Comaneci no longer inspires Romanian gymnasts

DEVA, Romania Wed Mar 26, 2008 8:37am GMT

In this file photo Romanian Olympic gold medal gymnast Nadia Comaneci holds the ''Legendary Champions'' trophy, that was awarded by the Romanian presidency, as she stands in front of the August 1976 Time magazine cover in Bucharest September 15, 2006. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel

In this file photo Romanian Olympic gold medal gymnast Nadia Comaneci holds the ''Legendary Champions'' trophy, that was awarded by the Romanian presidency, as she stands in front of the August 1976 Time magazine cover in Bucharest September 15, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Bogdan Cristel

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DEVA, Romania (Reuters) - Romanian girls no longer dream of being Nadia Comaneci -- that is the hard fact facing the country's women's gymnastics coach.

Nicolae Forminte knows his hopes of preserving decades of Romanian brilliance in the Olympic gymnastics hall are slim.

"Romanian gymnastics is in crisis," Forminte told Reuters as young girls leaped into the air behind him at a training centre in the western town of Deva.

"There are no high-level athletes any more, no adequate medical assistance and a limited pool of gymnasts to choose from.

"The days when a young girl dreamed of becoming a new Nadia are over."

Forminte fears that after winning six medals four years ago at the Athens Olympics, on top of more than 50 medals over the previous five decades, the women's team lack enough gymnasts to dazzle Olympic judges in Beijing this August.

A change of generation, poor funding, the declining popularity of the sport and the emigration of coaches and physiotherapists have all hit gymnastics in the eastern European country.

Romania's women have won a team medal at every Olympics since 1976. Worried Romanian authorities, anxious to preserve that record, have doubled the bonuses on offer for gold medallists but, with little more than four months until the Beijing opening ceremony, Forminte has only two gymnasts able to fight for medals.

Stylish Sandra Izbasa and Steliana Nistor, the all-round silver medallist at the 2007 world championships in Stuttgart, will compete, though Nistor has a back injury, but Forminte needs to put together a strong, six-member team if he is to preserve Romania's reputation.

TICKET OUT

Forminte complains that young girls no longer flock to sports clubs to follow in the footsteps of Comaneci, Romania's 1976 triple Olympic champion and the first gymnast to win a perfect, 10-point score at the Games.

Before the 1989 fall of communism in Romania, families encouraged their daughters to become gymnasts in the hope of winning a ticket out of the country, away from its oppressive communist government and poverty.

Comaneci herself fled to the United States months ahead of the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu's regime in 1989. Her coach, Bela Karolyi, had already left Romania in 1981 to inspire U.S teams.

Karolyi, whose coaching school was notorious for its strict rules and arduous training, had revolutionised world gymnastics. His successor, Octavian Belu led Romanian gymnasts to 16 Olympic gold medals and made the country a feared contender in floor, vault and beam exercises.

In 2005, however, the team were shaken by Belu's resignation after triple Olympic champion Catalina Ponor and a team mate went clubbing until the small hours without permission.

Two years earlier, three former gymnasts had posed naked in a Japanese men's magazine and the local gymnastics federation withdrew their right to represent Romania.

Belu and co-coach Mariana Bitang themselves were no strangers to controversy, having faced criticism over their iron discipline and allegations of psychological abuse and demanding cuts from gymnasts' prize money.

Forminte's team suffered further last year when Ponor, who won three individual golds in Athens, cut short her career at 20 years old for health reasons.

"The younger gymnasts lack a model to emulate," Forminte said.

INJURY PROBLEMS

Aside from the shortage of talent, Romania has also suffered as successful health professionals left the country to seek better pay abroad.

Labour migration plagues many industrial sectors in Romania, particularly healthcare where salary differences with the West are stark.

This is proving a problem for Forminte whose team are having to deal with injuries. Nistor is unlikely to compete on the vault in Beijing because of her chronic back problem.

"I can successfully compete on only three apparatus," said Nistor. "This lowers my chances to win more money. But I hope for some medals on the floor and balance beam."

Romania has promised 100,000 euros and an off-road car from a sponsor for each gold medal in Beijing.

Sports officials say more money is needed to spruce up outdated training facilities and give promising athletes support at western levels.

Romania spends 2.6 million euros a year on gymnastics, less than on track and field or rowing.

Despite all the problems, Forminte is hopeful.

"I will bring the gymnastics ship to port despite the storm," he said. "I love the sport."

(Additional reporting by Marius Zaharia, Editing by Clare Fallon)

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