Meet the Paralympic cyclist who is also a Romanian government official

Two days after the 2021 Paralympics opening ceremony, Carol-Eduard Novak arrived at the Izu Velodrome 130 kilometers southwest from the Tokyo Olympic Stadium around noon to warm up for his first discipline, the C4-5 1000-meter time trial.

During the warm-up, a photographer whistled through his teeth to attract Novak’s attention, and after the competition where he finished 11th, Novak met this reporter in the mixed zone.

“The time is my personal best, so this is a good result for me,” Novak sad.

He was satisfied, already looking ahead to his favorite event, the 4000-meter individual pursuit, the next day, where he would go on to win a silver medal.

What makes this even more interesting is that Novak is not only a Paralympian, but also a top government official in his home country of Romania. Novak’s official title is Minister of Youth and Sports, and he helps oversee Romania’s national sports programs.

Since late 2020, the responsibilities of overseeing Romania’s sports ministry have taken up a lot of Novak’s time — so much, in fact, that the 45-year-old decided to change his training focus.

Novak competing in the 2012 Paralympics in London. Photo: Scott Heavey/Getty Images

“This year, I put away all the road races. I had only very little time to train, so I focussed on my specific program, track and time trial,” he said. “No stage races, nothing. It was a little bit difficult after twenty years because you have your routine, you start in the spring, do the road races, now I had to switch it all, no races, only training. But I feel this was the right choice.”

Born in Miercurea Ciuc, Novak – known to everyone simply as Edi – is an interesting character in more ways than one. His hometown where he still lives with his wife and three children also goes by the Hungarian name Csíkszereda, and he himself has the name Novák Károly Eduárd (in Hungarian naming custom, the family name comes first). Csíkszereda is one of the centers of the Szeklerland, home to the Székely or Szekler community, a Hungarian-speaking minority that forms the majority population in the northern part of Transylvania.

Already having been elected president of the Romanian cycling federation FRC since 2013, Novak entered the highest reaches of government late last year. After the Romanian parliamentary elections, the Hungarian minority’s party RMDSz/UDMR was in coalition talks with the center-right PNL and the right-wing USR-PLUS.

During these talks, Novak registered his interest to become sports minister:

“It happened in one week. I sent a message to the president of our party, and when they found out that I am interested, they said, if we get this ministry in the negotiations, you are the minister,” Novak said in a December interview. “It was my own desire that drove it. Politics in Romania are very fragile, and for the sport it is important to have time. In six months, you cannot do anything, maybe you can change a logo. To implement a project properly takes two to three years and a lot of dedication.”
Novak being interviewed in Romania. Photo: Alex Nicodim/NurPhoto via Getty Images

One such project is the ambition of building a velodrome in Romania. As of now, the country has no covered velodrome, and its track cyclists, including Novak himself, have to travel to Plovdiv in Bulgaria to get track time.

In his youth, Novak was an avid speed skater, winning 25 national titles in the junior categories, and he also played ice hockey. In 1996, at age 20, his right foot was seriously injured in a car accident while traveling to an international speed skating event. Because of improper medical treatment, Novak’s lower leg became infected, and it had to be amputated below the knee.

After a two-year recovery, Novak took up cycling at an amateur level while studying law at the University of Bucharest. Then, he began working as a lawyer full-time and training in the early mornings and late evenings. Concentrating fully on cycling from 2001 onward, Novak finished runner-up in the Romanian time trial championships in 2002 and 2003 in a field of able-bodied cyclists. He then qualified for his first Paralympics, Athens 2004, where he finished fourth in both the road race and the road time trial.

In Beijing 2008, Novak was Romania’s flag bearer at the Paralympics opening ceremony, and he won the silver medal in the road time trial. Four years later, he was again carrying the Romanian flag at the London Paralympics During the 2012 Paralympics he set a world record in the individual pursuit to qualify for the gold medal finals, where he beat Jiří Ježek, a six-time Paralympic gold medalist from the Czech Republic, to win Romanian’s first Paralympic gold medal.

After finishing outside the medals at the 2016 Paralympics, Novak decided to switch focus.

“In Rio, I was in the best form of my life and finished ninth in the road race,” he said. “At the Paralympics, our road race is together with the C5 category. The prosthetic on my lower right leg is two kilograms of rotating ‘dead weight’, that makes it very hard against C5 riders who have two functioning legs. You have to specialize, and I decided to concentrate on the track events and on the individual time trial on the road.”
Novak earned gold in London. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Novak’s background with team management goes back to 2004 when he started an elite cycling team to compete in national and UCI races with able-bodied cyclists. One of the riders that joined him was his Paracycling rival Ježek. Sponsored by a Romanian mineral water brand, the Tușnad Cycling Team achieved UCI Continental Team status in 2009, and the team competed in a calendar of 2.2 races in Eastern Europe, and also in China. Renamed Team Novak from 2018, the team lost its UCI Continental status in May 2021, but continues to race in Eastern European 2.2 races.

The team attracted mainly Romanian and Hungarian riders, but also signed foreign talent: Riders from Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Moldova, Russia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine, Italy, Germany, Spain, and France, but also from Australia, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia raced for the team throughout its twelve-year history. Among those riders are fellow paracyclists Wermeser Zsombor (Hungary) and Yehor Dementyev (Ukraine), both participants in the Tokyo Paralympics.

Together with the mayor of Csíkszereda/Miercurea Ciuc, Novak launched the 2.2 Tour of Szeklerland in 2008 that has since become a fixed event on the Eastern European calendar. In 2009 and 2018, he reached the podium of the Romanian ITT championships, and in June 2012, two months before his gold medal ride in London, Novak was third in the Romanian road race championships.

In 2018, the federation secured support from the Romanian sports ministry to revive the Tour of Romania that had been on a four-year hiatus. For 2019, the 100-year anniversary of the unification of Romania, the race moved up to 2.1 status, joining the Sibiu Cycling Tour to become the second Romanian stage race in this category.

Despite his work in promoting sport, Novak has retained his love of competition. During the Tokyo Paralympics at the Fuji Speedway, Novak finished 8th in the C4 individual time trial, then abandoned the C4-5 road race after one lap of the extremely challenging course.

“In the road race, again we were combined with the C5 category, and I am alone against three Frenchmen, three Italians … it is a lottery. That is why I focused on the track and ITT events,” he said.