mature language depicting instances of sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse of children.

 

[ESPN Interviewer: Are you the toughest coach in the US? What you put the kids through here, is it more demanding than most places? 
Bela Karolyi: I really can’t answer on that one because I don’t know, you know, what’s going on in other places.]

 
[NBC Sports 
Announcer: Bela and Martha Karolyi, husband and wife, and what a coaching team they are.]

 

NANCY ARMOUR: Did the Karolyis have great success as coaches? Absolutely.

 

[ABC Sports   

Announcer: The gold medal goes to Mary Lou Retton.]


[ABC Sports
Mary Lou Retton: Oh my god I can’t express the feeling.]

 

NANCY ARMOUR: Did they create a system that established the U.S. women as an overwhelming powerhouse? Most definitely.

 
[NBC Sports
Announcer: Gold and silver medalists for Team USA.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: For more than four decades no name has meant more to women’s gymnastics than Karolyi. Bela and Martha Karolyi. Two of the most successful coaches in gymnastics history.

 

                        [NBC Sports
Announcer: Right now we turn to women’s gymnastics and the United States, which has become a power in recent years, now looking to become THE power.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela and Martha Karolyi gave the U.S. its first superstar, Mary Lou Retton, its first gold medal, and eventually put American gymnasts on top of the medal stand year after year after year.

 

                        [ABC Sports  
Bela Karolyi: Wooohooo!
Announcer: Bela Karolyi hear him?                                                                        
Bela Karolyi: We done it!]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela became world-famous, as a big bear of a man, gregarious and loud. 

 

                        [ABC Sports
Bela Karolyi: That’s a 10!]

KERRI STRUG: Bela was the guy with the thick accent that was giving these big bear hugs.

 
[NBC Sports 
Bela Karolyi: You can do it! You can do it! Don’t worry about it.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Martha came across as the opposite of her husband: petite and reserved.

 
[NBC Sports
Announcer: What is she like? 
Announcer: She is actually very sweet, but very tough.]


SIMONE BILES: If we gave a hundred percent, she wanted 110. Nothing was ever good enough for Martha. And I think that’s what made us so good. 

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: Judges put your pencils down. Olympic gold medalist in the all-around, Simone Biles!]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis embody remarkable achievement. 

 

[NBC Sports
(sound of vault) (cheering)


[NBC Sports
Announcer: Get the gold medals ready…again.]

 

NANCY ARMOUR: Did it come at a price? Hell yeah.

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: This is Heavy Medals from 30 for 30 Podcasts. I’m Alyssa Roenigk. Gymnastics has been part of my life in some form for as long as I can remember. From watching Mary Lou on TV at the 1984 Olympics when I was 7, to later being a teenage gymnast obsessing over Kim Zmeskal’s tumbling passes. 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: And for the past 15 years, at ESPN — where my reporting partner, Bonnie Ford, and I both cover international sports. 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: When I covered my first Summer Olympic games in Beijing in 2008, China was accused of having an underaged gymnast on the team and I was writing about it. I’ll never forget Bela Karolyi, shouting into my digital recorder about how the Chinese coaches had just stolen his playbook. 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: I wish I still had that tape. Here was Bela Karolyi, not just upset that China had possibly broken the rules, but wanting to make sure I knew he deserved credit for recognizing that younger and smaller gymnasts had better chances for gold. It was a point he’d been making to reporters for years.

 

[ESPN

Bela Karolyi: I was the first one around the world who started out with very, very young kids realizing they have a tremendous capability, a tremendous potential.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: As the truth has come to light about the consequences of pinning a nation’s hopes on the shoulders of children, Bela and Martha Karolyi have come under scrutiny.

 

[ESPN

Anchor: Today breaking news, allegations that strike at the heart of a very successful U.S. Olympic sport.]

 

[ABC News                                                                                                                  
Anchor: One of the worst things we have seen in U.S. Olympic history.] 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Their legacy is littered with questions about what they accomplished…and how much responsibility they bear for the incredible amount of damage that has been done.

[ABC 13
Anchor: Claims tonight from a former gymnast who has filed suit against a doctor and legendary coaches, Bela and Martha Karolyi.
Anchor: Yes, this unnamed gymnast accuses the Karolyis of turning a blind eye to abuse.] 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: But as complicated as their story would become, it all started with something simple.


