Can he save U.S. gymnastics again?
NBC specializes in adulterating hard-core Olympic sports into treacly mush, so when the U.S. women's gymnastics team competes in Sydney, Australia, next month, the network will undoubtedly torture viewers with endless images of Bela Karolyi bearhugging his teensy-weensy acolytes. These Karolyi squeezes—at once heartwarming and creepy—have become the money shot of the Summer Olympics. In 1984, Mary Lou Retton became America's darling when Karolyi leapt a barrier to snuggle her. In 1996, Karolyi assured the immortality of the "Magnificent Seven" women's team when he told Kerri Strug to vault on a gimpy leg, then scooped her up and carried her to the podium to collect her gold medal. Thank heaven for little girls!
NBC and women's gymnastics enthusiasts crave more Karolyi histrionics in Sydney. The U.S. team is in trouble. It has no name-brand star, and it tanked the last two world championships. In November, the national gymnastics federation lured Karolyi out of retirement to serve as national team coordinator—a kind of Übercoach. He has been conducting training camps for the elite gymnasts at his Texas ranch all year. He supervised last week's Olympic trials, and when they ended, he selected—largely by himself—the six members of the Sydney team.
Karolyi, the David Koresh of the gymnastics cult, is one of the very few folks to successfully reconcile the values of Eastern bloc communism and American capitalism. Karolyi and his wife Martha, also a gymnastics coach, defected to the United States in 1981. He masterminded Romanian Nadia Comaneci to her perfect 10 gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, but irked Communist authorities after the 1980 Moscow Games. When he arrived here, he found American gymnastics in shambles. Within a few years, he built one of the world's best teams by marrying American-style public relations to Soviet-style training.
Karolyi understood the importance of a snazzy image. He had shown his flash in 1976, when he decorated his Romanian girls with devastatingly sexy red hair bows. In the United States, he sought cute, tiny, young gymnasts with bubbly personalities. Their small, limber frames permitted them to do tricks that older girls couldn't, but he also knew that judges would be seduced by his enchanting pixies.
Even as he trained his doll army, Karolyi perfected his public self: Bela, the Transylvanian Delight. He mugged for the camera with hugs and pep talks. According to Joan Ryan's devastating exposé of gymnastics, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, some of his former athletes allege that he offered affection only when cameras were watching. He bragged about his protégées and boldly predicted victories. He hammed up his accent and carnival personality, using broken English to burnish his charmer image. (Recently Bela described the "spectaculous" failure of the U.S. team at the world championships. Reporter after reporter repeated the word in stories. Now he says it all the time.)
In Eastern-bloc fashion, Karolyi built a gymnastics factory that produced a few brilliant gymnasts and broke everyone else. Most top gymnastics coaches punish their adolescent students, but even by the sport's low standards, Karolyi was tough. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes and 60 Minutes chronicled Karolyi's gulag. He called his teen-age charges "little engines" and treated them like machines. They worked out eight hours a day, six days a week—a schedule twice as rigorous as sports docs advise for teens. He prodded them to train despite stress fractures and ligament damage. According to Ryan, he belittled already petite girls as "fat cows" and "pregnant goats" to get them to cut weight. Some of them drank laxatives to get thinner; others were bulimic.
He sought younger and younger girls to train, and psychologically overwhelmed them. "I am going to turn their little minds around," he said. "The young ones are the greatest little suckers in the world. They will follow you no matter what." He called his methods "survival of the fittest" and "scorpions in a bottle." He constantly set the girls against each other, knowing that the survivors would be impervious to competition pressure.
"Bela is a great coach for two reasons," says Ryan. "First, he is an incredible motivator. He could get you to run through a wall. And second, he has no conscience when it comes to the damage done to these little girls. He says that he's the coach, and everything else—eating disorders, for example—is the parents' responsibility."
The Soviet-style tactics worked. Many girls washed out with injuries, eating disorders, frustration. But the ones who survived—Retton, Strug, Kim Zmeskal, Dominique Moceanu—were tough as hell and would do anything for Karolyi. He produced 28 Olympians, nine gold medallists, 15 world champions, and six U.S. champions. TV viewers, who saw the smiling survivors but not the castoffs, fell in love with the Romanian bear. Even when Karolyi's less savory methods were publicized, he was quickly forgiven. He won, and winning erases sin. His defenders argue that all championship athletes must be driven hard: Why coddle gymnasts?
Today's incarnation of Karolyi is slightly more benevolent. Since his 1996 retirement, he hasn't coached any gymnasts. As national team coordinator, he supervises monthly training camps, but gymnasts no longer work and live under his thumb. Their coaches, who tend to be milder than Bela, maintain day-to-day control. This allows the gymnasts to benefit from Karolyi's ability to motivate and inspire without subjecting them to his work-camp methods. And Karolyi speaks out (softly) against the pixiefication of gymnastics. The minimum age for Olympic gymnasts was raised from 15 to 16 for the Sydney Games. Karolyi now favors slightly older and larger gymnasts than he used to. This nod to maturity reduces, by a minuscule amount, the scent of pedophilia that clings to women's gymnastics.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.