March 24, 1995 in Sports

Murder On The Mat Death Of 11-Year-Old Gymnast Difficult To Understand

Maryann Hudson Los Angeles Times
 

She was on the balance beam when her coach, Florin Gheorghe, flew into a rage and slapped the tiny gymnast.

Then he kicked her.

He grabbed her by the neck and pounded her head against the beam, yelling, “This is going to teach you to get over your fear of the beam.”

Then, eventually, he killed her. Adriana Giurca was 11.

The story of Adriana Giurca’s death was largely ignored in this country, probably because it happened in Romania.

But her death, in November of 1993, could not be ignored for long by her teammates at the prestigious Dinamo Club sports school in Bucharest. Their account, which was subsequently published in Bucharest’s Sportul Romanesc newspaper, spelled out the brutal details of the death of an athlete who was full of promise, who had hoped that someday the world would come to know her name. But not in this way.

From the beginning of that practice session, Gheorghe was in a bad mood, Adriana’s teammates said. When it was Adriana’s turn on the beam, Gheorghe asked her to do a dismount that she had seldom been able to do well. This time was no exception.

When Adriana fumbled it, Gheorghe exploded.

“He slapped her and he kicked her with violent kicks, followed by the threat …” her teammates told Sportul Romanesc.

Another coach, Nuti Boboc, tried to calm Gheorghe but was told to mind her own business. Gheorghe then continued to kick Adriana, then banged her head five or six times against the beam.

“Crying, dizzy and confused, Adriana rotated to the next apparatus, the floor, the one which would be the fatal one,” the paper reported.

“Here, the coach asked her to do a very difficult (routine), which he insisted he wanted done perfectly. Although she couldn’t do it right, Adriana tried hard, fell, and tried again as the coach kept yelling.

“Her mistakes were punished with punches and kicks thrown at Adriana wildly. Those were followed by strikes with a thick bat, and yells, ‘Shut up! Don’t cry!”’

At that point, Gheorghe threw Adriana to the floor, her teammates recounted. The coach, however, said he slapped Adriana, which caused her to lose her balance and fall.

Adriana never got up again.

Gheorghe then took her in his arms, carried her to the locker room and desperately asked for help from Boboc, seeing that the girl was still breathing, her teammates said.

Adriana was in a coma when she arrived at the hospital, where she died later that evening.

Gheorghe said she had fallen off the uneven bars. Doctors who treated her said the injuries were worse than if she had fallen twice the distance of the bar.

Early this year, on Jan. 31, Gheorghe, 25, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was also ordered to pay restitution to Adriana’s parents.

That, of course, will do nothing to make up for their loss, or, perhaps, salve their consciences.

For Adriana’s parents said their daughter often came home from the gym beaten and bruised.

Still, they sent her back.

“Adriana would always tell her parents that she was content, and when they would ask her about the bruises, she would say that her coach didn’t hit her, that maybe she had gotten bruised on an apparatus,” said Andrei Nourescu, the reporter who covered the story for Sportul Romanesc.

“The coach was very close with the family and visited her several times in their home.”

But the last time Adriana came home bruised, her parents did not believe her, Nourescu said. They complained to the sports school to change the coach, and finally arranged for Adriana to be transferred to a different club in town.

That change was to be made in two weeks.

“They did not complain to the (Romanian Federation) officials, or even to the police, they only tried to change the club,” Nourescu said. “It was a strange attitude to take when their girl was beaten and, after she died, I think they felt badly that they didn’t do anything to take her out of that situation.”

Even after Adriana died, the coach was not immediately arrested. Adriana’s teammates, when questioned about the incident by Romanian officials, said they hadn’t seen a thing. One gymnast finally talked, prompting the rest to speak up as well. Eight months after Adriana’s death, Gheorghe was arrested.

Romanian sports officials condemned Gheorghe’s actions, saying that such behavior is not common in their gymnastics schools.

Adriana’s teammates, however, told a different story in a Romanian courtroom, when they testified that corporal punishment was normal in their school when they failed to meet the coach’s standards.