[ABC Sports
Announcer: Nadia Comaneci of Romania. Oh and now look at her play to 
the crowd.
Announcer: I wouldn’t be surprised if she got a ten.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: It started with perfection. 


 
[ABC Sports
 Announcer: And it is! 
Announcer: A perfect ten for the first time. The first time I have ever seen that at an Olympic competition a perfect 10.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci earned the first perfect 10 in Olympic gymnastics history. And when the judges announced her score, the crowd erupted…but no one more so than Nadia’s coach — Bela Karolyi.
 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: At 33 years old, Bela and Martha Karolyi were just beginning their career as coaches. Outside of Romania, they were unknowns. But Bela was impossible to miss. Especially as the 6 foot plus coach towered over his four foot eleven, 86-pound protege.

[CBC Sports                                                                                                     
Announcer: We see her coach Bela urging her on from the sidelines. He’s standing almost on the floor. He’s talking to her constantly.] 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Over the course of a single thrilling week, Nadia became the crowd favorite and an international star as she scored perfect 10 after perfect 10.

[ABC Sports                                                                                                   
Announcer: Everybody’s yelling.                                                                   
Announcer: And there it is, a ten!                                                                  
Announcer: This girl, three 10s!]

[ABC Sports
Announcer: Listen to this cameras clicking.]

[ABC Sports
Announcer: Picture three 10s! Unbelievable. We have another first, two tens on one piece of apparatus.]

[ABC Sports                                                                                                   
Announcer: A perfect ten, her fourth on the uneven bars.]

[ABC Sports
Announcer: Five tens by a 14-year old superstar.]

ALYSSA: ROENIGK: An unbelievable SEVEN perfect 10s all together And in the individual all-around, NAdia won the gold medal, a first for Romania.


[IOC                                                                                                                           
Bela Karoyli: Finally Nadia comes up and does her incredible routine, that’s where the crowd exploded. I mean there was explosion, explosion of support, explosion of love and excitement, and I’m looking through the corner of my eyes and I see the Soviet team getting they stuff and they walking out of the arena, I said “YES! YES! We got it!”]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Finally, after decades of dominance, a Romanian had beaten the Soviets.


[CBC Sports
Announcer: In a way for some people, this is the end of a love affair, the dethroning of the USSR gymnastic competition. Nadia Comaneci now takes over, the 14 year old sprite of a girl.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: But for Bela Karolyi and his wife and coaching partner, Martha, there was something even greater at stake — the favor of the Romanian government.


[ABC Sports
Announcer: Everybody’s yelling.                                                                   
Announcer: And there it is, a ten!]

 

GEZA POZSAR: It was late night, on the Romanian time. So I was watching it with our team doctor and his wife, Martha’s friend, and my wife. We watched on a black and white TV. 

[ABC Sports
Announcer: Double twist, perfect.]

GEZA POZSAR: My name is Geza Pozsar, that’s the Hungarian pronunciation. In English is like, Gee-za Po-za. So, Geza Pozsar.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Geza Pozsar was the choreographer for the Romanian National Team. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: He’d been working with Bela and Martha for years. He’d designed Nadia’s floor routine and helped her train for this moment. But instead of watching from the sidelines, with Bela and Martha, he was watching from home … because the Romanian government wouldn’t let him travel to Montreal.

GEZA POZSAR: Because I didn’t get the visa to go. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Geza had recently married a French woman, and so the government didn’t trust him to go to Canada and actually return to Romania. 

[ABC Sports
Announcer: Gorgeous routine! Beautiful! And the crowd loves it!]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: From his living room in the small town of Onesti, Geza, like the rest of Romania, watched Nadia make history.

GEZA POZSAR: The whole town came out to the street. It was like midnight. All of them come out and this was like a carnival in Rio. You know, it was unbelievable. First off they get drunk, you know, that was the first thing. But everyone was so happy. It was a huge celebration, huge.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: But this moment was bigger than just the party in those small town streets.

GEZA POZSAR: The whole world was in ecstasy, you know.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The whole world was in ecstasy. That’s why Nadia’s perfect 10s and her gold medal were so important.  They made Romania visible, a country that suddenly stood out from the rest of the communist bloc. Nadia was a lovable figure from a place the Western world saw as very grim.

