The story behind Romania’s first Olympic medal…

The story behind Romania’s first Olympic medal – Sonia Iovan, member of the team who wrote the first pages in Romanian gymnastics history, shared her story.

[Translation of the “Adevarul de Cluj” article by  Robert  Gal-Pal]

Romanian gymnastics won its first Olympic medal more than half a century ago. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Sonia Iovan and her team mates made history for this sport by stepping onto the Olympic podium for the first time.

60 years ago, a teenager from Cluj took her first steps towards a sport that would turn Romania into a highly respected medal contender: gymnastics. At 15, many thought Sonia was too old for elite gymnastics, but her outstanding dedication to the sport got her, in only a few years, an Olympic medal in Melbourne. Today, from her home in Bretagne, France, Sonia remembers how she first started the sport, without giving the impression that the years that have passed have affected her memory in any way.

“I had finished the Commercial Highschool and in 1953 my trainer, Szabo Denes and I went to the Bucharest Gymnastics Festival to see what elite sport was all about. I ended up applying at the Physical Education and Sports Institute, where I got accepted. My dad would not let me go, he wanted me to study at the Commercial Academy so he told me that if I didn’t get a scholarship he could not support me financially. In the end he gave up and let me make the choice.” The previous year, she was noticed at a youth competition in Timisoara and news about her qualities reached the National team coaches. In 1954, she was selected for the team.

In the “golden book” of Romanian gymnastics

The 1956 Melbourne Olympics brought Romania its first Olympic team medal. Out team included the following outstanding gymnasts: Elena Dobrovolschi-Fodor, Geta Hurmuzachi, Sonia Iovan, Elena Leustean, Elena Sacalici and Emilia Vatasoiu. In an era when the political domination of the USSR also touched the world of sports, the girls won a bronze medal that made history. The time’s sports commentators remember that, back then, none of the Slavic countries liked Romania very much, the soviet gymnasts had to win every international event.

Under these circumstances, our girls’ achievement is even more valuable. Sonia Iovan, now 75, unveils one of the unbelievable details from the time she used to fight for the Romanian flag to reach as high as possible: “In 1958 we went to the World Championships in Moscow. The conditions for our team there were very poor, the Russians had to win, no one could stand in their way. In the end, we finished third, surpassing Japan by 3 thousandths of a points.”

Retired at 30

At the 1959 Krakow European Championships, Sonia won the silver medal on bars. One year later, at the Roma Euros, the Romanian team won a new bronze medal and Sonia finished fifth in the all-around, in a competition in which the fight with the Slavic countries was, yet again, unequal. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was the last important competition for the great gymnast and for the entire “golden” generation she belonged to. Consistency was lost with the new team members and due to the fact that the gymnasts who has brought the first Olympic medal were not young anymore. Even so, our gymnasts returned home with an honorable 4th place.

“In 1965 I took part in the National Championships, but I really wanted to have a baby, I didn’t feel complete as a woman. After coaching for 3 years for the National Federation, I had my only son, Paul. I am very proud of him. After finishing the Physical Education and Sports Institute, I was assigned to the Economics Academy as a teacher. I worked there until I retired. I was the head teacher for 7 years.”

12 years in Lebanon

In 1996. at 61, her husband for 39 years died. She decided to leave the country and leave behind her Romanian life. She took up a training offer in Lebanon, a country she know nothing about. In Balamand, a city between the capital, Tripoli and Beirut, she taught swimming, gymnastics and basketball at a private university she called a true paradise:

“It was very difficult in the beginning, especially since I hated French. We are talking about the second best institute in Lebanon, after the American one, and I had trouble learning gymnastics terminology in French. I got help from a colleague, Doru Crisan, who was a Beirut college teacher. I had signed a 3 year contract and ended up staying 12. It was amazing, a truly unique experience, I lived near the seaside, with beautiful scenery.”

The audience wanted gold for Romania

Sonia Iovan remembers the moment which brought Romania its first Olympic medal. After the team event, the audience stood up and wanted the Romanian gymnasts to win. ” Gymnastics always started last because it was the most successful sport. After compulsories, we were third and the team event was next. We had to at least be on the same place as before to make the podium. We could take gold in the second event, but one of my colleagues made a major mistake. In the end, the audience gave us a standing ovation and wanted gold for us, but we know it was not possible.”

She also remembers the return home, although there were some difficulties: “Returning home was problematic, the plane could not land because of the weather conditions; we landed in Arad and took the train to Bucharest. They gave us a warm welcome and we were awarded a pretty important sum of money by the Sports Minister. We also received money from the Australian organizers.”

France and a new marriage

Sonia returned to Romania when at 72, after an experience few Romanian get to live. After spending some time at her Vad home in Brasov, she went back to France and remarried. She is now leading a quiet life, enjoying the money she put together in her impressive career. She is completely out of the gymnastics world, feeling that it is now time for the younger generation to take charge.

A gym in Cluj has been named after her

The gym next to the “Nicolae Balcescu” Highschool in Cluj has been named after the great gymnast who wrote the first pages of Romanian Olympic gymnastics. “I was pleasantly surprised by the initiative of the people in Cluj, I never felt important enough to deserve this. I was honored and happy though.”


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