“We accepted the beatings and the pain because we were convinced that this would open the door to top performances for us,” a young girl gymnast said during a court hearing.

Even Gheorghe testified that he was not the first to hit his students. He singled out Romania’s most famous coach, Bela Karolyi, accusing him of using corporal punishment as a key to success.

Karolyi, who now coaches in Houston, firmly denied the charge, which he did not take lightly.

‘It bothered me very much because this was the best time of my life and what we did brought glory to the country,” said Karolyi, who defected to the United States in 1980. “And for (Gheorghe), who was about 9 years old when I was coaching there, to turn around and say something like this just shows part of the Romanian mentality. It was outrageous.”

Nadia Comaneci, who was coached most of her career by Karolyi, also said that students were never hit at the sports schools where she trained. She defected to the United States in 1989, only months before the overthrow and death of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

It was Comaneci who brought prestige to Romanian gymnastics when she received the first perfect score in the sport, a 10, at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Last year, the Romanian women won the gold medal at the World Championships in Dortmund, Germany.

Romanian authorities now worry about that prestige diminishing. One news agency in Bucharest claimed it could not supply a photograph of the trial to the Los Angeles Times because local authorities had confiscated all negatives concerning Adriana’s death.

“(Adriana’s beating) was a surprise for me,” said Comaneci, who was coached by Karolyi in her hometown of Onesti, and for a couple of years, in Deva. “It is not something that has been allowed. This is sad. I feel very sad for the family.”

But another former Romanian gymnast, who out of fear of retaliation requested anonymity, said that athletes were hit at the club where she trained. Her reluctance to say more, though, and the refusal of other Romanian gymnasts to talk, would seem to indicate that citizens’ fear of government remains.

“It was horrible that (Adriana’s death) happened, but it did not surprise me,” Karolyi said. “This did not happen in my gym, where I coached. It is hard for anybody to understand who lives here in America that this could happen. But there is a different culture there that is combined with a system that is never based on voluntary participation.

“For an American, it is impossible to understand. You have to live there with the feeling that the secret police could beat the hell out of you at any time. It was natural. The secret police have power and authority even today, even with democracy. It will take a long time for the pattern to change completely.”

American gymnasts were generally unaware of Adriana’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it, even though it happened only a little more than a year ago. Olympian Shannon Miller gasped recently when she was told about it, “Oh my God!” she said.

Miller, who trains in Edmond, Okla., said that she has never heard of physical abuse in the United States. The U.S. Gymnastics Federation also says that physical abuse is not an issue, although there are other dangers they actively work against, among them eating disorders and sexual abuse.

Critics complain, though, that even verbal abuse can lead to physical harm. And they contend that the physical pounding some female gymnasts put their bodies through in rigorous training sessions may also be abusive, impairing their development. The USOC said recently it was considering a study on the issue.

But the economic and political conditions in Romania can lead to problems far different from those in the United States, according to Vladimir Moraru, a former sports journalist in Romania who defected in 1984. There, gymnastics is still a way out economically for families, which Moraru says may explain why a family would keep a child in a potentially harmful situation.

“You have to understand what Nadia did,” Moraru said. “Every parent wanted their kid to be a Nadia. Nadia wasn’t living like an average Romanian. If she (had been) here in the United States, she would have been a millionaire. She never had (that kind of) money over there, but she had advantages, clearly.”

“Romania has changed, but there are still some leftovers. Now they have some other kind of bad stuff. It took 45 years to destroy the country and it will take another 45 years to build it back up.”

Gheorghe was ordered to pay Adriana’s family the U.S. equivalent of $5,600 in “moral” damages. The average Romanian earns about $90 a month. But Adriana’s parents said there could be no price for their loss.

“That trainer hit my daughter like a beast and her death was more than manslaughter,” Maria Giurca told the Reuters news agency.

The Giurcas are appealing the sentence and want the school to also be held responsible, claiming it knew its coach was a violent individual.

Gheorghe has admitted to Adriana’s father, Emil, that he is responsible.

He has also said he has been profoundly affected.

Perhaps, the world will be, too.


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