The Little Girl Who Died for Gold

By Kim Willsher

The Mail on Sunday, February 19, 1995   They pose proudly for the camera, six seemingly happy little girls carrying the hopes of a nation on their frail shoulders.

These eight-year-old Romanian gymnasts were viewed as possible future Olympic champions -- in a country whose ruthless determination to produce world-beating athletes has not diminished since the darkest days of Nicolae Ceausescu's communist regime.

One of them, ringed in the picture, was tipped as the girl who could scale the heights of success that Romania has longed for since Nadia Comaneci's astonishing gold medal-winning performances in the 1976 Olympics.

But now that girl, Adriana Giurca, is dead -- a victim of the same merciless system which turned Comaneci into probably the greatest gymnast of all time, but which makes no allowance for human frailty in its obsessive drive for perfection.

Adriana was beaten to death by her coach...because she failed.

It wasn't a huge failure.  Just a loss of concentration and balance which sent her tumbling from the wooden beam at the elite Dinamo Club in Bucharest, where she trained.

Since the tragedy, which has only now come to light, Romanian officials have vehemently denied suggestions that the country is resorting to the same ruthless techniques used under communism to produce Olympic stars like Comaneci.

But a crime which should have shocked the nation has been largely dismissed as a one-off incident, an accident of fate.

That is, until you speak to Adriana's parents, Maria and Emile Giurca.  Maria, who visits her daughter's grave every day, refuses to allow the brutal killing to be written off as an act of destiny.

Over and again Adriana had tried to complete the complicated beam routine under the unforgiving gaze of her trainer, Florin Gheorghe.  But each time she was less than perfect.

Gheorghe, 25, couldn't tolerate failure.  Adriana, 11 by this time, was his favorite pupil and he demanded success.  When the weary youngster faltered again, he snapped.

He grabbed this fragile wisp of a girl and smashed her head against the beam, lashing out with his fists and feet.  She begged for mercy.  "Please stop, you will kill me!" she screamed.  But his attack was relentless. Finally he picked her up and threw her to the floor.

She landed on the padded mats with such force that her spine was pushed into her brain, leaving her in a coma.  Two days later she died.

Today the small girl with big dreams lies under a simple white marble cross near her family home in Bucharest, while her mother lights candles and weeps.

Florin Gheorghe was jailed last month for eight years for the savage attack 15 months ago.

Afterwards, one of Adriana's classmates, 12-year-old Marioara Chidris, confirmed that it was not the first time he had hit them.  "Florin Gheorghe told us it was the best way to reach the height of performance," she said.  "It was normal, but we didn't tell our parents or anyone else.  We wanted to be gymnasts and we accepted it."

Astonishingly, Dinamo president Gheorghe Novac dismissed the fatal attack on Adriana as merely "an excess of zeal."

"Maybe this girl wasn't performing to the high level expected by her trainer and he was determined to make her do her best," he said.

"It is not acceptable to hit a child under any circumstances and our coaches know this.  Nor is it common practice in any club in Romania.  I have a young daughter myself and I understand the pain of the parents, but it was an isolated case.  It happens; it is fate."

In the seventies the world saw a generation of waif-like girls from the Eastern Bloc snatch medal after medal in international competitions.  We were enthralled by their poise and strength, their pouts and struts.  At the time we had little idea what a punishing price these young gymnasts had paid for their success, designed to prove the triumph of communism.

Today we know that they were puppets of ruthless regimes, their young bodies and minds manipulated beyond the limits of endurance.

Their discipline was admirable, but we will probably never discover how many were irreparably broken -- or even died -- in the process.

Such draconian sporting methods were assumed to have softened after the fall of communism.  But Adriana's death has resurrected fears that in some Eastern European countries nothing very much has changed.

Pain pervades the flat where Adriana's parents live in Bucharest's New Quarter, a concrete wasteland of high-rise apartment blocks typical of the Ceausescu years.

In the corner of the living room is a simple shrine to Adriana -- a framed photograph, some flowers and a candle.  The Giurcas' older daughter, Anna Maria, 14, misses her sister desperately.

"Adriana loved gymnastics.  Even as a tiny child she would watch the television and copy the moves," says her father Emile, 41.

"She insisted we take her to the gymnastic school when she was five, which is not unusual.  Here it is a hugely popular sport and many little girls want to be gymnasts.  Most work for a long time before being picked out, but Adriana was spotted as a possible champion within two weeks."

"We were told she had a good chance of making the national team when she reached the minimum age of 12."

"We were proud but we never pushed it.  We didn't have to -- it was what she wanted."

In 1991 Florin Gheorghe, himself a former gymnast, became a coach at the Dinamo Club.  The gym, whose entrances are patrolled by guards, trains only the finest athletes -- and demands iron discipline.

