Olympic gymnastic coaches Bela Karolyi and his wife, Marta, have been accused of physically and psychologically abusing female athletes in a new tell-all book. Stejarel Olaru pulled back the curtain on the Romanian gymnastic coaches in the book Nadia si Securitatea, which documents severe treatment of young athletes who were allegedly beaten and starved by the Karolyis.
The victims were numerous, according to reports, but among the most notable was Nadia Comaneci, the first Olympic gymnast to achieve a perfect ten. The secret police files reveal the Karolyis’ winning strategies, which were so harsh they surprised the police.
In the book, Olaru writes that “starving the gymnasts was a regular practice by the Karolyis,” and that some of the girls ate toothpaste at night before going to bed — this is how hungry they were. In some cases, they talked about drinking water from the toilet tank in secret, because they were often not allowed to drink water.”
The abuse allegations date back to the 1960s when the Karolyis were premier coaches for Romania. The treatment allegedly led to gymnasts developing eating disorders, and among them was Romanian prodigy, Comaneci. “Some ended up suffering from bulimia,” Olaru reveals in the book. “They became experts in stealing food, which they hid in places they thought no one would discover, like the hem of the curtain.”
The Romanian gymnastics coaches defected to America in 1981, and both Bela Karolyi and his wife coached superstar medalists in several Olympic games. Bela coached Mary Lou Retton in 1984 and was the head coach for the U.S. national team in 1992. Marta was also a big name on and around the gym mats, leading the U.S. team to a gold medal in 1996.
The book takes many of its claims from Romania’s Communist-era secret police force, according to a report, and the Romanian coaches might just face consequences for their long-standing tyranny over innocent gymnasts. Some of the stories documented are horrifying, as even the biggest champions weren’t safe from the Karolyi wrath.
Comaneci claimed in a previously unpublished interview that she was beaten and starved, and Bela Karolyi would eat fast food meals in front of the girls. “I was aware of Olaru’s project and his research on the secret police files and informers,” Comaneci told the Times in London. “I told him that my whole memory is in the book I wrote, ‘Letters to a Young Gymnast.’ Nothing more to add. Life goes on.”
The gold medalist, now 59, is living in Oklahoma and runs a gymnastics academy with her husband, Bart Conner. The Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy trains more than 1,000 students. Her teaching style is very different from the Karolyis’.
In an interview with AFP, Bela Karolyi explained that he is “never satisfied.” According to the coach, it’s in his nature. “It’s never enough, never. My gymnasts are the best prepared in the world. And they win. That’s all that counts.”
The Karolyis are fighting against several lawsuits, from abuse charges to neglecting female gymnasts’ health and safety. The coaches allegedly ignored evidence of sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
In 2016, one lawsuit accused the Karolyis of hitting female gymnasts, and one gymnast, Dominique Moceanu, described Bela Karolyi and his wife as the “most emotionally abusive coaches in our lifetime.”