 

GEZA POZSAR: Nadia was the diamond, she was the treasure of Romania, she was the best product Romania ever had. Nadia put Romania on the map, after Nadia everybody knows that that is the Romania. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: During the Cold War, sports were a way for nations to assert their power without going to war. Olympic success equaled national pride. For athletes and coaches in Romania, it meant security and stature. It meant not waiting in line for a loaf of bread. 

 
[Coronet Instructional Films
Narrator: People suffer from shortages, brought about by despotism and corruption of the imperial government.]


GEZA POZSAR: Romania at that time was under a very very strict, ugly dictatorship and it was a cult of personality

[Coronet Instructional Films                                                                          
Narrator: Public display of giant portraits of communist leaders.]

 

GEZA POZSAR: We had to idolize the leader of the country. 


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Nadia’s win was the ultimate political validation for the country’s leader, Nicolae Ceausescu.

[Clerow Productions
Flip Wilson: The pageantry was befitting the crowning of a princess]

 

GEZA POZSAR: There was a national celebration, the president got very excited.

[Clerow Productions
Flip Wilson: The presentation was made personally by the president of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu.
Nicolae Ceausescu: … gymnastic Nadia Comaneci.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Nadia and the Karolyis were welcomed home to Romania as heroes.

GEZA POZSAR: They gave us awards you know. We got, um, some bonuses, we paid only half of the tax. Like everybody paid, we got 50% deduction on our taxes. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Propaganda is power in a regime like Ceausescu’s. And there was no better propaganda than celebrating and rewarding the success of its Olympic champion, and the coaches who had brought Romania such high honor.      

GEZA POZSAR: Nadia was made a hero of the socialist country and she was a hero, all decorated. 

[Clerow Productions
Flip Wilson: Her country honored Nadia with its highest award: the hero of the socialist labor.]

GEZA POZSAR: She got the car, Bela got two cars.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Nadia and the Karolyis were gifted cars. Their taxes were cut in half. As the rest of the country dealt with crushing rations, the Romanian coaches and their choreographer had meals delivered to them for free. The days of waiting in food lines were over for them.

GEZA POZSAR: The only thing that they expected us to do is to win medals.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: As long as they could keep making Romania proud.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela Karolyi had always been an athlete, but never a gymnast.

 

GEZA POZSAR: He was a boxer in the beginning then he became a hammer thrower, then he became a handball coach. So everything but gymnastics. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela’s first experience with gymnastics didn’t come until college.

 

[ESPN

Bela Karolyi: I had to pass some gymnastic test, which was all difficult to me. I was a tall and pretty heavy guy, so

it was something something to see me swinging on the bars and doing your tumbling, which was an unknown sport

for me, totally unknown before.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: He was introduced to gymnastics … and to one of his classmates, Martha Eross. The woman he would marry.

 

[ESPN

Bela Karolyi: I got married and my wife, a former gymnast, she was a good gymnast though we got married and

we went out to teach gymnastics.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Martha and Bela both majored in physical education, with the goal of coaching young kids. They wanted to work together, and decided to focus on her specialty, gymnastics.

 

[ESPN

Bela Karolyi: It was a new experience, a totally new experience for me.]

 

[ESPN

Bela Karolyi: I never had the experience to teach young children. I didn’t know how to to start with them.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela came to the sport not knowing much about gymnastics, but that didn’t really matter because he was essentially teaching himself the basics of the sport by teaching little kids who didn’t know much about gymnastics themselves. That’s something Geza noticed the first time he saw Bela in action.

 

GEZA POZSAR: I saw this big guy, big guy, uh, dressed in a blue warmup. And some very small little kids who were up almost just up to his hips, you know, flipping like little fishes in the water, you know, like little silver fishes tumbling on the floor. It was very impressive. And I saw this guy with huge hands, you know, sometimes spotting them and throwing them up in the air and catching them. And oh my God, this guy. This was something different.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: It was kind of an ideal match — giant Bela could easily spot these small kids and help them safely learn new skills. His wife Martha had the gymnastics know-how and credibility. 

GEZA POZSAR: They started to teach very young kids very hard tricks. Easy to spot them, you know?

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Karolyis refined their system in local gymnasiums for 10 years before breaking onto the national stage.

GEZA POZSAR: After that he, uh, got in connection with the gymnastic federation. Uh, they get lots of help from them. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela and Martha’s approach got results. Nearly all of the athletes on the Romanian Olympic team that won the silver medal in 1976 had trained with the Karolyis. As a group, they were noticeably younger and tinier than the gymnasts who had come before them. 