"Adriana had a very special relationship with Florin," says her mother Maria, 40.

"Everyone said she was the best and he treated her as his star gymnast.  She never complained about anything and we had no worries at all."

On Saturday, November 8, 1993, two days before she was due to take part in a national tournament, Emile took his daughter for her regular training session at the club.

It was a tense day.  Success in the competition would mark her out for selection to the national team and a chance to train at the leading Olympic club established by Bela Karolyi, the man whose punishing regime turned Comaneci into a gold medal-winning machine.

Adriana knew only the best would be good enough.  For every 1,000 competent young Romanian gymnasts, only one makes the exceptional grade.

When her father came to pick her up a lunchtime, he was met at the door by Florin Gheorghe.  "He said that there had been an accident, that Adriana had fallen," Emile recalls.

"I ran inside and saw the other young girls in a line crying.  Adriana was lying on a bench in the locker room.  I called out her name, but one of the women trainers told me not to bother because she was in a coma and couldn't hear."

Emile carried his daughter's limp body to the car and, thinking she had a spinal injury, laid her on a piece of wood on the back seat to take her to the hospital half a mile away.  "I didn't know what had happened and there wasn't time to ask.  After she was admitted to intensive care the doctors said she was probably going to die."

"Maria and I stayed at her bedside talking to her until she died on Monday morning.  She never regained consciousness or made any movement, but just before she died tears fell from her eyes."

"By then I had noticed bruises on her face, but we were too upset and confused to question what had happened."

"Afterwards one of the girls said Gheorghe beat Adriana like an animal, and that the others were frozen with fear.  They said he had hit other girls in the past."

Gheorghe was immediately dismissed from the club.  But it was three months before the local prosecutor questioned him, and then only after pressure from the Giurcas.

"For weeks we asked them what had happened to the case.  They said they couldn't find the file.  It eventually turned up in a pile of traffic violation papers," says Emile.  "We kept on at them, but they did not arrest the coach until February of last year.  He was only charged with beating her to death, which has a maximum sentence of ten years, instead of murder, which is a minimum of 20.  He said he wanted Adriana to be afraid of him so she would perform better."

The Giurcas are appealing for a more severe charge and sentence and are taking civil proceedings against the Dinamo Club, which they say did not even write to offer condolences.  At the club and other gymnastic halls in Bucharest last week, scores of twig-thin young girls -- one only four years old -- performed the same grueling exercises over and over again.

With determined faces their tiny bodies tumbled, twisted or stretched around bars and beams which dwarfed them.

The regime is demanding, but they seemed cheerful enough; smiling when successful, trying once more when not.  Dinamo coach Gheorghe Pecu said the club was shocked by Adriana's death -- and insisted that beating the children was not part of the programme.

"We make them work hard to they perform well, but we do not hit them.  What happened to this little girl was a one-off incident."

"Every coach wants to train a champion, and these girls want to be champions because it is a way of escaping the poverty of this country.  To produce an excellent performance you have to have strict discipline."

Leading Romanian sports journalist Radu Timofte said the coaches were often a 'third parent' to their pupils and smacking them when they failed was accepted practice at many clubs.

"It will be done not to hurt them but to push them on to reach their physical and mental limit and -- when they have reached it -- to push them further.  When you are seeking excellence you must try seemingly impossible things to force them to think."

"It is something that is accepted by both the coaches and the girls who want to be another Nadia.  That was the secret of sporting success in former socialist countries."

National gymnastics coach Octavian Belu agreed.  After Romania's women gymnasts won the world championships in November, he said: "Bulgaria and Russia lost their place in world gymnastics when they lost their iron discipline."

But Emile and Maria cannot accept that the deliberate and barbaric attack which killed their daughter can be ascribed to some vagary of chance, some unfortunate mistake by an overzealous trainer.

This restrained and articulate couple, both economists, wouldn't have dared to complain or speak out before the bloody revolution of 1989.  Now, however, they refuse to remain silent.

"We keep being told this is fate, that God will bless our daughter," says Maria.  "If it was an accident we would accept it, but not a day goes by without us thinking about what she suffered.  They say it is an isolated case...but that isolated case was my daughter."

"Romanian gymnasts perform around the world and I believe the club should be punished by the international sporting authorities.  After all, they employed this animal."

In Romania there has long been the suggestion that the 1989 revolution simply put the hardline Old Guard in new uniforms.  Brutal communist regimes may have disappeared in name, but their legacy remains to claim victims like Adriana.

"This is a tragedy for the family and for all of Romania," said sports writer Radu Timofte.  "But the real crime is our society's attitude to it."

This page was created on October 09, 2004.
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