Heavy Medals Episode 3

The Bela Show Growing his image as the most well-known coach in gymnastics, Bela aims for more gold medals. But after disappointment at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Bela announces he’s stepping away from elite-level gymnastics and retreats to his Ranch in Texas. But even after stepping out of the spotlight, Bela remains in focus, as accusations of abuse grow against the coach.

Transcript

 

 ALYSSA ROENIGK: A word of warning: this episode contains mature language depicting instances of sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse of children

[Fun With Gymnastics provided by Lionsgate

Bela Karolyi: Hello, everyone. My name is Bela Karolyi and welcome to Fun with Gymnastics.  

 

I know you are a natural born performer already because I’m sure everybody experienced all the swinging and hanging movements of your backyard.

 

Be always very careful. Don’t do anything too difficult for you. And don’t be afraid to ask your parents or coaches to help you. Strengthen your body with exercise. But most of all, have fun with gymnastics.]

 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: This is Episode 3: The Bela Show

By 1990, Bela Karolyi was the face of gymnastics in the United States. Little girls from all over flocked to his gym in Houston. His summer camps sold out. And like any savvy sports personality of the era, he had an instructional video to help spread his message — you can do it!

[Fun With Gymnastics
Bela Karolyi: Now with lil’ Kim from Houston, Texas. We’re gonna go through step by step the whole motion of the famous back flip flop.]

           

ALYSSA ROENIGK: But for all the attention he was receiving, Bela Karolyi was no closer to what he really wanted.

 

He could sell all the Fun with Gymnastics VHS tapes in the world.

 

He could coach a hundred Mary Lou Rettons. 


But after 10 years in the United States, Bela Karolyi had failed to convince the US Gymnastics Federation to hand over the program — and give him the type of control he once had in Romania.

 

BONNIE FORD: There was resistance in the United States to a centralized Soviet system in those days.

 


ALYSSA ROENIGK: As a longtime Olympics writer, my reporting partner, Bonnie Ford, understood the hesitation about the system Bela came from.

 

BONNIE FORD: That system was something that we had ridiculed over here in the media as being Draconian. The idea that you would pluck kids from kindergarten and evaluate them for their talent and put them in this very narrow, rigid system where they were denied their childhoods.

 

That was really antithetical to what sports officials here thought was the way, which was to let the free market rule.

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The US system emphasized the individual. Athletes trained at private gyms, with personal coaches. There was no sharing of information between top programs to help the national team. 

 

BONNIE FORD: You don’t have a uniform style, a uniform standard, uniform expectations of athletes and coaches. So up against countries that had a centralized system, Bela thought the U.S. system was doomed and would never succeed at the Olympic level because they did not have that kind of unified approach that Romania and other Eastern bloc countries had. 

 
ALYSSA ROENIGK: But the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona seemed like a prime opportunity for Bela. If he could once again get himself named head coach, and lead Team USA to a gold medal, he might finally convince the US Gymnastics Federation to give him what he wanted.

 

[ESPN
Bela Karolyi: Well, I really would like to see what was my goal ever since I started to spark the idea: Yes, the American gymnastic can be placed, you know, on the superior pedestal on the international level. I like to see a worldwide recognition the quality, the capability and the superiority of the American gymnastic program.]

 


ALYSSA ROENIGK: And his chances couldn’t have looked better. His newest star, a local kid from Houston named Kim Zmeskal…had once-in-a-generation talent. 

 

 

[ESPN
Kim Zmeskal: I was very lucky to have seen Mary Lou Retton train for the Olympics. I realized that I wanted to be like her and, and make it to the Olympics.]

[ESPN
Bela Karolyi: What I was watching and I was seeing in Kim Zmeskal, the joy of performing. She does it because she loves it. She always wanted to be a winner. She definitely is one of the strongest gymnasts I ever coached in my life.]

[ABC Sports

Announcer: Yes! Kim Zmeskal!]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Kim won the 1991 World Championship at 15-years-old.

                        [ABC Sports

Announcer: Just listen to the crowd! Standing O!]

 


ALYSSA ROENIGK: The first American woman ever to win an all-around medal at worlds. 

 

[ABC Sports

(Bela Karolyi cheering) ]

 

[ABC Sports

Announcer: A 9.987, gold for the Americans and Kim Zmeskal.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela was heading into Barcelona with the best gymnast in the world. But part of the reason Bela bristled at the U.S. system was that he wanted a monopoly and he didn’t have one. There were other ambitious coaches building their own programs . . . like his ex-protege Steve Nunno.