[ABC Sports
Announcer: 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci of Romania. Four feet eleven, eighty six pounds.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: By comparison the 1972 Olympic gold medalist was a 19-year-old. The 1968 gold medalist was 26. They’d been through puberty. They were taller. They had women’s bodies. When Nadia won gold at 14-years-old, it sealed the trend toward child athletes.

                        [ABC Sports

Announcer: The youngest ever to win a gold medal in the all around competition.
Announcer: Nadia, congratulations again. And one thing I wanted to ask was she’s the youngest girl to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games. Where does she go from here? What about 1980? 
Nadia Comaneci: (speaking in Romanian)
Translator: I’m going to participate at the Olympics in Moscow and I’m going to try to do better than I did here and learn a lot new things. 
Announcer: How many more tens does she expect? 
Nadia Comaneci: (speaking Romanian)
Translator: As many as possible. 
Announcer: Congratulations. And to your coach, Bela Karolyi.] 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Before the 1976 games were even over, the Romanians were focused on repeating and adding to that success. And because Bela was seen as responsible for Nadia, the Romanian government put the Karolyis in charge of a new national training center in the small industrial town of Deva. 

GEZA POZSAR: Bela always like to work in this type of a small places when he had lots of control. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: It was isolated. That was the point. Bela liked to keep tabs on the girls.

GEZA POZSAR: So he knew when the girls went to buy some ice cream or he knew because he knew everybody. So the girls were under control, they could not go and buy food or something without him knowing it.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Geza had moved to Deva with Bela and Martha to continue as the team’s choreographer and dance coach. They were working at the pinnacle of Romania’s centralized system. And there was tremendous pressure to find more Nadias.

 

            TRUDI KOLLAR: My real full name is Gertrude Emilia Eberle.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Trudi Kollar was a gymnast for Romania’s national team from 1976 to 1983. She competed under her middle and maiden names: Emilia Eberle.

            TRUDI KOLLAR: Because it sounded more like Romanian.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: By age 12, Trudi was the reigning junior national champion.

TRUDI KOLLAR: I just got a call at home. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: It was Bela Karolyi.

TRUDI KOLLAR: I saw Nadia on TV and I loved gymnastics, and I said, I always told my mom, my gosh, I wish I could train with her, but that’s never going to happen. And then we get a phone call, and I was like, I said, “Okay, mom, let’s go.”

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Trudi traveled with her mother by train to Deva. 

 

TRUDI KOLLAR: I was so happy when we got there and I saw Bela. He was, he looked to me like a mountain. I was a little tiny girl and he was like big and all smiling and everything.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Her mother kissed her and placed a half a loaf of bread in a dresser drawer before leaving. She told her daughter to please remember to eat. 

 

TRUDI KOLLAR: She said “Okay honey I need to leave now I need to catch a train.” I said “bye Mom,” I gave her a kiss and then Bela showed her to the, through the hallway to the door. And I was just like, oh okay, by myself in a room. I said, “okay, so where should I put my stuff?” And the door just suddenly opens in a scary way and you know, just really fast and Bela comes in, and he smacked me over the face so hard that I flew on my bed. And he opened the drawer where my bread was in and he said,”If I ever see you again eating anything like this, I will kill you.” That was my welcome. 

[ABC Sports

Announcer: Don’t misunderstand. The National Training Center at a drab town called Deva is not a concentration camp. There are pillow fights and fun and going to school, but there’s mostly training. And tough training it is. This was Nadia in her training days with Coach Karolyi standing by but not catching her. Is this training or torture? And what did the youngsters think about?]

 

GABY GEICULESCU: We’ve felt watched all the time.


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Gaby Geiculescu was 13-years-old when she was recruited to train with Trudi and the other Olympians in the making.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Life in Deva was one of deprivation, beatings, and living in constant fear.

GABY GEICULESCU: I tell you what I, what I saw when I got there, you know, two little crackers in the morning. It was a little food, but it was not enough.

GABY GEICULESCU: I mean, I ate toothpaste because I was not able to sleep. I was so hungry and I just tell them I need something in my stomach. We were eating leftovers on the street. If you find a little apple that it was like half-eaten, then you would pick it up.

TRUDI KOLLAR: You fall asleep dreaming about chocolates floating in front of your eyes. You fall asleep seeing like fried chicken, especially when you go on, the coaches eat to a table next to you and they get like fried chicken and French fries and, they eat right next to us and we sit there. We have a yogurt a plain yogurt, and a boiled egg. Or, you have a dry piece of meat that gets stuck in your throat it’s so dry.

