Raducan learning to swallow bitter pill

Pete Nichols finds the Romanian heroine scarred and scared by her Olympic nightmare

Pete Nichols
Saturday June 16, 2001
The Guardian

Andreea Raducan was briefly crowned the finest gymnast in the world in Sydney. A comfortable, but surprising winner of the all-round gold medal, and the first Romanian since Nadia Comaneci in 1976 to win the most important title in the sport. The 16-year-old had stood, as a child might, on her coach's shoulders, her face wreathed in smiles, and basked in the applause. At the press conference afterwards she innocently sat on the corner of her team-mate Maria Olaru's seat, believing the main place had been readied for her coach, Octavian Belu, and not herself.

Raducan's joy lasted just under four days, a positive test for pseudo-ephedrine at first producing bewilderment, subsequently anger. "They made the child pay for an adult's mistake. This was not a good example for the fight against doping, they made an example of the most innocent person," says Belu, still smouldering at the perceived injustice almost nine months on.

Belu and Raducan are training at Toxteth, Liverpool, preparing for the two-day international against Great Britain which starts at the Park Road sports centre this afternoon. It is nearing the 20th anniversary of the Toxteth riots. Much has changed in the area and while, between the new housing estates, you can see the Anglican Cathedral hard across the city, and the docks, the contrast with Sydney could hardly be more emphatic.

A different time and a different place, though, do not always lend a different perspective to events and Belu expands a promised 10-minute conversation to more than half an hour, retelling the story passionately, while eight young, narrow-hipped, Romanian gymnasts perform warm-up routines that draw gasps for the ease of their athleticism.

The source of the pseudo-ephedrine positive was a cold cure, prescribed by the team doctor Ioachim Oana. The doctor received his own penalty, banished by the International Olympic Committee for the next two games, and there was little sym pathy for him, at least in public. For Raducan, the Romanian officials set in train a sequence of protests, based as much as anything on the acceptance that the drug was extremely unlikely to have helped her performance.

"The medical committee said that they knew the pills didn't help the athlete. In fact they are bad for the gymnast. The only time they will have a pill for gymnastics it will have to be a very smart one, so that the competitor can say to the pill,

"I'm on the beam now, can you help?, I'm

on the vault now ..." said Belu.

Nevertheless, the appeal process, which had continued after the games, finally ground to a halt in December when a Swiss court ruled the IOC did not have a case to answer. Although Raducan lost her gold medal, she did not serve a ban for the offence.

The immediate aftermath had seen a wave of support for the diminutive gymnast. If it was slightly predictable that her two team-mates - Simona Amanar and Olaru - would reject their elevation to the gold and silver places, the initial refusal of the Chinese gymnast to claim the bronze was more of a surprise. Eventually Amanar and Olaru did take the gold and silver.

"They would have given them to someone else, the third would get second, the fourth would get third and so on, and so they did it for their country," says Belu.

In Romania there was outrage. Since Comanechi had scored her perfect tens in Montreal, the popularity of the sport has been high, vying with athletics and canoeing as the nation's second-favourite to football. The Romanians love their gymnasts, and the Olympic and world medals have kept coming.

"They were my best memories. Seeing on television in Sydney the people in Romania on the streets protesting and when I came home being met at the airport by thousands of people, including the president Emil Constantinescu," says Raducan. "She was like a hero, she has become a symbol for injustice" said Belu.

It was Constantinescu who affirmed the gymnast would get the $30,000 (22,000) promised by the government for gold medallists, and she has since received the money. The national association of jewellers contributed by replicating the gold medal, and making it from pure gold so it was far more valuable than the real thing. "It gave her a lot of support," said Belu.

Yet neither the purest gold, nor the $30,000, nor the two cars given as presents - the Ford Mondeo and the Ka - nor the thousands of emails, nor the support of a president can hide the sadness. Even the team gold, which she kept, for she was never tested after that event anyway, was small compensation.

Belu admits the moment could have passed then for the gymnast. "It may be difficult for Andreea to stay in shape for four years. This may have been the time in her life when she was in perfect shape," he says, knowing no gymnast in recent times has retained the all-round title, which is effectively what is now demanded from her.

While it is no surprise to hear such pragmatism from the coach, it comes as a shock to hear Raducan also accept the opportunity may never again arise. "It may have been my time. Did I want to stop afterwards? Yes and no. Yes, because I was looked at so badly like I was a criminal. I began not to trust their justice and the people who were handing it out. No, because I thought I must show them what I can do," she says, her English taking her halfway through the reply, before she looks to her coach for support.

While Belu constantly refers to her as a child, and she looks, as all gymnasts do, like has barely crossed the pubescent barrier, her capacity to accept the circumstances without either deluding herself that nothing is wrong, nor giving way to despondency shows considerable maturity. The discipline so inherent in the sport helps. At Deva, the headquarters of the sport where she has been based since 1997, the regimen is to live eat and breathe gymnastics. The result is an unbelievable athleticism. The pace at which she performs complex routines is quite wondrous.

She is just so quick that you wonder if she could eventually become a sprinter when this first sporting career has run its course.

"No, too small," says Belu. For now, she is stuck being a gymnast. She also knows she has proved she is the best in the world, too. Though the record books may never corroborate that fact.

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001