 

STEVE NUNNO: After he was a mentor or an employer, he became bitter enemy and rival.

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: When Nunno left Bela and Martha’s gym back in 1983, he’d set up shop in Edmond, Oklahoma and opened a gym of his own. There, he put the work ethic and conditioning techniques he’d learned from the Karolyis into practice.

 

[IOC
Announcer: Representing the state of Oklahoma, training at Dynamo Gymnastics, coached by Steve Nunno and Peggy Liddick, Shannon Miller!]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Shannon Miller met Nunno by chance at a clinic in Moscow. She was 9, a young gymnast with obvious talent. She lived in Edmond not far from Steve’s gym. She and her parents jumped at the chance to train with a guy who’d honed his craft with the great Bela Karolyi.

 

And while Bela and Kim were trying to build on her world championship, Steve and Shannon were quickly becoming a threat.  

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: And the score is coming up a 9.937 for Shannon Miller, she is making it very very tough on Zmeskal.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Shannon Miller upset Kim Zmeskal to win the U.S. Olympic Trials, putting the gymnasts, and their coaches, on a collision course for gold in Barcelona.

 

Shannon Miller upset Kim Zmeskal to win the US Olympic Trials, putting the gymnasts — and their coaches — on a collision course for gold in Barcelona.

 

 

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Welcome to the Palau Saint Jordi about three and a half miles from the Olympic village for women’s gymnastics. John Tesh, along with Tim Daggett and Elfie Schlegel, and this of course, the master from Transylvania, Bela Karolyi.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: For the second straight time, the Federation named Bela head coach of the Olympic team. But unlike 1988, he had a team that was capable of challenging the Russians and Romanians. 

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: The United States has a good chance to win the team title for the first time in its history. They came close in ‘84, but were edged by the Romanians.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela and Martha personally coached three of the six athletes on Team USA: Kim Zmeskal, Kerri Strug, and Betty Okino. But Bela was the Olympic head coach. So, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, all of Team USA was Bela’s team. Shannon Miller included. 

 

[NBC Sports

Hannah Storm: Kim Zmeskal, Shannon Miller and the rest of Bela Karolyi’s Gymnastic Squad are trying to win the first ever U.S. team gold medal.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The Olympics started with the team competition. Day 1 was compulsory routines. Day 2 was optionals. The team scores determined two things: who won team medals and which athletes competed in the individual events later that week. For a country, there was glory in a team medal. For a gymnast, the real glory was in the individual all-around.  

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Where we bring you the women’s compulsory exercise in gymnastics. This is the beginning of the team competition.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: On the first day of team competition, reigning world champion Kim Zmeskal started on the balance beam.

                        [NBC Sports
                        Announcer: This is the world champion. 16-year-old Kim Zmeskal.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: U.S. Gymnastics Federation President Mike Jacki watched from the stands.

                        [NBC Sports
                        Announcer: Whoa! And she is off the beam.]

MIKE JACKI: She fell off the beam on a back handspring. I’ll bet she hadn’t fallen off the beam in a back handspring in 10 years.

GEZA POZSAR: Kim Zmeskal’s, you know, performance was just disaster for Bela.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Choreographer Geza Pozsar understood exactly what that fall meant.

GEZA POZSAR: Kim Zmeskal was Bela’s, uh, one of his favorite gymnasts ever you know. He loved Kimmie, you know, and Bela took it as a personal affront that Kim did so bad. You know, he didn’t like losers. So when you become a loser, you know, you were done with Bela, you know?

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Houston Chronicle writer John Lopez saw Bela follow Kim off the competition floor and corner her.

JOHN LOPEZ: He was pretty adamant. He wasn’t happy, I’ll put it that way.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: John watched Bela launch into a tirade, in an arena tunnel, in full view of the media.

JOHN LOPEZ: And she’s obviously, you know, upset, but nodding her head like, yeah, you know, you’re right. I gotta, you know, this is what we got to do, or I messed up, or whatever. 

He’s trying to get her back in the game. Right there in that moment, you know, his prize pupil, just like the starting quarterback, you know, just like the starting point guard made a huge mistake and he was mad and he was coaching her up. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela and Martha had pinned all of their hopes on Kim Zmeskal. And when she faltered, it opened the door for their other athletes to step up.  

