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Nadia Comaneci Still Revered in Romania

April 5, 1990

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) _ You can come back, Nadia. All is forgiven.

The people in your homeland understand why you left. They’ve heard the stories about your cavorting through America with a married man and wonder why you’ve snubbed Bela Karolyi, who made you a star before he, too, departed for the West.

But that’s OK. To your compatriots, you - Nadia Comaneci, gymnastics star of the 1976 Olympics and perhaps the most famous Romanian alive - remain a beloved pixie whose life was ruined by the Ceausescu family.

″Maybe the person was not great as a human, but as a sports symbol she was really great,″ said Radu Gliga, a Bucharest engineer. ″For sure they used her for political gain, but we didn’t care about this. We loved her and she gave us so much happiness.″

The people who used Comaneci were the family and followers of Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruled Romania as a personal fiefdom for more than 20 years until the revolution last December, just after Comaneci defected.

Comaneci reportedly had a long relationship with Nicu Ceausescu, the dictator’s son, although its exact nature is unclear. Comaneci has denied having anything to do with Nicu Ceausescu, though her mother has said he tormented Comaneci physically and emotionally during a five-year relationship.

Many Romanians believe there was some kind of long-term affair between the two.

″People always loved Nadia. She is a great kid that suffered because of the golden epoch, because she was a champion and beautiful,″ said Petru Ioan, a gymnastics coach who worked with Karolyi and knew Comaneci as a little girl in Onesti in eastern Romania.

″Someone should have fallen in love with her. The little prince (Nicu Ceausescu) caused her all the problems,″ he said. ″She was forced by him. I couldn’t tell if she loved him or not.″

Ioan’s wife, Christina, also a gymnastics coach, said Nicu Ceausescu - known as a playboy - would not leave Comaneci alone.

″There was a time when she wanted to give up everything,″ Christina Ioan said. ″She wished a family, she wanted to get married, but she was trapped by Nicu.″

Comaneci soared into superstardom as a 14-year-old when she became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics. She won three gold medals, a silver and a bronze at those Games, part of 21 gold medals in Olympic and world championship competition.

But shortly after crawling through icy water to escape from Romania in early December, the image of the 28-year-old Comaneci was dragged through the mud.

She entered the United States with Constantin Panait, a Romanian emigre who engineered her escape and decided he would rather stay with Comaneci than his wife and four children.

Then came the Romanian revolution, which added perspective to the rumors of her relationship with Nicu Ceausescu and reports that she had led a privileged life while most of Romania suffered.

The March issue of Life magazine featured ″the fall from grace of an angel named Nadia,″ picturing her as a money-hungry home-wrecker with a voracious appetite for food and champagne. It also said she tried to kill herself by drinking bleach just one year after the Montreal Olympics.

″I think she is a victim of society,″ said Doina Stanescu, a sports writer for Gazeta Sporturilor (Sports Gazette). ″Everybody used her for themselves. In our country, only a few people understood her.″

Stanescu said Comaneci, who became a coach and gymnastics judge, was prevented from traveling to many international competitions and virtually exiled from Bucharest for two years by the Ceausescu family.

″The position of anti-communism of Nadia Comaneci was known in Romania only after her defection,″ deputy sports minister Cornel Dinu said. ″She was oppressed by stopping her traveling abroad, but this is a serious oppression.″

Despite her personal problems, Romanians say they still would love to see her come home. Dinu said the government would encourage such a move and that, as a former soccer star he had to turn down West German offers in the 1970s, he understood Comaneci’s actions.

″She can return tomorrow. I ask myself why I didn’t defect,″ he said. ″To choose this illegal way of passing the frontier was very brave.″

At the 23rd of August Sports Complex in Bucharest, young gymnasts train, trying to become the Nadia of the ’90s. They and their coaches praise Comaneci and want her to return to the gym where she once worked.

″I think she is a very kind girl and I can say only good things about her. I respect her,″ said Melania Rus, 21, a coach who placed second overall in the 1987 World University Games. ″For me she is still Romanian.″

END ADV for Release Thurs. April 5

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