Gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi is facing fresh claims that he physically abused and psychologically tortured young female athletes going back to the 1960s.
Karolyi, who coached in his native Romanian before defecting to the US in 1981 where he took charge of the American national team, and wife Martha are alleged to have beaten, starved, and denied medical treatment to girls at their training camps.
Among the alleged victims was Nadia Comaneci, an early protege of Karolyi and the first gymnast to achieve a perfect ten at the Olympics – a feat previously thought unobtainable.
The claims are contained within old files from the Securitate, Romania’s communist-era secret police, who kept a close eye on the Karolyis because of the importance of Romania’s gymnastics team to state propaganda efforts.
The Karolyis are already facing lawsuits and investigations in the US over allegations of abuse there, and their links to paedophile Team USA doctor Larry Nassar.
Bela Karolyi (left) and wife Martha (right) are facing fresh claims that they abused young, female gymnasts during their time coaching in Romania
Among the victims of the Karolyis is said to be Nadia Comaneci, the first gymnast to achieve a perfect 10 at the Olympics (pictured during that even in 1976 left, and right in 2019)
The documents are published in a new book, Nadia si Securitatea (Nadia and the Securitate), by Romanian author Stejarel Olaru.
In the book, he writes that even the secret police officers were sometimes shocked by the treatment girls received at training camps run by the Karolyis.
‘Starving the gymnasts was a regular practice by the Karolyis,’ he writes.
‘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.
‘Some ended up suffering from bulimia. They became expert in stealing food, which they hid in places they thought no one would discover, like the hem of the curtain.’
In an unpublished interview printed in the book, Comaneci claimed to Romanian journalists that she had been slapped and starved for up to three days at a time.
Meanwhile secret service documents refer to Karolyi sometimes eating meals including steaks and french fries in front of girls who were being under-fed.
Karolyi had been a relative unknown even in his native Romania before discovering Comaneci, which brought him to the attention of the communist regime and then-dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
After Comaneci’s history-making victories at the 1976 Olympics, Ceausescu sent government agents to keep an eye on him – or, as he referred to it in a 1992 interview with Sports Illustrated, they ‘began interfering with his program’.
Instead of devoting themselves to training, the government had his pupils travelling across the country and making propaganda appearances.
He complained, and in response the Romanian government cut his funding and transferred Comaneci to a different gym.
The Karolyis are already facing investigations and lawsuits in the US relating to their time spent coaching Team USA athletes at their ranch in Texas (pictured in 1996)
An underwhelming result for Comaneci at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow led Karolyi to complain of score-rigging by the Soviets in favour of their own gymnast, who narrowly beat his pupil, and further complicated his relations with the regime.
In 1981, Karolyi was sent on an 11-city tour of the US with his star pupil with the aim of raising some $250,000 for the Romanian state. She was paid just $1,000.
Accompanied by members of the Romanian security services, Karolyi and his wife did as they was asked – but on March 29, the day they walked out of their hotel and lost the detail on the crowded streets of New York.
The couple, along with their chief choreographer Geza Pozsar, sought and were ultimately granted political asylum in the US.
Comaneci was left to discover their empty hotel room. She would ultimately defect to the US herself, thought not until 1989.
Comaneci, now 59 and living in Oklahoma, gave a brief statement to The Times about Olaru’s book without addressing the abuse claims directly.
‘I was aware of [Olaru’s] project and his research on the secret police files and informers,’ she said.
‘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.’
Bela Karolyi did not explicitly deny the allegations when contacted by the AFP news agency.
‘By nature I am never satisfied,’ he said. ‘It’s never enough, never. My gymnasts are the best prepared in the world. And they win. That’s all that counts.’
It is hardly the first time that the Karolyis have been accused of abusing female athletes entrusted to their care.
Multiple athletes have come forward with claims relating to their time at the Karolyi Ranch, located in a remote part of the Sam Houston National Forest, east Texas.
The ranch is where paedophile doctor Larry Nassar, now serving 175 years in jail for abuse against more than 150 women and girls, carried out some of his attacks.
Larry Nassar, the paedophile Team USA doctor, carried out attacks at the couple’s ranch – with accusers including gold medallist Simone Biles (right), who trained there
Among his accusers are Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and Simone Biles – all gold medal winning Team USA gymnasts.
The Karolyis deny any knowledge of Nassar’s abuse, but athletes have accused them of turning a blind eye while also alleging the couple carried out abuse of their own.
A 2016 lawsuit filed by an anonymous Jane LM Doe accused the couple of hitting female gymnasts, while former athlete Mattie Larson accused the pair of keeping Nassar as a doctor because he was willing to ignore their abuse.
‘The complete detachment from the outside world, on top of careless and neglectful adults, made the ranch the perfect environment for abusers and molesters to thrive,’ Larson told CNN in 2018.
‘Did you keep Larry around because he was a good doctor? Or did you really keep him around because he let us compete when we were injured and was willing to keep your secrets?’
But others have alleged that they were abused directly by the Karolyis, who have both served as Team USA head coach over the years.
Dominique Moceanu, a member of the 1996 Olympic gold medal team, described the Karolyis as ‘the most emotionally abusive coaches in our lifetime’.