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: You’re 14 years old. You’re standing here getting ready to mount the balance beam. And your name’s Kerri Strug. Take a deep breath. 

Bela Karolyi: Okay Kerri… 

Announcer: And you’re probably really scared.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: With the spotlight constantly on Kim, Kerri Strug felt like she was always in her teammate’s shadow.

 

KERRI STRUG: I was definitely not as confident in where I stood with them. I always wanted their approval. You want them to say, you know, good job! And for me, I had talent, but I definitely was not mentally tough.

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: That was especially true at important meets.

 

KERRI STRUG: I was known for not really putting it together when it counted most. So, I didn’t like being known for that whatsoever.


ALYSSA ROENIGK: And now, here she was on the biggest stage imaginable, the Olympic Games.

 

[NBC Sports

Bela Karolyi: Good, good. Kerri!

Announcer: You can hear Bela in the background saying, “good, good.”] 

 

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: And Kerri Strug score coming up right now. 

Bela Karolyi: And control… 

Announcer: So how is that going to affect Kim Zmeskal? 

Announcer: Well, that certainly does open up the door. And remember Kerri is the person standing between Kim Zmeskal and the all-around finals.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Kerri performed even better than expected on the first day. If she could keep it up, she’d bump Kim Zemskal out. The reigning world champion was in danger of not making it to the all-around.

 

[NBC Sports
Bela Karolyi: Her situation was a desperate situation, which most of the other athlete wouldn’t be able to go through and still have the power, still had the drive, you know, still had that you know that anger, “I’m gonna make it.”]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela’s tirade in the tunnel worked.

 

[NBC Sports
Bela Karolyi: I wanted to make her even angrier before just in order you know to get to that point, to show her anger through a great performance. And she did it.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Kim Zmeskal came back with a vengeance on Day 2. 

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: But you know, what a fighter. Right from the start, she was in trouble at these Olympic Games, but she has battled back every inch of the way.]

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Just the dismount, if she sticks she just might do it, and she stuck! Oh my god! Wow that was the routine of her life!                                                            Martha Karolyi: Ayyy!
Announcer: Double back, perfect.
Announcer: And she doesn’t just do it, she nails it.

                        [NBC Sports

Announcer: All around scores for the Americans. Zmeskal just beats out Kerri Strug.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Kim performed flawlessly, helping Team USA win a bronze medal and earning herself a spot in the all-around final.

 

She had regained her momentum and looked like a world champion again.  

 

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Everybody’s been talking about Kim Zmeskal, start talking about Shannon Miller, 15 years old from Edmond, Oklahoma.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: But it was becoming clear that Shannon Miller was the U.S. force to be reckoned with.

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Watching American Shannon Miller establish herself as the woman to beat.]

[NBC Sports
Announcer: (THUMP)….whoooa my god! A perfect full twisting double somersault and she rocks the landing.]

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Shannon’s scores are up…and wow!]

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Beautiful work so far. She’s hitting every single handstand.]

[NBC Sports
Steve Nunno: Come on now! (sound of vault) (Steve Nunno cheering)]

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Shannon Miller and Lu Li will share the silver.]

[NBC Sports
Announcer: Shannon Miller ties for the bronze.]

[NBC Sports                                                                                                    Announcer: Shannon Miller is a silver medalist here in Barcelona.]

[NBC Sports
Steve Nunno: Yes!!! That’s it!]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Steve Nunno’s gymnast, Shannon Miller, cleaned up. 

STEVE NUNNO: Bela just couldn’t believe that Kim could be beat and here comes Shannon Miller.

 

MIKE JACKI: When Shannon started to make her rise in stardom, he was competing against Nunno. It wasn’t Zmeskal competing against Miller. It was Karolyi competing against Nunno.

 

‘Cause he looked at it that it was coach against coach.

STEVE NUNNO: When my athlete just kept winning medals, I would come back. “Got another medal!” You know, another glass of champagne. And he wouldn’t raise his glass to me. I’m like “Come on Bela! One glass!”

GEZA POZSAR: He couldn’t stand the fact that Shannon Miller was on top and Nunno was celebrating, jumping up and down. He hated it, hated every moment of it. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Shannon won a total of 5 medals in Barcelona, including a silver in the individual all-around.

Kim Zmeskal, the reigning world champion, was shut out.

