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Octavian Bellu: I remind myself every day I am the same school teacher I was when I first started.

Mr. Bellu, the gymnasts you’ve trained have won around 308 medals. Is this the correct medal count?

“I have never counted them.”

His full name is Octavian Ioan Atanase Bellu and he was born on the 17th of February 1951 in Ploiesti. The World Records Academy has declared him the world´s most successful coach: more than 300 medals at the Olympic Games, World and European Championships. He has been at every Olympics since the 1984 Los Angeles Games, 7 editions so far, around 20 World Championships, 17 Europeans and 8 World Cups. It’s even difficult to keep track of Mr. Bellu’s results. He has also been Counselor of the Romanian Presidency and has led the Romanian Sports Agency. Nowadays, he is one of the Romanian Olympics Committee´s Directors and leads the National Sports Council. He trained the National gymnastics team since he first went to Deva in 1981 and up to 2005. He then returned to coach the team in 2010. He was inducted into the Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2009 and was awarded the Olympic order by the International Olympic Committee. He is married to Mariana Bitang, Presidential counselor and coach of the Romanian National team.

 

Which were the most difficult and the best moments of your coaching career?

The happiest moment was when I saw 3 Romanian gymnasts take the podium at the Olympics. I won´t go into what happened afterwards, but at least for one day we lived a moment we won´t be able to repeat ever again – only 2 gymnasts per final are currently allowed. This happened in Sydney with Raducan, Amanar and Olaru. This podium surprised everyone and it was even more spectacular since we had also won the team title. We improved this result in Athens with 4 gold medals. The saddest moment would have to come from 2005 when I had to give up what I had dedicated my whole life to for reasons that were not dependent on me. I stayed with the sport anyway and tried to lend a hand.

We hear a lot about the gymnasts’ retribution for their performance but nobody mentions the coaches, do they get anything for the work they´ve put in?

I don´t want to complain, money has never worried me. If this had been the case, I wouldn’t be here. You always have to consider your environment, your local authorities’ financial possibilities. I think the girls get good rewards from the government, the Olympic Commitee, the clubs (not all of them are able to pay though) and other rewards they receive from their local authorities. I won´t go into details since this is something that surprises everyone else in the other countries. This is a bonus, an attempt to help and motivate the sportsman. When he retires his chances of living on his performances are slight. In the US, you go on a 40 city tour and get 4 or 5 million for it. After the tour, you get publicity and all that.

Seriously speaking, having won an Olympic title for the USA guarantees you will be able to live well for the rest of your life. You can live off your image.

You are right. Moreover, an Olympic title is very important for the club as well, a huge number of kids come in after that and they even have to build more space for them, get more coaches in.

These are kids whose parents pay for everything. Nothing comes for free.

Absolutely. They pay around 300-500 dollars a week when the kids are 4 or 5 years old. They pay the coaches, the equipment, going to competitions. And they expect a turnaround for this investment with winning an Olympic medal.

Do you think Catalina should have won gold on floor?

This has generated a lot of discussion in the media. I might be accused of being subjective here, but I saw the public´s reaction in London. The English speaking public´s reaction was almost unbelievable considering the battle was between an American and a Romanian. You would suppose they would support the American gymnast but the entire hall was unhappy with Catalina´s score. A tie would have been better. Catalina did perform a great routine and the specialists were saying she was better than the American gymnast from many points of view. I congratulated my colleague and friend Mihai Brestean anyway, he has been training in the US for so long and is Raisman´s coach. What else could I do? It could have gone into a discussion similar to the one on beam…

There are many Romanian coaches, you can probably hear a lot of Romanian around…

Yes, both in London and in Tokyo. At last year´s Worlds 4 of the 5 coaches the US brought in were Romanian. We have coaches everywhere and they have results to show for it. What GB did in London is also thanks to Adrian Stan, their technical director.

(Answering to a rugby coach who wanted to thank and congratulate him). You well know how many Rugby players New Zeeland and Australia have, it´s a National Sport and it´s well paid. Think about how many we have and we still have results, we win the European Cup from time to time. Our rugby has had its good moments. I encourage you not to lose hope.

Your contract with the Federation ended after the London Games. Will you continue to train the team?

The agreement…This is a question we ask ourselves as well. Someone asked me what motivates Mariana and I at this point. I think all the results were achieved because we had a good staff, I cannot forget Goreac, Adrian Stan, even Brestean, Nelu Pop. It´s getting harder and harded to put together this kind of staff as we have few coaches. Young people don´t want to get involved 8 to 10 hours a day and get the money they get, let´s not even discuss living in a dorm room in Deva for 25 years like I did.

