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Comaneci, darling of '76 Olympics, defects

By ERIKA LASZLO

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- Romanian gymnastics star and Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci, whose competitive spirit and charisma gained her world fame 13 years ago, defected to Hungary and asked for political asylum, a government spokesman said Wednesday.

Comaneci, 28, the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10 in Olympic competition, left her hotel in the Hungarian town of Szeged Wednesday morning for an unknown destination, Hungarian border officials said. An Interior Ministry spokesman said it was likely she would try to go to Austria.

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Comaneci, who has been coaching gymnastics, and six other Romanians crossed the border Tuesday near the southeastern Hungarian village of Mezogyan and asked for asylum, spokesman Andra Kovari said.

'The seven were guided across the border by a Romanian man,' the official news agency MTI quoted a Hungarian border guard as saying.

The defectors were directed to the police station in Szeged to formally request asylum.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said they apparently never showed up there.

'The border guards asked her to report to the police and she has not done so,' the ministry source said. 'It is likely that she may try to go to Austria.'

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Employees at the Royal Hotel in Szeged said Comaneci spent the night there and left around 6 a.m. local time in an automobile with Viennese license plates.

'She took her luggage with her, but left her Romanian identity papers here,' an employee said.

An official at the Austrian Interior Ministry said Comaneci had not crossed the border to Austria but her arrival was expected.

'I don't know yet, but I heard that Comaneci is on her way to Austria with some Romanian friends,' the official said. 'But if she doesn't have a passport, I doubt she will be able to get into Austria,' he said.

Comaneci's former coach Bela Karolyi, a Romanian of Hungarian descent who defected to the United States in 1981, said he hoped Comaneci would also make her home in America.

'I hope that she will come to the United States because that is where she would have the greatest opportunities,' said Karolyi at a meet in Montreaux, Switzerland, with American gymnasts he trains in Texas. 'Obviously she has been chased out of the country by the authorities. She deserves a life in freedom.'

Hungarian Olympic Committee chairman Pal Schmit said Hungary is willing to help Comaneci.

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'Accommodation and work will be provided for Comaneci in Hungary,' he told MTI. 'I am expecting to contact Comaneci.'

Hungarian officials said the gymnast was given a three-day visa and wouldn't need to report to authorities until Saturday.

A Western diplomatic source in Bucharest said news of her defection apparently had been blacked out in Romania. It was not reported by newspapers or radio. The Soviet news agency Tass reported the news.

Hungarian radio said Comaneci traded an apartment, a car and financial security for freedom.

Despite rapid, Western-style reforms under way in many Warsaw Pact nations, including Hungary, Romania has declared its allegiance to hard-line socialist ideals. Hungary is northwest of its east bloc neighbor and they share a 175-mile border.

Comaneci's defection came four days after Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu closed a Communist Party Congress that disdained the reforms sweeping other Warsaw Pact nations and endorsed his hard-line socialist ideals.

The standard of living in Romania is the lowest in the East Bloc.

Comaneci was 14 when she competed at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and received seven perfect scores and won three gold medals for the balance beam, the uneven parallel bars and all-around performance. She weighed only 86 pounds and was less than 5 feet tall.

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With composure and confidence, Comaneci unseated the Soviet Union's Olga Korbut, the darling of the 1972 games. Whereas Korbut exuded personality, Comaeci owned brooding, dark eyes. She seemed to perfer hugging her doll to world adulation. Her assurance bordered on the eerie.

'I have never cried,' she was once quoted as saying.

Comaneci was born in Onesti, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Her father was an auto mechanic and her mother an office worker. Karolyi discovered her playing in a kindergarten schoolyard, and was so impressed he visited the classrooms looking for her.

Not recognizing her, he finally asked the class, 'Who likes gymnastics?' Two children shot up their hands, and one of them was Nadia.

In 1969, Comaneci was the youngest entry in the Romanian junior championships, and finished in 13th place. She won the following year.

At the 1980 Olympics in Moscow -- boycotted by the United States and dozens of other nations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- she won gold medals for the beam and the floor exercises. She also won a team silver.

After the 1976 games, she was named a Hero of Socialist Labor by her country, becoming the youngest Romanian to gain the honor.

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Famed for her lissom grace, her career in world-class, senior gymnastics started in April 1975 at the European Championships when she was 13.

Her choreography coach in the early years, Geza Pozsar, defected with several other Romanian gymnasts to the United States in April 1981. Comaneci left competitive gymnastics that year and became a coach.