[NBC Sports

Announcer: It has been a tough week for Kim Zmeskal, Bela Karolyi, the man who brought her here.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela’s star didn’t win a single individual medal.

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: The team bronze, but for the most part, unfulfilled Olympic dreams for Kim.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Still, Kim and the U.S. Team had won a bronze medal. It was the first team medal for the United States in an Olympics where the Soviets were competing. And yet, it wasn’t a triumphant moment. Bela decided he’d had enough.

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: Bela, will this medal end your team coaching career, do you believe? 

Bela Karolyi: Yes, uh this medal, it’s a nice medal. It’s probably nicer than all the other ones because that’s the end of my career.]

 

KERRI STRUG: The Karolyis announced their retirement and we were a little bit stunned.

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: A definite decision that is tonight? 

Bela Karolyi: Yes, it is a definite decision.]

 

KERRI STRUG: We were disappointed that it didn’t come to us first. They went home and there wasn’t a real set goodbye.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela said he was done coaching elite gymnastics. And then he left Barcelona before the closing ceremony.

[NBC Sports

Announcer: People don’t realize it’s a huge deal for the U.S. team to get a medal in the team competition because they’ve never medaled in an Olympics when the Soviets or in this case, the former Soviets, have been involved. 

Announcer: And you had to read between the lines with Karolyi. What he was upset with, and maybe the reason why he’s retiring, he can’t stand the high level politics. He himself has been involved in them. And he criticized the U.S. leaders in not being more proud of the American bronze last night.]

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: Karolyi will leave the sport without ever seeing one of his teams, be it Romanian or American, defeat the Soviets or their successors at the Olympics. So for all his legendary success, this personal obsession was never put to rest for gymnastics’ most famous coach.]

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: Let’s talk about Bela. What do you think about his announcement that he’s retiring? Do you think he’ll change his mind or do you think he’s really gonna, get out of there? 

Mary Lou Retton: Yeah. I don’t believe it. I know Bela. It would be a very big loss for American gymnastics if he quit. 

Announcer: Well, why do you think he’s saying he’s going to retire if you don’t think he really means it? 

Mary Lou Retton: I don’t know! I don’t know. You know, Bela likes to create scandals. He’s always in the public eye. He has to say something. I truly in my heart, I don’t feel it. I hope he stays in. He’s an unbelievable coach. He’s creates champion after champion. We need him.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: That disbelief over Bela’s retirement echoed throughout the media. Bela was women’s gymnastics in the United States.

 

Networks built their coverage around him. 

[ABC Sports                                                                                                                Announcer: This team is coached by arguably the most recognizable name in the sport of women’s gymnastics, Bela Karolyi.]

[ABC Sports                                                                                                                Announcer: Well there is no question that Bela is perhaps more famous than some of his great gymnasts like Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci. He’s the most passionate…]

KATHY JOHNSON CLARKE: I’m doing television, okay, and I have to sit down with my producers and we plan our stories like we all do, and they are obsessed with Bela. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Kathy Johnson Clarke had been an Olympian in 1984. When she retired from elite gymnastics, she moved into the broadcast booth.

KATHY JOHNSON CLARKE: He was a centerpiece back then. He had the top athletes and he was a show on the floor. He absolutely was a show. They wanted to tell that story. 


[NBC Sports                                                                                                                Bela Karolyi:  And uh look at the landing hold it nice alright!
Announcer: If Bela Karolyi was not doing this, he’d be conductor of an orchestra.
(Bela Karolyi cheering and coaching)
Bela Karolyi: (Grunt) There it is!
Announcer: You were just coached by Bela Karolyi.]

KATHY JOHNSON CLARKE: Everything was about Bela. 

[ABC Sports                                                                                                  Narrator: It is a sport that is bigger than life. A sport whose most dominant figure in the world would appear himself bigger than life. Bela Karolyi is gymnastics most recognized name and most dominant personality, a big man in a small persons venue.]

KATHY JOHNSON CLARKE: I mean, I was literally nauseous at one point. I said, the show is the athletes. I said, you’re creating a monster. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela was a producer’s dream. And he knew it.

 

SCOTT REID: Bela was, uh, very user friendly. Probably more than anybody I’ve ever covered. He knew how to play the game with the media.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Scott Reid is a longtime reporter with the Orange County Register in California.

 

SCOTT REID: Working the media, feeding the media, knowing which buttons to push, telling this great story and making it accessible. Bela turning, you know, reality into myth. He knew that, that we would eat it up and swallow it whole without reading the side of the box for the ingredients. 

