Marta Karolyi (pictured above, center) is the National Team Coordinator for the back-to-back gold-medal winning U.S. gymnastics teams, and is a victim of communism. She and her husband Bela defected from Ceausescu’s Romania in 1981 while on a gymnastics tour of the United States. Bela Karolyi was the coach of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, the first gymnast in world history to be awarded a perfect “10” in an Olympic gymnastics event. Nadia also defected to the West in 1989, just weeks before the Romanian revolution. Marta, Bela, and Nadia are just three examples of a narrative that we all know too well: every four years, Olympians and athletes defect from repressive socialist countries, but never the other way around.
In the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, “about half of the Hungarian Olympic delegation defected to the West after the games” as news of the Soviet invasion of Hungary swept through the Olympic village. Ervin Zador, the gold-medal-winning Hungarian water polo player whose iconic bloodied face symbolized the clash between Hungary and the Soviet Union in the pool and in Budapest, put it like this:
Instead of going back a hero, making 3,000 forints a month, having a chance to go to the next three Olympics, I gave all that up to be a nobody with no marketable skills who didn’t speak the language…It wasn’t an easy decision—but I hated the system and the Hungarian Communists. I just couldn’t see myself going back, especially with the Russians really ticked off. But whatever’s happened the last 55 years, there hasn’t been a moment I’ve regretted it.
In today’s socialist societies, athletes are faced with similarly brutal terms. North Korean athletes who have defected explain that they were given a choice: refrigerators for winners, labor camps for losers.
John F. Kennedy famously said before the Berlin Wall that, in the free world, we “have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.” The socialists are fools if they think a mere wall can stop Olympians.
To hear more stories like Marta’s, check out our Witness Project video on Daniel Magay, a 1956 Olympic Gold Medalist who defected to the United States after his home country of Hungary was invaded by the Soviet Union.