GABY GEICULESCU: I mean, you, you go to sleep hungry and with all that training, you know, training, training, training, and we were given a fist of vitamins or who knows what was that? 

TRUDI KOLLAR: We never knew what’s going to happen next. And there were times where 11 o’clock at night came and Bela came to the dorm and said, “Put your shoes on and let’s go start running outside. You’re fat as pigs.” It’s just go run, rain, shine, snowing.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: There was no patience or compassion for injuries at Bela’s training center.

GEZA POZSAR: He wanted everything fast, quick, you know, put them back together fast, you know. If the doctor doesn’t, didn’t follow Bela’s orders, you know, they are out.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela fired doctors who didn’t follow his orders. And the gymnasts knew that complaining about injuries could lead to a beating. One day, doing a vault at practice, Gaby landed awkwardly and broke two fingers. She walked back to her teammates and showed them her throbbing right hand. 

GABY GEICULESCU: And they told me, shut up. Don’t say anything because he’s going to get so mad. And I had to finish that practice with two broken fingers. I remember trying to grab the bar with the one, one of the hands, I couldn’t put two fingers down and somehow he just got kind of sick of looking at me not doing a good job. He said few words, you know, and, and just just dismissed me. Nobody’s going to take me to take an X-ray, not have a doctor to look at this and all what I hear from colleagues is just keep going. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Everything about the gymnasts’ lives in Deva was monitored. The national team coaches listened to their phone calls and intercepted their mail. When homesick girls ran away from the training center, police took them back to Deva.

TRUDI KOLLAR: I was so scared. I swear I thought he has eyes on trees and the bushes on walls. 

GABY GEICULESCU: We couldn’t quit. It was not a choice. And you had to keep going against your will, against everything.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela maintained complete control, while Martha came into the gym mostly to coach balance beam.

TRUDI KOLLAR: To me it always seemed like he was always on top of everything and she was doing whatever he wanted her to do and obeying everything.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: When Martha was in the gym, she could also be physically abusive.

TRUDI KOLLAR: And we could actually defend ourselves from her because she was not strong enough to catch us and hit us. So, you know, some things like she was scratch us or, and she would grab us from the neck like this, and then she would pull her fingernails into your meat and it kinda hurt. But she was, she was not good at beating. Bela was the bad one. Oh gosh that was bad.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: And when they faltered at meets, they faced his wrath.

TRUDI KOLLAR: Like let’s say on beam, you fell on beam. That was a disaster. You got off the beam, saluted the judges, and we went straight to the bathroom and he came after us and we got beaten up. And then he said, well, you better pull yourself together because you have two more events.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The girls’ only respite from Bela and Martha was their dance classes with Geza. 

GABY GEICULESCU: You know, it was relaxing for us. It was fun. He could uh, make us, you know, smile and have a good time.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: They also knew he would look out for them. 

TRUDI KOLLAR: Geza was always the one that was always behind Bela’s back, he was protecting us. When he was together with Bela and Martha, he was a tough guy because he had to look like a tough guy because he would have probably lost his job if he didn’t. So every time we went to practice at the gym in the afternoon and Geza was there before and he was always at the door looking through the keyhole and when Bela and Martha coming he said “six, six, six, and five.” Five was Martha and six was Bela. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Geza used dance counts as code names for Martha and Bela.

TRUDI KOLLAR: That’s how we knew when he said “six,” we already were like, oh my gosh, Bela’s coming. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Some days, Bela disappeared from the gym to go hunting. 

 

TRUDI KOLLAR: Those are the best days of our lives in the gym.
TRUDI KOLLAR: So basically Dracula wasn’t there.
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Who was Dracula?
TRUDI KOLLAR: Oh, Bela.

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela and Martha faced enormous pressure going into the 1980 Olympics. Their standing with the government was only as good as their next result. They’d have to match, or beat, the success of the ‘76 Games to keep their country’s favor. The entire Romanian team felt the weight of their country’s oppressive regime when they met with officials before they left for Moscow.

 

TRUDI KOLLAR: Some kind of Lieutenant, I don’t know. He was all dressed in green and stuff. Big and big guy and really serious, and he said, “You better think what you’re doing twice. Don’t you ever bring shame on your country. You’re wearing our country on your shoulders.”

