Romanian mania Gymnastics: Tradition, hard work and determination make the women's team one of the favorites for gold.

July 16, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Octavian Belu says there is no magic, no mystery and no mercy about his Romanian women's gymnastics team.

"The secret is to work seven hours a day, seven days a week," he said. "We must stay in the training all the time. Be a family. We want to replace the family, mothers and fathers. The gymnasts make some sacrifice. They accept rules."

And they win.

This may make American television executives nervous, but it's the Romanians, not the Americans, who are the favorites to take the women's team gold and dominate the first week of the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Led by a stone-faced blonde from Bucharest named Alexandra Marinescu, and veteran Gina Gogean, the reigning world team champion Romanians have the toughest and most experienced squad at the Olympics.

"It will be an open fight for the gold," said Belu, the 45-year-old head coach who speaks five languages and who looks and acts a lot like gymnastics guru Bela Karolyi.

"The American team is playing at home and they know how to play this advantage," he added. "The Russian team wants to be back in a good position. And the Chinese, they have looked very good the last three years. Between these teams, it is a big competition. Everyone will be against us."

Shed no tears for Romania, though. This is the country that gave gymnastics a charismatic coach, Karolyi, an unflappable star, Nadia Comaneci, and a moment of Olympic perfection in Montreal in 1976.

Under Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, women gymnasts became emblems of a communist society, showing the West that things worked behind the Iron Curtain. But the reality was that Romania was an autocratic society heading for collapse and revolution.

Karolyi left Romania after the 1980 Olympics and founded a gymnastics empire in Houston. Comaneci skipped the country, too. And Ceausescu, the old dictator, became the country's most-famed casualty, killed by gunfire.

But revolution didn't destroy Romania's gymnastics program.

"We kept our system," Belu said. "There were good things in gymnastics before. Why try to change? Why experiment and lose time?"

Romania's athletic authorities still ruthlessly prune the list of candidates for the national team, assessing the size and tumbling talents of little girls, trying to predict who will grow too large for the sport, and who will peak at the perfect time to win medals.

"We don't have a billion people like the Chinese, or 700 million like Russia," Belu said. "We are 23 million. We must select from the beginning the right child for gymnastics."

The top girls are then brought together at a training center in Deva and molded into a family. The team that tumbles together and studies together stays together, or so the reasoning goes.

"We push gymnasts to do fantastic things," Belu said. "But we don't push too much. We explain to our girls it's important not to be ordinary people."

But the relentless pursuit of gymnastics perfection in Romania has produced at least one well-known casualty, 11-year-old Adriana Giurca, beaten to death by a male coach in 1993.

The revelation shocked authorities and tarnished the sport. Now, it's standard practice for a woman coach to be present when the Romanian girls practice. And Belu said the girls are treated with respect.

Romanian gymnastics also collided with capitalism. Like American baseball players grumbling over salaries, the gymnasts staged a work slowdown in 1994 in a successful bid to pry promised prize money from the government.

"In Romania, to do gymnastics is good business," Belu said. "The girls can make a lot of money."

And so can the coaches, if they're willing to sell their services to the highest-bidding countries. Romanian coaches can be found across the globe, from Israel to Guatemala to the United States.

"We're considered versatile," said Adrian Stan, who went from Romania to Great Britain. "The Russians are very good, but they can't speak the language. We can communicate. Being from a small country, we improvise."

And they follow simple rules passed down through generations.

"Don't beat yourself," Stan said. "But there's another rule: If I can't win, you can lose. The Romanians are a quite precise machine. They will not make disasters."

For the Romanians, the target is always gold.

"For us, it is an obsession to win," Belu said. "People say, 'You are crazy. There are other things to do in life other than staying in a hall and training.' But gymnastics -- it's like a virus and I can't stop."

Pub Date: 7/16/96

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