[ABC News

Bela Karolyi: Yoo-hoo!]

 

[ESPN

Announcer: She got the Grade A hug from Bela.]

KATHY JOHNSON CLARKE: He’s not this big, happy hugging guy all the time in the gym. You need to know that, this is a show, this is who he is for television. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela Karolyi was known for being a tough coach, for his demanding training regimen. Most commentators didn’t know exactly what went on in his gym, but they portrayed it as being hard, and disciplined, and straight out of his Romanian playbook.

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: But many wonder what really goes on behind closed doors at Karolyi’s gym.]

 

[ESPN

Announcer: Critics claim Karolyi is too demanding, too forceful, that the ends too often fail to justify the means.]

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: Some people see him as a very ruthless coach who’s too tough on the kids.]

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: Do his rigorous training methods border on abuse?]

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: But you know what he is? A winner. Everywhere he’s been. He is a winner.]

ALYSSA ROENIGK: It was that success, and Bela’s intensity, that drew so many young gymnasts and their parents in the first place.

JOAN RYAN: Bela Karolyi was the king of elite gymnastics. He was untouchable. He was the guy who changed American gymnastics forever. Bela Karolyi brought that Eastern Bloc, no holds barred. You treat these girls like commodities and not like human beings and certainly not like children.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Joan Ryan is the author of a book about the culture of gymnastics called Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.

JOAN RYAN: Now, were there other gymnastics coaches who pushed their athletes too hard? Yes. Because it was just part of that culture.

JENNIFER SEY: Many believe the Karolyi’s set that standard, but I would argue it was here way before them. They just perfected it. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Jennifer Sey was the 1986 national all-around champion. She trained for most of her career with one of the Karolyis’ biggest rivals. 

JENNIFER SEY: You know, I started gymnastics in 1976. I can tell you people were acting, behaving badly back in 1976. There was screaming, hitting, sexual abuse. These things were all just sort of standard operating procedure as far back as I can remember. And if you raised it or said that it was a problem, then you were just too sensitive or too weak, or you weren’t strong enough to make it in the sport.

And so, you know, the Karolyis came here in the early eighties, and they brought terrible tactics with them from Romania. But they produced champions, and so it validated those strategies.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Bela didn’t invent the culture, but he set a tone and standards that the U.S. Gymnastics Federation had accepted as the price of results.

 

JENNIFER SEY: We were publicly shamed for our weight. They’re going to loudspeaker and announce what you weighed that day, how much you gained. A quarter pound was shameful. Um, you know, if a child had parents that were overweight, they would be shamed for that.

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: I was at one time an overstuffed Christmas turkey. At another time I know my teammates were dead frogs, whole houses. 

 
ALYSSA ROENIGK: Kristie Phillips was the Karolyi Girl who Sports Illustrated had billed as “The New Mary Lou”.

 

KRISTIE PHILLIPS: Some of these things, we would literally be in the chalk box, you know, putting chalk on our grips, going, did he really just call me an overstuffed Christmas turkey? Like I wasn’t just an overstuffed turkey, I was an overstuffed Christmas turkey. 

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Carol Ulrich Dain was one of Kristie’s teammates.

CAROL DAIN: I think probably the hardest and the most awful times were when we were yelled at in a way it was like a lot about you know, how you look. You look heavy, you look fat. And I mean remember I was probably 90 pounds and um, four foot ten. And he he says, “No actually you’re you’re as big as a condominium complex.” You know, and for a 16, 15 year old girl. It’s hard to hear things like that. It was probably some emotional abuse if that’s the right way to call it.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Between the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, more questions were raised about what elite-level gymnastics required of young women, most of whom were still girls.

JOAN RYAN: The hours and years of training and the type of training in order to be the best in the world by the time they’re 15, and at most 16, what does that do to a body that’s still developing? What does that do to a psyche that’s still developing? 

 

[The Oprah Winfrey Show
Oprah Winfrey: Behind the smiles, the glamour, the ponytails of these young athletes going for the gold. 

Woman: They’re physically and verbally traumatized.

Oprah Winfrey: Are little girls. Driven to win at all costs…]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Joan Ryan’s book detailed what she described as “a culture of celebrated child abuse” in women’s gymnastics. It came out in the lead up to the 1996 Olympics. Her revelations were shocking enough to catch Oprah Winfrey’s attention. 