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Trying to defend her gold medal in the all-around, Nadia became the center of a judging dispute.

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Nadia’s beam exercise was outstanding. Exactly “how” outstanding created a lot of debate and controversy.]

TRUDI KOLLAR: Nadia went on a beam and her beam score didn’t come up.

[NBC Sports
Announcer: For thirty minutes the judges debated among themselves. The Romanians tried to make sure that Nadia got the nine nine five score she needed. The Soviets knew anything less would give their girl, Davydova, the gold. It was the Soviets who won out.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela protested Nadia’s low beam score in full view of the television cameras.

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: She was awarded a score of 9.85. A score she met impassively, but which was greeted with disbelief by the Romanian coach.]

 
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Nadia had to settle for the silver in the all-around, but went on to win gold on floor and beam. Trudi won a silver medal on the uneven bars. The Romanians repeated with a silver in the team competition. But this time, finishing second to the Russians was a disappointment. Bela and Martha weren’t returning to Romania as heroes again.

GEZA POZSAR: So when we made a big brouhaha about Nadia’s scoring on beam, the government didn’t like it.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: In a society hyper-sensitive about how it was perceived on the world stage  — and particularly by its Communist allies — Bela’s protest in response to the Russian judge embarrassed the Romanian officials.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Plus, his most important ally in the Ceausescu regime had just been demoted.

GEZA POZSAR: So Bela knew that the end is close. And then he told me at that moment, we are now in big trouble. And from there, everything started to go sour for us. 

BONNIE FORD: The first time I ever saw Bela Karolyi in action with his gymnasts was pretty memorable.  

[ABC Sports
Announcer: There will be no scores today, just Nadia, in the spotlight again. Working her magic before our cameras.]

BONNIE FORD: It was the Nadia ‘81 tour when Bela and the Romanian women’s national team toured with the American team in March 1981. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: My reporting partner, Bonnie Ford, covered the Detroit stop of the Nadia ‘81 tour — a seven-city promotional tour of the U.S. — featuring the Romanian National team and its superstar.

BONNIE FORD: So I personally, as both an Olympic fan and a reporter at that time, I didn’t think of it as a political event where the Romanians were showing off their system, so to speak. Certainly they did, they saw it as a propaganda tool and a chance to highlight their excellence.

[ABC Sports
Announcer: Remarkable the crowds they get for gymnastics now, more than 16,000 here.]

BONNIE FORD: But to me it was just a chance to see the best athlete in her sport.

[ABC Sports
Announcer: She’s won 10 Olympic medals, five of them gold.]

BONNIE FORD: I was focused on Nadia. The audience was focused on Nadia. A lot of, you know, very excited young girls, this was like Beatlemania. Nadia-mania was definitely a real thing.

[ABC Sports
Announcer: Now that was not her Olympic all world championship routine, but the moves she did do were great.
Announcer: The crowd couldn’t care less. They have seen Nadia.]

[ABC Sports
Announcer: Just behind her you see the well-known coach Bela Karolyi.]

BONNIE FORD: Bela Karolyi was very visible, and he was unmistakable on the floor. Huge guy.  He was, in our eyes, the guru, the genius behind Nadia’s precision and perfection. 

TRACEE TALAVERA: Being on tour with Bela as the Romanian’s coach, it was interesting to watch him and the gymnasts, really, just how they interacted with each other. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The U.S. National Team had been invited to perform with the Romanians on their tour. Tracee Talavera was a member of that team. 

TRACEE TALAVERA: The gymnasts were always very stern, very robotic. They worked extremely hard. They did numbers of routines and skills way beyond what we had ever seen. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Mike Jacki, the man who would become the president of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, was on the tour, working for one of the equipment sponsors. He had a front row seat to the Karolyis.

MIKE JACKI: Martha was in the background. She didn’t say anything. Bela instructed her like he instructed everybody else. She was very subservient. I mean, it was not a coaching duo, you know, he was definitely the coach and she was definitely the third assistant. Even though there wasn’t a first or second assistant.  

ALYSSA ROENIGK: But despite how well the tour was going, things behind the scenes were deteriorating for the Romanian coaches. They could tell from the way officials were treating them that they were in danger of losing their jobs, and their prestige.

 

GEZA POZSAR: We were treated very poorly from the very beginning of the tour. I mean the president of the gymnastics federation was very, gave us a cold shoulder.

