One tiny gymnast, one big mess


SYDNEY, Australia (September 28, 2000 5:25 a.m. EDT - It would be easy to picture her alone in a roiling sea, flailing to stay afloat while unimaginable forces from above push her tiny body down. But that image would be unfair to Andreea Raducan. She is more than that.

That much was clear Thursday for anyone who watched her endure the third of what she has called "these nightmare days."

Her voice was tiny but strong, tentative but even. Her chin was high. She cracked her knuckles and picked her fingernails. Now and then, she even smiled, but that was the exception.

"I just had a cold," she said, barely audible at first. "I still don't understand."

The facts are these: She took cold medicine. She won a gold medal. She urinated into a specimen jar. A group of very powerful people, the ones who make and enforce the rules, decided something wasn't right. And she had to give her medal back.

Like so many in her line of work, she is a child - a ponytailed, 1,312-ounce package of grace and unease, two days shy of 17. And now, Romania's latest gymnast-superstar sits under a spotlight far different than the one that engulfed her when a gold disc was hung around her neck only a week ago.

On Thursday, her final appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport exhausted, she spoke. Her gymnastics family was right there next to her.

Her protector, Romanian Olympic Committee president Ion Tiriac, was there. So were her teammates and fellow medalists, Simona Amanar and Maria Olaru, who moved up to gold and silver when the International Olympic Committee, trying to eliminate drugs from its games, disqualified her.

They were, to use Tiriac's word, bitter.

"We're talking about an aspirin," he said. "I accept procedures. But somehow, somewhere, don't we miss the point?"

They demanded to be heard, these Romanians, and they were; more than 200 journalists from dozens of nations wanted to know what they had to say. And they said this: We support her.

Her teammates and fellow medalists, when talking about "her," often used the word "we." And to her left was none other than Nadia Comaneci, her direct gymnastic ancestor, who tumbled into immortality at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. A line of gymnastic talent from two eras offering support.

From Comaneci: "It's difficult for me to explain to her in my own language that you're innocent, but you're still not going to get the medal."

From Amanar, the new gold medalist: "I am going to accept this medal because it belongs to Romania. The Olympic champion that day was Andreea, not me."

From Olaru, the new silver medalist: "I don't understand why, always, the little people have to suffer for the mistakes of the big people."

No one is saying that the rule wasn't broken. No one is saying that the IOC's fight against doping isn't valid. If the transgression was deliberate - and even the IOC doesn't seem to think so - the message has been heard around the world. If it wasn't deliberate, Tiriac is right: The mess is far, far from over.

Even now, they're marching in Romania's streets, shouting about injustice and foreign plots. On Bucharest TV, they're broadcasting a "Song for Andreea Raducan" and assuring her of their love. Her government has even promised her the prize money she would have received in Romania for winning the gold.

Thus this strange twist: Now she goes home even more of a hero. Her gold made her an adored champion. The IOC made her, at 16, something even more formidable - a martyr with a future.

"My heart is at peace that I've done everything right and competed cleanly. All I did was take an innocent pill," she said. "I just don't understand why everything has turned out this way."

When people talk about gymnasts, especially girls, you often hear this: They're too young, too single-minded. Their lives are too focused. Their success, while glorious, cheats them out of childhood.

Indeed, to look at Raducan is, still, to gaze upon a child: Her face is one-third the size of Tiriac's. At her news conference, photographers had lenses longer than her legs. You could, if you were so inclined, fit four Andreea Raducans into one C.J. Hunter.

And yet when it ended, as Romanian reporters threw Romanian questions at her, a smile and a flash of savviness whooshed across her face - a sense that she was, as in the arena, in control for a moment. Fleetingly, the tiniest of the tiny was walking in the world of grown-ups.

It passed quickly. And suddenly Nadia Comaneci - tiny icon of a generation ago, now a striking presence in scarlet satin - was there, playing the towering grown-up. She threw her arm around Raducan, engulfing the teen-ager.

They walked off, their shared Romanian and gymnastic heritage a quiet, mutual comfort among all the people who just wanted one more question and all the cameras that just wanted one more shot.

The sea was roiling, but Andreea Raducan was not alone.