 

[The Oprah Winfrey Show
Oprah Winfrey: …our own kids. After today’s show, you’ll see young athletes through different eyes, little girls with fractured bones and broken hearts. Living in constant fear of a fall from grace. Then ask yourself, are these girls being trained or tortured? Next.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Millions of viewers tuned into The Oprah Winfrey Show every weekday to see Oprah’s self-help segments and celebrity interviews. In May 1996 they watched as Oprah questioned several gymnasts about Bela Karolyi.

 

[The Oprah Winfrey Show

Oprah Winfrey: Do you think Bela gets a bad rap?

Kristie Phillips: I think that he gets a pretty bad rap. Um, of course, what he does is not always the right thing to do. I’m not saying I’m not saying what he does is right. But to him, that’s what he knows how to make a champion. And each person is an individual. If you —

Oprah Winfrey: Do you believe that’s what it takes to make a champion. He’s hard on the girls…

Kristie Philliups: I don’t think that that’s the only way to make a champion. I think that’s his way.]


ALYSSA ROENIGK: Kristie Phillips was one of the gymnasts Joan interviewed for her book. And she was invited to be part of Oprah’s show that day.

[The Oprah Winfrey Show

Oprah Winfrey: You don’t think it’s abuse.
Kristie Phillips: No. I could take it.]

JOAN RYAN: He really is that sort of inspirational, charismatic character that you instinctively, especially as a young female, you want to please. It’s like pleasing your dad. So these girls lived for the pat on the head, lived for the smile that he would give you, that you had nailed it! You really did it. You were a good girl. 

I mean, you could characterize it as an abusive relationship, right? Because there’s this whole dependence, enabling thing that goes on that’s really complex and it’s especially easy to do that with a young girl who’s desperate to achieve her goal ‘cause she loves this sport she’s willing to do anything. And then you have this incredibly charismatic guy,  who has done this over and over with girls, gotten them to the top of the mountain. So I think it’s, um, I think it’s a very deep, complex relationship that these girls end up having with Bela. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Joan went to the Karolyi gym in Houston to interview Bela while she was writing her book.

JOAN RYAN: I sat there and I said, oh, I get it. I get it now. I mean, you want to run through a wall for this guy. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: Joan met the gregarious coach who’d convinced Mary Lou’s parents to allow their teenage daughter to move far away from home the first time they met. The man who gave Kristie Phillips her confidence. And as Joan presented Bela with the disturbing stories she’d heard from gymnasts and parents… he brushed them all off.

JOAN RYAN: You don’t see any of my Olympic gold medalists complaining about it, do you? And that’s what he’d say. These were all losers. So that’s why they’re complaining and they’re trying to blame me for their own failures.

ALYSSA ROENIGK: It was anyone’s fault but his.

JOAN RYAN: Parents: they never looked out for their kids. If they had an eating disorder, that’s on the parents. I’m not their dad. 


                       

[60 Minutes                                                                                                                             Bela Karolyi: Uh. who you are?
            Reporter: I’m Lesley Stahl.
            Bela Karolyi: Is that right?
            Reporter: 60 Minutes.
            Bela Karolyi: Ahh, great. How you been doing?
            Reporter: I’ve been doing great, how have you been doing?
            Bela Karolyi: I’m fine.

Reporter: What about these charges that…                                                              Bela Karolyi: Thank you very much.                                                              Reporter: That these girls all have eating disorders? 

Bela Karolyi: Well, we are having much more important things now to concentrate than eating disorder and all the garbage, but you are getting around and we’re trying not to make a publicity to a show which has no valid basis to do it. 

Reporter: But if it’s not true, why don’t you say so? 

Bela Karolyi: I told you it’s not true. I tell you it’s garbage what you are getting, and that’s a sorry way to make a living. Very very sorry about it. 

Reporter: Did you call these girls names?

Bela Karolyi: Goodbye. 

Reporter: Do you call them fat pigs? 

Bela Karolyi: That’s very very very nice of you.

Reporter: Do you demean them? Do you debase them? Mr. Karolyi?

Bela Karolyi: Goodbye.]

 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: The US Gymnastics Federation, which became USA Gymnastics in 1993, didn’t formally respond to Joan’s book. Geza Pozsar says he was told by the head of the Women’s Program to deflect any questions he got. 