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: On the Washington, D.C. stop, they were invited to a dinner party hosted by the Romanian Ambassador.

 

GEZA POZSAR: And at the dinner party, nobody would talk to us. They look at us like strangers, like not even part of the team. 

GEZA POZSAR:  I think we had a feeling that there’s something was going on.

GEZA POZSAR:  Bela said that I don’t know if we have any future back in Romania. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The tour was almost over, in two days they’d be headed home. The Karolyis and Geza knew things could only get worse for them, that their favor with a fickle and punitive government was waning. They were tired of the scrutiny, in Romania everyone was watched all the time. Bela had fantasized about what a life in the United States could be.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: They had to make a decision.

GEZA POZSAR: We made a plan. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: After the final show, the team returned to New York before traveling back to Romania. But the coaches had no intention of getting on that plane. Martha had an aunt with a place in Manhattan that they could use to hideout for a few days. In order to get there, Geza would have to distract his roommate, the head of the Romanian security detail. 

GEZA POZSAR: The plan was that I will take the secret service guy out to, uh, shopping. And then we meet at the apartment.

  
ALYSSA ROENIGK: The morning of March 30, 1981, Trudi and her teammates were told they could go shopping, as long as they were back in time to board a bus to JFK Airport at noon.

TRUDI KOLLAR: So we had a little bit of money and we met down at in the hallway and they said, “Okay, so you have two hours. No funny business, no chocolates, no eating, no nothing.” Then we all went out the door, probably I walked like 10 steps and Bela says, “Trudi, I need you to come back.” I started crying. I said, Oh my gosh, what have I done wrong this time? He said, “You’re going to have to come back with us in our room.” I started crying because I thought, you know, I mean, just the fear of… what have I done wrong?

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Trudi followed Bela’s orders and went back to their room with Martha.

TRUDI KOLLAR: I go back with Martha to the hotel room and very unusual behavior. She went, looked at the window when walked back to the door looked to the window, walked back to the door. I talked to myself, what in the world? Gosh, now I’m supposed to be waiting to get beaten up. And I think we waited a good half an hour and then he comes through the door with a, this kind of look on his face, his face, like he was all pale and stuff like that. He says, “Trudi, we’re not coming back anymore.” When I heard that I asked, “What?” That’s the first time that I, I talked and I said, “What, is that what?” Well, we decided that we’re going to stay here. We’re not coming back.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela and Martha asked Trudi to bring back luggage for their families. 

TRUDI KOLLAR: And then, they just told me said “Um, we just have one request. Please make sure that, we’re gonna leave this room, you don’t leave this room for about 10 minutes after we’re out of this room. And you cannot tell anybody anything until you get on the plane.” They left and I looked out in the windows and I saw them throwing the luggage into a taxi, they jumped in taxi and left, and that’s when I knew for sure. I said, oh, we really, we really got rid of the Dracula. We’re not going to get beaten ever again. Life is going to be good from now on. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Meanwhile, Geza got his security guard roommate out of the hotel and into the crowded streets of Times Square for their own shopping trip.

GEZA POZSAR: It’s a big sale, I said, big sale! I think they had a feeling that something was going on. That we had some plans, yeah. He would not let me go. And suddenly he sees a little store with umbrellas.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Geza had his opportunity.

GEZA POZSAR: I saw a cab, you know, stopping down the street. I jumped in the cab and I was gone. 

 
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Geza made his way to meet Bela and Martha at her aunt’s apartment.

GEZA POZSAR: And when they saw me, they jumped up and down that I had made it. They were very happy. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: After Trudi saw the Karolyis leave, she went out and found her teammates on their shopping expedition… and loaded up on chocolate. 

TRUDI KOLLAR: I did, I bought chocolates and I ate. Even ate chocolate right when I bought it. Oh, it was the time of my life.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: There was no one to stop her.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: At noon, as planned, the Romanian National Team boarded a bus to the airport. 

TRUDI KOLLAR: So we finally got on a bus and the security guy who was already green on his face, said, “Where’s Bela?” You know it. I said, “I don’t know. How should I know?  Maybe they didn’t come back to the store yet. I have no idea.”

ALYSSA ROENIGK: There was no sign of Bela, Martha, or Geza. 

