Bela Karolyi is perhaps the dominant coach in women's gymnastics. Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton won Olympic gold medals under Karolyi's tutelage, as did the United States team in 1996.
However, Karolyi earns these successes at the most terrible costs. He viciously molds his pre-teen students into his mold for greatness short, strong and dangerously thin without regard to their future physical or psychological health. Puberty and its resulting fat increase are enemies, just as much as another team's competitor. Vertabrae are riddled with stress fractures. All in the pursuit of gold.
Karolyi was born September 13, 1942, in Romania. Against the wishes of his father, he entered a Physical Education University, where he met his wife, Martha Eross. After school, they opened a gymnastics school in Vulcan, Romania.
Karolyi soon realized that his only chance to create a top gymnast would be to start 'em young real young. He scoured kindergarten classes for flexible five-year-olds, and they found their mark in Nadia Comaneci. Nine years later, she would win an Olympic gold medal in Montreal.
Public relations was Karolyi's innate gift. He put pretty red ribbons into the hair of his pixies and had them begin their balance beam workouts as a unit. They looked as cute as ducklings crossing the road. The crowd loved it, and the judges took notice. Karolyi had a winner.
The 1980 Olympics in Moscow were a disappointment, as the Soviets won (Karolyi contends that Russian soldiers were planted in the audience to jeer the Romanian team). The loss exposed tensions in the Romanian sports federation, which Karolyi thought meddled in his affairs too much, and Bela and Martha defected to the United States in 1981.
America had always been awful in women's gymnastics. They had never won an Olympic medal. That would change with Karolyi.
He and his wife scraped together enough money to start their own gym in Houston, Texas, and the Retton family having watched Comaneci in 1976 decided to send their daughter Mary Lou halfway across the country to train with the master.
Training with Karolyi was not easy. He berated his six-person "star" team, calling them fat, calling them losers. He played gymnasts against each other for instance, punishing Person B for Person A's mistakes. If he drove a gymnast to tears, he would come on stronger.
"These girls are like little scorpions," Karolyi said. "You put them all in a bottle, and one scorpion will come out alive. That scorpion will be champion."
Well, maybe. Mary Lou Retton had an uncommon level of self-assurance for such a young child; if Karolyi called her fat, she wouldn't take it personally. And, in the 1984 Olympics, she won five gold medals and became America's princess.
Others were not so lucky.
Prior to entering the Bela Karolyi camp, I knew one thing: Bela was my bus pass to the Olympics.
former Olympian gymnast Betty Okino
Top gymnasts have to be small. It's just phyiscs. To complete flying handsprings on the floor exercise, or release-and-catches on the uneven bars, one has to have as little unnecessary weight as possible. Moreover, wide hips increase one's radius, making tight spins and twists all the more difficult.
Therefore, gymnasts had to hold off puberty. Kathy Johnson didn't begin menstruation until she was long retired at age 25. To do that, girls simply need to starve their bodies.
As a conscious choice, it's debatable. Would you delay puberty and risk anorexia in exchange for a chance at a gold medal and fame? Well, maybe. But it is strikingly disturbing for 12-year-old girls to be expected to decide for themselves on the subject.
Or, more realistically, Bela decides for them.
"I heard every day that I was fat," says Karolyi disciple Kristie Phillips, who was tabbed to be the next Mary Lou in 1986 until puberty caught up with her. "That I looked like an overstuffed Christmas turkey, that I was as big as a house, that I was never going to make it in life, that I was going to end up looking like my mother which, if you don't know my mother, she's very large that by the time I was 16 I was going to weigh 200 pounds. Bela was saying all this every day."
As Kristie's mom Terri says, "You do start asking yourself, 'Why should I pay $180,000 to have my kid physically and mentally abused?'"
Through it all, Karolyi remains nonplussed. Of his former students who became anorexic and bulimic, he blames their parents. And his gift for PR remains strong such as in 1996, when he carried an injured Kerri Strug after she completed a vault on an injured foot. One can imagine if there had been a similar injury during practice if Strug had shown even a hint of a wince, Karolyi would have called her a crybaby and a pregnant spider or something.
Not all of Karolyi's former gymnasts have bad memories of him. Okino thought he was great albeit tough. Mary Lou Retton, a devout Christian, calls him a gift from God.
The backlash against Karolyi is strong, especially after the publication of Joan Ryan's expose, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, which formed the foundation for this writeup. Moreover, Karolyi always talks of retiring to his ranch in Texas.
But whenever Karolyi leaves the U.S. Gymnastics team, they inevitably finish poorly in competitions, such as a DFL in the 1999 world championships. And Bela is coaxed out of retirement again.
For Americans are intoxicated with winning, and Bela Karolyi is the only American coach who can meet our need.
Like I said, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes was the primary source for this writeup.
Submitted for the Everything Quests: Athletes and Sports Figures quest.
And this is my 100th writeup. Yay me!