GEZA POZSAR: Bela was the only one who can produce medals. And for them most important things to survive was medals. Medals, medals, medals. You got the medals, you got the sponsors, you know, and uh, end justifies the means. 

ALYSSA ROENIGK: In the two years since Bela had stepped away from coaching, the scrutiny of his methods and the overall culture of gymnastics had only grown. But Bela ignored his critics. And decided to step back into the arena as an elite coach. 

His latest protege, Dominique Moceanu, had the look of a champion. And Bela Karolyi had every intention of making her one. 

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: The protege of Bela Karolyi in fact has kept Bela out of retirement, so great is her potential.]

 

[NBC Sports

Announcer: She is legit. She has everything that it takes to be a champion.]

 

[NBC Sports

Bela Karolyi: Alright keep it a little more hollow. You opened it a little too much.]

 

[ABC Sports

Announcer: The next superstar of U.S. gymnastics just might be Dominique Moceanu.]

 

<beat>

 

If you or someone you know has been subjected to sexual assault or abuse, and you would like more information or support, these hotlines can help: RAINN’s 24/7 confidential national sexual assault hotline  1-800-656-4673, ChildHelp 1-800-4-A-Child/ 1-800-422-4453 and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255

 

Credits

Heavy Medals

Alyssa Roenigk, Host and Reporter
Bonnie Ford, Reporter
Andrew Mambo and Meradith Hoddinott, Producers
Julia Lowrie Henderson, Senior Editorial Producer
Erin Leyden and Libby Geist, Executive Producers
Mitra Kaboli,  Mix Engineering and Sound Design
Reilly Bloom, Gus Navarro, Samantha Dowd, and Trevor Gill, Production Assistants
Louise Argianas, Cath Sankey, and Jennifer Thorpe, Production Management and Licensing
Ian Coss, Original Composition
Connor Schell, Rob King, & Alison Overholt, Executive Producers for ESPN
This podcast was developed by Jenna Anthony and Adam Neuhaus, with help from Jody Avirgan
Julianna Brannum, Archival Producer
John Mastroberardino provided fact checking
Terri Langford did legal research
Additional Production support from: Amy Van Deusen and Eve Wulf
This season of 30 for 30 Podcasts was produced in association with espnW.


ESPN Audio
Tom Ricks
, Vice President, Audio Digital Strategy & Marketing
Megan Judge, Director, Audio Distribution & Marketing
Pete Gianesini, Senior Director, Audio Production
Ryan Granner, Director, Digital Audio Operations

Additional Production Support
Vin D’Anton, Brandon Nix, Neel Danesha, Ryan Ross Smith, Claire Jones, Adrienne St Clair, Ryan Weaver,
Michael Castaneda, Anny Celsi, Talia Carlene Blake, Lauren Ober, Ruth Eddy, Wayne Ramocan (Juuni), Tasha French, Diana Nygent, Kateleigh Mills

Special Thanks
Pat Alexander, Bill Archer, Cora Bagoli, John Barr, David Barron, Dr. Dan Benardot, Cosmin Bogdan, Aimee Boorman,
Jen Brown, Mike Canales, Don Carlson, Ray Deenihan, Tom Forster, Ashley Fox, Wendy Hilliard, Barbara Kievit-Mason, Sarah Klein, Sandy Knapp, Cecile Landi, Laurent Landi, Mike Lynch, Kevin Mazeika, Phil Moseley, Dan Murphy,
Ryan Nantell, Jessica O’Beirne, Angie Povilaitis, Gary Rafaloski, Tony Retrosi, Keith Romer, RJ Santillo,
Susan Polakoff Shaw, Michelle Simpson Tuegel, Jolene Van Vugt, Paul Ziert , ESPN LA, and ESPN NY

 

Archival Material
Audio provided courtesy of:
ABC13 Houston
AP Archive/Press Association
Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation 
CBC Licensing
With Permission from The Estate of Clerow “Flip” Wilson
Phoenix Learning Group (Coronet Instructional Films)
Gymternet Media LLC (GymCastic podcast)
Harpo, Inc.
IOC/USOPC
The Kansas City Star. © 2019 McClatchy. All rights reserved. Used under license.
KHOU-TV Houston, TX
“Gymnastics Fun with Bela Karolyi” courtesy of Lions Gate Films Inc. 
NBC News Archives
Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. (KXAN)
Seven Network. All rights reserved. © 
Universal Television LLC 
WDIV/Local 4
WTHR-TV Indianapolis, IN