TRUDI KOLLAR: And so the bus left, we got to the airport. No, Bela, we got to the plane. No Bela. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The plane waited three hours on the tarmac…

TRUDI KOLLAR:  So it’s. I couldn’t believe it to myself. I couldn’t believe it until the plane took off and I saw they’re not in the plane. I said okay now they can’t come any more. 

[NBC News

Anchor: It’s been some time since the United States has had a really top drawer defection from the communist bloc of nations, but overnight here in Washington, a triple defection by three Romanians became known, which has overjoyed the American athletic world. 

Journalist: Romanian gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, one of the world’s best, his wife Martha, also a highly regarded trainer and Geza Poszar, the top choreographer for the Romanian women’s team. Today, they were at the Capitol asking a Congressman to help reunite them with their families. The Karolyis left a seven year old daughter in Romania. Geza Pozsar, a wife and a young daughter. 

Bill Archer: All I can tell you is, is that they are extremely warm. And I believe very talented individuals, uh, who have a great sense of, of the desire to be free.

Journalist: The U S already has granted the coaches permission to work, and there’s no doubt they plan to do what they do best.]

 

If you or someone you know has been subjected to sexual assault or abuse, and you would like more information or support, these hotlines can help: RAINN’s 24/7 confidential national sexual assault hotline  1-800-656-4673, ChildHelp 1-800-4-A-Child/ 1-800-422-4453 and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255

 

Credits

Heavy Medals

Alyssa Roenigk, Host and Reporter
Bonnie Ford, Reporter
Andrew Mambo and Meradith Hoddinott, Producers
Julia Lowrie Henderson, Senior Editorial Producer
Erin Leyden and Libby Geist, Executive Producers
Mitra Kaboli,  Mix Engineering and Sound Design
Reilly Bloom, Gus Navarro, Samantha Dowd, and Trevor Gill, Production Assistants
Louise Argianas, Cath Sankey, and Jennifer Thorpe, Production Management and Licensing
Ian Coss, Original Composition
Connor Schell, Rob King, & Alison Overholt, Executive Producers for ESPN
This podcast was developed by Jenna Anthony and Adam Neuhaus, with help from Jody Avirgan
Julianna Brannum, Archival Producer
John Mastroberardino provided fact checking
Terri Langford did legal research
Additional Production support from: Amy Van Deusen and Eve Wulf
This season of 30 for 30 Podcasts was produced in association with espnW.


ESPN Audio
Tom Ricks
, Vice President, Audio Digital Strategy & Marketing
Megan Judge, Director, Audio Distribution & Marketing
Pete Gianesini, Senior Director, Audio Production
Ryan Granner, Director, Digital Audio Operations

Additional Production Support
Vin D’Anton, Brandon Nix, Neel Danesha, Ryan Ross Smith, Claire Jones, Adrienne St Clair, Ryan Weaver,
Michael Castaneda, Anny Celsi, Talia Carlene Blake, Lauren Ober, Ruth Eddy, Wayne Ramocan (Juuni), Tasha French, Diana Nygent, Kateleigh Mills

Special Thanks
Pat Alexander, Bill Archer, Cora Bagoli, John Barr, David Barron, Dr. Dan Benardot, Cosmin Bogdan, Aimee Boorman,
Jen Brown, Mike Canales, Don Carlson, Ray Deenihan, Tom Forster, Ashley Fox, Wendy Hilliard, Barbara Kievit-Mason, Sarah Klein, Sandy Knapp, Cecile Landi, Laurent Landi, Mike Lynch, Kevin Mazeika, Phil Moseley, Dan Murphy,
Ryan Nantell, Jessica O’Beirne, Angie Povilaitis, Gary Rafaloski, Tony Retrosi, Keith Romer, RJ Santillo,
Susan Polakoff Shaw, Michelle Simpson Tuegel, Jolene Van Vugt, Paul Ziert , ESPN LA, and ESPN NY

 

Archival Material
Audio provided courtesy of:
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CBC Licensing
With Permission from The Estate of Clerow “Flip” Wilson
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Gymternet Media LLC (GymCastic podcast)
Harpo, Inc.
IOC/USOPC
The Kansas City Star. © 2019 McClatchy. All rights reserved. Used under license.
KHOU-TV Houston, TX
“Gymnastics Fun with Bela Karolyi” courtesy of Lions Gate Films Inc. 
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Seven Network. All rights reserved. © 
Universal Television LLC 
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WTHR-TV Indianapolis, IN