Last month I published a profile of 1980s Romanian gymnast Lavinia Agache. In that profile I ended the article with the following sentence:
“She grew up alongside Szabo, had challenged Szabo for supremacy, and on one occasion, she even competed as Ecaterina Szabo.”
And attached below it was this picture of Lavinia Agache:
This article is going to tell the backstory to this picture, and a little bit about Lavinia herself. From the moment I saw this picture it automatically became one of my favorites because of Agache’s facial expression in it. Pia over at The Gym Retroist provided a blown up version of it.
Lavinia comes off appearing to give a sly smile, or perhaps even a smirk. It’s as if Lavinia is trying to present herself as cute and innocent, but something about it makes you wonder if perhaps she is up to no good?
Lavinia’s career was as interesting as it was unique. There have been hundreds of famous Olympic gymnasts over the years, but none every found themselves in Lavinia’s predicament having been at the center of not one, but two scandals in a single year. The first occurred shortly before her 13th birthday when Lavinia Agache allegedly competed at the 1981 International Gymnastics Classic and did so while competing under the name of her teammate Ecaterina Szabo. Going as far as to (allegedly) enter the United States under a falsified name, which as the media pointed out in their coverage of Agache’s exploits, was a federal crime.
The second scandal of Lavinia’s career came later in the year at the 1981 World Championships in which she claimed to be 15 years old to meet the minimum age requirements, but was actually only 13 years old. In both instances the public would discover the deception and the ensuing scandal received national media attention. At the center of both controversies was a gymnast who hadn’t even celebrated her 14th birthday.
It goes without saying that given her young age, it would be cruel and mean to blame Agache or think less of her for her involvement in either scandal. Those criticisms belong to the Romanian officials who coerced her into these scandals and sanctioned the decision to falsify the records of their gymnasts.
Though paradoxically, Lavinia Agache should be absolved of blame because of her youth, but she was still old enough to know right from wrong. She must have had sense that what she was doing was against the rules. It is likely that Lavinia had little say in the matter over whether her age and name would be falsified. And yet still, it takes someone with a special personality to pull off such a mischievous feat, even when it is an adult ordering a child to do it.
At first I thought this picture was amazing because just by chance, a photographer had captured an image of Agache where she gave an unusual smile and there was nothing abnormal about the situation. But while doing the research for Agache’s profile I discovered the origin of this photo. It was taken during the 1981 International Gymnastic Classic at the very competition in which she was impersonating Szabo.
If Lavinia Agache appears to be looking as if she is up to something mischievous, it is because she is partaking in mischief at the very moment the photo was taken. But even that isn’t the most fascinating aspect of this photo. It was this specific photo that was printed in International Gymnast as part of their coverage of the 1981 International Gymnastics Classic, and incorrectly labeled as Ecaterina Szabo.
It should be noted that International Gymnast labeled the competition the “All-American Classic.” Event organizers had foolishly branded the competition under two different names creating confusion in the process. The competition is listed twice on Gymn-Forum on two separate pages, and under two different names. When the Agache-Szabo deception was later revealed, International Gymnast would be forced to print a correction regarding the inaccurate photo captions.
But before Lavinia would be giving the editors of International Gymnast a hard time, first the photograph had to be taken. There is a saying “don’t break the law while breaking the law.” In the case of Lavina, it should be written to advise against having your photo taken while breaking the law.
Is Lavinia smiling because that by being photographed, she knows full well that photo will eventually be used to discover her true identity? Or is Lavinia smiling because she can barely contain herself knowing that everyone watching her is being duped? If this picture establishes one thing, it is that Agache seemed to be enjoying herself while playing the lead part in one of the most bizarre scandals the sport had ever seen.
More humorously, this picture demonstrates that Lavinia loved being in the spotlight. She had taken the time to pause what she was doing, turn towards a photographer, and produce a smile. Lavinia would again demonstrate attention seeking behavior one month later on her return trip to the United States, where she allegedly gave hints to American officials that she had competed as Szabo earlier in the year.
But above all, Lavinia possessed special traits that made her an Olympic gold medalist. Traits that were both physical and mental in nature. The physical traits being the raw athletic talent which allowed a 12 year old Agache to finish third in a competition attended by four American gymnasts who were members of the 1980 Olympic boycott team. The mental traits being her ability to keep cool and not lose focus as she competed while pretending to be Ecaterina Szabo.