Home > Uncategorized > OLYMPICS: Bela Karolyi’s Eccentricities No Laughing Matter

OLYMPICS: Bela Karolyi’s Eccentricities No Laughing Matter

Bela Karolyi’s role as an analyst for NBC during the Gymnastics competitions on NBC has endeared him to many people. NBC has aired segments where they show Karolyi’s reactions to various performances, which are introduced by Olympics host Bob Costas. “Watching Bela Karolyi,” Costas notes during his introduction, “is much like a sport in and of itself.”

It’d be nice to be able to laugh off the eccentricities of a man who some portray as a hero the sport and the nation for his role as a coach for the American women’s team during the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. However, some former pupils of Karolyi don’t find his obsessive demeanor to be anything resembling a laughing matter.

In addition to a history of outlandish behaviors during competition (which resulted in him being banned from the floor at the Beijing games for “undisclosed reasons”), former gymnasts such as Kristie Phillips and Erica Stokes have publically stated that Karolyi was verbally and emotionally abusive to them during training. In addition to language that was detrimental to the self-esteem of these children with whose care he had been entrusted, he’s alleged to have encouraged the development of near-deadly eating disorders in his athletes by verbally chastising these tiny women for their weight. It’s been confirmed by several former athletes and observers that Karolyi would at times restrict his athletes to 900-calorie a day diets. The excessive cruelty and outlandish expectations of Karolyi were even noticed by members of the Men’s Gymnastics Team, who would attempt to alleviate the struggle of the young girls by smuggling food in to them during late hours.

Karolyi is far from the only practitioner of these detrimental methods. It’d be one thing if they were simply instances of harsh treatment and discomfort for the individuals involved. However, in some instances the damage hasn’t been restricted to just the development and psyche of these young girls. It’s also been lethal.

Olympic hopeful Christy Henrich was desperate to make it to the world stage, but had a ceiling that she just couldn’t break due to her own natural limitations. In any other sport, coaches and compatriots would take a realistic outlook on the situation, particularly when it came to such a young participant, employing the time-honored cliches of “you can’t win them all” and “you win some, you lose some.” Not in gymnastics. The blame was placed on Henrich’s weight and eating practices, for which she was repeatedly berated. In a failed attempt to qualify for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Henrich took the advice of her coaches and others in the sport to heart, and developed an eating disorder.

She died in 1994 at age 22, weighing only 50 pounds.

Some former pupils such as Mary Lou Retten have defended Karolyi’s training regimen as a means to “toughen up” the athletes, and justified the methods by noting it brought the United States several medals in the sport. Those valuable, precious medals; medals that apparently are worth far more than the shame, heartache, and personal tragedy that the children under his care went through. Call me crazy like Karolyi, but I believe there’s a fine line between providing valuable life lessons while building character in children and some of the practices he’s alleged to have partaken in.

It’s also worth noting that while we’re hearing all these allegations from successful former athletes, I can’t find anything concerning the ones who didn’t make the team. What he did to them and their self-esteem is undocumented, and might perhaps be a story worth telling.

Bela Karolyi may be something worse than an eccentric who is so passionate for the sport that he can’t help himself. According to former Olympians such as Dominique Moceanu, he’s also a bully and a coward. In an interview with The O.C. Register for a 2004 article titled “Gymnasts in Pain: Out of Balance,” Moceanu spoke of the poor treatments at the hands of the cowardly and intimidating Karolyi:

“I’m sure Bela saw injuries, but if you were injured, Bela didn’t want to see it…You had to deal with it. I was intimidated. He looked down on me. He was 6-feet something, and I was 4-foot nothing.”

I urge everyone to keep all this in mind whenever NBC Sports tries to play up his manic behavior as endearing, entertaining, and entirely harmless. So much coverage in the media has been focused on the controversy over the ages of the Chinese women, and yet that barely scratches the surface. There’s a reason why there’s been new rules instituted, in particular the age requirements, and it’s not simply because having 12-year-olds on a team provides an unfair advantage. The fact of the matter is that at the international level, Women’s Gymnastics is a dirty sport.

In that sense, it’s encouraging to see that there are steps being taken to fix a machine that for years has shoveled children at age three into the coal pit of the sport and chugged them out unmercifully. There will always be loopholes, and there may always be damage done physically and emotionally to the athletes participating. I just hope we can get to a point where we don’t have adult women that will always be underdeveloped due to unrealistic physical demands put on their bodies at such a young age, that something can be done to discourage some of the practices that permanently damage the self-esteem of these young athletes, and most importantly that we don’t have anything resembling the tragedy of Christy Henrich.

The sport doesn’t need to be eliminated, it just needs to be cleaned up. It’s no small feat and will take a great amount of dedication, oversight, and hard work. But nothing that provides worthwhile results is ever easy.

More later…

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  1. August 18, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    If I’m still willing to give my time and money to anything produced by Vince McMahon, then I feel I’ve crossed the Rubicon on the ability to be entertained by morally repugnant human beings.

    I would be more easily offended also if the Olympics weren’t a history book full of coaches and systems using up and destroying athletes for a fleeting moment of misplaced nationalistic fervor. From the 14 year olds China is putting out there now to the East German women given god knows what to make them swim faster and grow excellent mustaches to every gymnast starved and worked half to death on both sides of the iron curtain.

    I am sure in some way I become complicit in the perpetuation of these horrors by letting myself be entertained remorselessly by a buffoon with a heart of arsenic like Karolyi. So be it. I am complicit by giving WWE $40 last night even though I know full well that a good chunk of the men I’m watching are slowly poisoning themselves to keep up the bodies needed for my entertainment. I am complicit in boxers who are brain damaged at age 35. I am complicit in every football player who can’t walk at age 50.

    Modern life seems to me to be an endless string of moments where you have to find ways to ignore the secondhand blood dripping from your fingers. And perhaps it doesn’t speak well to my character that I’ve given up trying to fight the machine. I don’t know, I struggle with the fact of my basic submission. I struggle with the fact that I can’t help but be entertained by Bela Karolyi jumping around a tv studio like a lunatic, even though I know that he would have likely driven Alicia Sacramone halfway to a nervous breakdown once the cameras were off (or even while they were on).

    I wonder how much women’s gymnastics can ever be cleaned up as long as it depends so much on the performers being able to combine unnatural amounts of strength and movements that cannot be done by larger people. In many ways it is the anti-pro wrestling. Find the most freakishly built people and make that the norm for the industry. Whether its Chris Benoit weighing 230 pounds on a 5’7″ frame, or finding girls who can get strong enough to do 100 pull-ups at a time yet be small enough to perform the spins and flips needed. The two industires seem strikingly familiar.

  2. Anonymous
    August 18, 2008 at 5:27 pm


    I’m new here, just wanted to say hello and introduce myself.

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