Romanian Coach Keeps Up the Fight
By Jane Perlez
New York Times, July 13, 1995 Lavinia Milosovici, a 19-year-old acrobatic powerhouse, rises every morning from under a satin pink bedcover, glances at a poster of Michael Jackson hanging above her television and prepares for another seven hours in the well-worn gymnasium a few steps from her dormitory.
Milosovici, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in 1992 and one of Romania's big hopes for the Games in Atlanta, savors some of the Western frills allowed since the toppling of the Communists. She keeps her prize money (minus 65 percent taxes), earns a salary and, now and then, relishes a croissant or some ice cream.
But at heart, the system that worked to give Romanian female gymnasts worldwide recognition under the Communists has been kept: youngsters are plucked from their families a few years after they walk and coached in this country town among the hills of Transylvania where Nadia Comaneci trained.
The national team coach, Octavian Belu, is convinced that the old system, with a more human face, will help his team prevail in Atlanta against stiff competition from the United States, as well as Russia and China.
The stakes are higher than usual, said Belu. With the Olympics in Atlanta and enormous television time allocated for gymnastics, the American team will have a home-field advantage. And he will be fighting against his old comrade, Bela Karolyi, the former Romanian coach who defected in 1981 and has been training Americans ever since.
Belu, a big man with a no-nonsense but friendly manner, believes he has a strong edge; he doesn't have to contend with the pressures of interfering American parents.
"The difference is in the systems," he said. "We have kept the system that gave us very good results before. In America, the difference is the mentality of the family. Here, as coach, for 24 hours I know what happens to my gymnast -- I know how she sleeps, what she eats. It's difficult in other countries to say to a family: 'She leaves home on Jan. 1 and comes back on Dec. 25.' They say: 'You are crazy.' Here the family gives me 100 percent power to make what I want with this child. They say: 'I give you this girl and I come two or three times a year.' Bela cannot have this."
Belu's top 25 girls, including the nine-member Olympic squad, train seven days a week, twice a day, for a total of about seven hours daily, he said. "In the United States and other countries, they don't accept to work seven days. They want weekends and holidays. This interrupts the preparation. If you lose one week it takes three weeks to catch up."
Much has changed in the world of female gymnastics since Communism collapsed. Belarus and Ukraine, republics of the former Soviet Union with a strong tradition in gymnastics, will be sending their own teams to Atlanta, leaving the Russians with less to choose from. The Chinese have come into their own, scoring well on technique though not quite catching the Romanians in choreography. And the Americans with the current world champion, Shannon Miller, and Dominique Dawes as stars, possess more depth than ever.
Inside Romania, there has been even more turbulence.
Earlier this year, a coach in the capital, Bucharest, was convicted of manslaughter after throwing one of his 11-year-old students to the ground and beating her so badly that she died several hours later. The incident, in which the coach was arrested eight months after the death, was dismissed by Romanian sports officials as unusual physical abuse. But girls at the Dinamo school testified in court the corporal punishment was given when they failed to meet expectations.
Last year, 10 of Belu's stars staged a training slowdown to protest the failure of the gymnastics federation to pay them overdue prize money after they won the European championships in Stockholm. The federation in Bucharest has been trying to wrest Belu out of his seclusion in the hills here and entice him to do some of his training in the capital.
Perhaps most unsettling for the Romanians is the hemorrhaging of their coaching staff. Since 1990, more than 60 coaches have left for bigger money in France, Britain and the United States.
And some trainers who have stayed behind complain of financial problems. Unlike other sports here, female gymnastics and female rowing -- the sports in which Romania excels at the Olympics -- have not had their budgets cut by the government. But the equipment in the Deva gym is old and some of the floor mats are for men and thus are the wrong height.
Still, Belu, who came to Deva in the early 80's and was appointed head coach in 1988, seems pleased that he has been able to ward off efforts to change the basics.
"After the revolution, everyone here said: 'Why do we need this centralization. We don't want this, this is Communism,' he said, his eyes rolling. "So all the gymnasts were sent home to clubs. Two months later there was a big competition in Paris and the clubs sent their gymnasts. We were in 15th place. And people asked why?"
Belu said he won the argument: "It's normal after a revolution that people want to start from zero. But I said why do you talk badly of centralization. I said the medal of Nadia Comaneci was the result of centralization. The best pilots who want to go into space -- they have to work together at NASA."
Within the system, however, Belu said the relationships have changed. "Now I must come as a collaborator," he said. "Before, a gymnast doesn't ask -- she was told. Now my job is more difficult. I must be more democratic and diplomatic with the family and I must be different in the hall. I have to be like an artist, to adapt my temperament and character to the gym."
Belu has some fairly straightforward explanations for the critics of a sport that pushes very young, very small athletes through routines that require extraordinary physical endurance.
It was a fallacy, he asserts, that the female gymnasts were small because of training and strict diets. "It is the selection that makes them small," he said. "If the father is two meters and the mother is 1.85 meters, I say, 'Thank you very much, try another sport.' If the girl is too tall, I can't do anything with her. The bar has a dimension." Two meters is 6 feet, 6 1/2 inches, and 1.85 meters is about 6 feet.
Diet restrictions, he said, were more relaxed now than previously. The Olympic team dines at several small round tables in a room next to the coach's dining room and athletes eat smaller amounts of what the grown-ups eat: at lunch time chicken and potatoes, at supper a plate of cold cuts, tomatoes, cheese and salad.
"We don't eat quantity, we talk about quality," Belu said. "If she wants to eat chicken, it's one thing to eat 200 grams and another to eat three chickens. Important is the calories. If I give 3,000 calories, she must spend 3,000 calories in the hall."
The magic method of keeping a young gymnast strong after a day of hard training? "This miracle medicine is sleep," Belu said. "If you sleep 10 hours you don't need anything else." The sleeping schedule in the dormitory for his Olympic team was 10:30 PM until 7:30 AM and then 2 PM to 4:30 PM. There are two training sessions -- in the morning and afternoon. Two hours of class are supposed to be squeezed in at a long tale adjacent to the girls' bedrooms.
Unlike the old days, Belu says he has encouraged the girls to understand they are stars on a world stage.
Milosovici, who comes from a family with Serbian roots in the Transylvanian region, has a big smile, even in the gym. But she seems painfully shy, even after some years of nosy questions by Western reporters.
During a break from a workout, Milosovici said she was looking forward to Atlanta where the United States and Russia would be the biggest threats. "Don't forget China," she added.
On personal questions, Belu said he has had to coach Milosovici. "I tell her that like Lady Diana and Ringo Starr you have to answer the questions," he said. "I tell her: 'You can say I don't have a boyfriend because I don't have time.' "
Breaking into a grin, he said: 'Now I'm still the God, but I'm more human than before."
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