At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, she received seven perfect scores and won gold medals for the balance beam and the uneven bars.

Her bright personality and zest for competition won the hearts of millions who saw her perform in Montreal. Her star appeal sharply boosted interest in gymnastics in the United States.

At the talent-diluted 1980 Olympics in Moscow -- boycotted by the United States and dozens of other nations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- she won gold medals for the beam and the floor exercises. She also won a silver medal as a member of her team.

After the 1976 games, she was named a Hero of Socialist Labor by her country, becoming the youngest Romanian to gain the honor.

Nadia Comaneci, the winsome gold-medal gymnast at the 1976 Olympics, crossed into Hungary with six other Romanians and asked for political asylum, a government spokesman said Wednesday.

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Hungarian border officials said she left her hotel in the Hungarian town of Szeged Wednesday morning for an unknown destination. The Austrian Interior Ministry said Comaneci had not crossed into Austria but her arrival was expected.

'I don't know yet but I heard that Comaneci is on her way to Austria with some Romanian friends,' an official said. 'But if she doesn't have a passport, I doubt she will be able to get into Austria.'

Comaneci, 28, became the first Olympic gymnast to earn a perfect score with her performance on the uneven parallel bars at the 1976 Montreal Games. Her former coach, Bela Karolyi, a Romanian of Hungarian descent who defected to the United States in 1981, was reached at a meet in Montreaux, Switzerland, where he was with American gymnasts he trains in Texas.

'I hope that she will come to the United States because that is where she would have the greatest opportunities,' Karolyi said. 'Obviously she has been chased out of the country by the authorities. She deserves a life in freedom.'

Comaneci and the other six crossed the border Tuesday near the southeast Hungarian village of Mezogyan and asked for asylum, Hungarian spokesman Andra Kovari said.

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The official news agency MTI quoted a Hungarian border guard as saying the seven were guided across the border by a Romanian man. The defectors were directed to the police station in Szeged to make a formal request for asylum. An Interior Ministry spokesman said they apparently never showed up there.

'The border guards asked her to report to the police and she has not done so,' the ministry source said. 'It is likely that she may try to go to Austria'.

Employees at the Royal Hotel in Szeged said Comaneci spent the night there and left around 6 a.m. in a car with Viennese license plates.

'She took her luggage with her but left her Romanian identity papers here,' an employee said.

Pal Schmit, chairman of the Hungarian Olympic Committee, said Hungary would be willing to help Comaneci.

'Accommodation and work will be provided for Comaneci in Hungary,' he said in an interview with MTI. 'I am expecting to contact Comaneci.'

Hungarian officials said the gymnast was given a three-day visa and wouldn't need to report to authorities until Saturday.

A Western diplomatic source in Bucharest said news of her defection had apparently been blacked out in Romania. It was not reported by newspapers or radio. However, her defection was reported by the Soviet news agency Tass.

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Hungarian radio said Comaneci traded an apartment, a car and financial security for freedom.

Despite rapid, Western-style reforms under way in many Warsaw Pact nations, including Hungary, Romania has declared its allegiance to hard-line socialist ideals. Hungary is northwest of its east bloc neighbor and they share a 175-mile border.

Comaneci's defection came four days after Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu closed a Communist Party Congress that disdained the reforms sweeping other Warsaw Pact nations and endorsed his hard-line socialist ideals.

The standard of living in Romania is the lowest in the East Bloc.

Comaneci was 14 when she competed at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and received seven perfect scores and won three gold medals for the balance beam, the uneven parallel bars and all-around performance. She weighed only 86 pounds and was less than 5 feet tall.

With composure and confidence, Comaneci unseated the Soviet Union's Olga Korbut, the darling of the 1972 Games. Whereas Korbut exuded personality, Comaneci owned brooding, dark eyes. She seemed to perfer hugging her doll to world adulation. Her assurance bordered on the eerie.

'I have never cried,' she was once quoted as saying.

At the 1980 Moscow Olympics -- boycotted by the United States and dozens of other nations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- she won gold medals for the beam and the floor exercises. She also won a team silver.

Advertisement

After the 1976 Games, she was named a Hero of Socialist Labor by her country, becoming the youngest Romanian to gain the honor.

Famed for her lissom grace, her career in world-class, senior gymnastics started in April 1975 at the European Championships when she was 13.

Her choreography coach in the early years, Geza Pozsar, defected with several other Romanian gymnasts to the United States in April 1981. Comaneci left competitive gymnastics that year and became a coach.

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