So will you go on or not?

Mariana and I want to understand what the potential is first. I wouldn´t want to start anything without this – we have to retire one day whether we want it or not…

What is your opinion on Floarea Leonida´s case?

My answer is predictable: it was shocking. I worked with Floarea for a long time, she was a really organized kid, with a big heart. I can tell you about her up to the point when she retired. It was a big shock for me but we shouldn´t take this lightly and blame her for everything, you don´t know where life takes you. Something must have pushed her to do such a thing.

(Question from Alina Liliana Popa) How did the Juniors perform at the evaluation and what “homework” did you assign?

There is a lot to say here, we just tested them from a technical and physical point of view. We had 29 girls from 1998-2000. They were coming right after vacations so they were less prepared. This selection will continue in October with the Junior Nationals. Part of them will compete again at Nationals in November. It was a first trial and as you can see we have 29 girls to work with during the next 4 years while others have 48 girls right before the Olympics. That is where the difference is made. Another important thing is that coaches get to meet as well and exchange opinions. What we need to do is train the coaches as well.

After this evaluation, you will also decide what you will do.

Yes, it´s true. On the other hand, we must reorganize or regionalize the girls per geographical areas.

So when will we have an answer?

By the end of the month we have to close the first stept of the autumn training. There are competitions this autumn/winter and we have part of the Olympic team already in training: Iordache, Bulimar, Chelaru. Izbasa is back in training but I can´t say she will continue with gymnastics. She has to attend some galas together with Catalina, they will go to Mexico, Holland, Belgium where they have been invited as Olympic medalists. After that we will see…

We´ve been hearing about the US/Romania comparison in terms of number of gymnasts. If you were to start a business and do the same thing here, would this be possible?

Your idea is good and there have been attempts to build private clubs. This is very difficult. Even if you found the infrastructure necessary for gymnastics, who would support the kids for such a long time? Parents can´t support this, I can´t ask them to do that since most of the gymnasts´ families don´t have great financial status. If the government didn´t support them, they would give up. We only have the school clubs, they do what they can.

The Romanian gymnasts usually do better during Qualifications than in the actual competitions. Do you have psychologists to help you there?

Actually the girls did better in London during the team final, they changed the 4th place of Qualifications for the bronze medal. The question about psychologists is very complicated, sports psychology is not very common in Romania. I know this is necessary, but you would need someone who could be with us all the time. When everything goes well everyone is happy with the coach but when something fails, the team needs a psychologist. I don´t think this is a good approach. You would need a psychologist specialized in sports. I´d rather have a direct relationship with the gymnast and not one that needs an intermediary.

Is there anyone following in your footsteps? Sooner or later you´ll have to retire…

How can you choose from 30 girls and select the 2 best in the world?

I can´t say there´s someone in particular. All those who coach a Junior team want to train the Senior team and achieve results there. This is what I want, to also train those coaches who will take over for us. You should try to share your experience with them.

Do you think there are good, young coaches coming up?

Yes, I think so. I saw a couple of them at the selection camp, they don´t have the eagerness of those who work for a system that allows you to go up the ranks following clear rules but if you have a good kid, you should try to get him to the top.

Will you get involved in putting together the new law for sports? Do you feel the authorities are getting involved? Are they willing to help you?

Many of us must get involved for this new law. There is a European law for Sports. We have to take what is best for us from there but we must take into account that any change will go against a structure that has been here for the past 50 years. I think it´s normal that you should get involved and if they ask me to, I will. We have all been talking about reform but the results are just getting worse…

Is it more difficult to train boys or girls?

I haven´t trained boys. I prefer girls since they grow up faster than boys. If you remember, Nadia and Daniela Silivas had amazing performances at very young ages.

Considering Izbasa is 22 and Ponor is 25, do you think the judges are fonder of the younger generation or the mature one? Are they impressed by Catalina´s age?

I don´t think so. The youngest team in London was the American one and they won the title. I think it depends on how you perform.

When I left Valea Calugareasca, my first job, I set a goal for myself not to forget where I came from. I will always be that school teacher, this is my job. I always tell myself this in the morning when I look in the mirror.

Where does all the energy come from?

It´s probably something natural, you can be afraid of failure but also of success. You have to make the best of it. When you get to the top you have to be aware that you must work at least as hard and follow the same principles as before. We somehow find the motivation to go on.

Interview by Ovidiu Ioanitoaia for Europa FM Romania here.