“When he heads for his ranch on a rural highway north of Houston, in his four-wheel drive with Merle Haggard on the dashboard cassette deck and a day’s collection of bugs on the windshield, well, you would swear you were riding with a born Texan,” ABC’s Bob Brown says, narrating a video of Bela Karolyi driving his truck, tapping along to country music coming out of the speakers. “When Bela Karolyi defected to the West, he defected to the West.”
This mid-eighties ABC News segment soundbite was produced just five years after Karolyi—the famed coach of Nadia Comaneci, the first gymnast to earn a perfect 10 score at the Olympics—defected to the United States with his wife, Martha, and Geza Pozsar, the choreographer for the Romanian team. The snippet also appears in Heavy Medals, a new podcast series produced by the 30 for 30 team about the Karolyis that closely examines the couple’s legacy of Olympic success and abusive practices. At their ranch seventy miles north of Houston, the Karolyis trained champions including Kerri Strug and Kristie Phillips—but they also fostered a dangerous, exploitative culture. Numerous gymnasts have since spoken out about conditions at the ranch, saying that the Karolyis left them vulnerable to the sexual abuse perpetrated there by team doctor Larry Nassar.
The ABC News scene comes at the start of the second episode, “American Hustle,” which chronicles the Karolyis’ early years in America shortly after their defection in 1981. From there, the episode goes into how they recruited the top junior talent in this country to their program in Houston; how they implemented the strenuous practice regimen that they were known for in Romania; and how Bela, with the help of a compliant media, built up the myth of a man who started his American Dream as a longshoreman staying in a seedy motel in Los Angeles, before going on to build a gymnastics empire in Texas.
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Heavy Medals debunks that oft-repeated longshoreman story: the Karolyis, along with Pozsar, spent their early days in the U.S. first at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, then in the guest house on the estate of a wealthy friend in L.A. The podcast doesn’t go into great detail about how they landed in Texas, which was not their first gymnastics coaching stop in the U.S. (First they went to Oklahoma, where Paul Ziert, the head coach of the University of Oklahoma’s men’s gymnastics team, got Bela a job coaching the women at the university and at his private club.)
That Bela and Martha ended up in Texas because they jumped into their truck and drove south, letting the open road take them where it will, is exactly the kind of yarn Bela would’ve spun. In reality, one of the chief reasons they ended up establishing themselves in the Lone Star State was because of Congressman Bill Archer. Archer used his position to get the Karolyis’ seven-year-old daughter, Andrea, whom they left behind when they defected, out of Romania. He also helped the duo get coaching positions at a Houston club and a 25 percent stake in ownership. (Bela Karolyi later said that they moved to Houston out of “gratefulness” to Archer.) Having friends in high places to help you out isn’t exactly the bootstrapping narrative that Karolyi sold about himself over the years.
Even if these stories aren’t included, over the podcast’s seven episodes, journalists Alyssa Roenigk and Bonnie Ford trace how Karolyi consciously built this Horatio Alger myth. This seemingly innate understanding of celebrity and marketing is just one of the many ways that the Karolyis, especially Bela, came off as distinctly American.
Through archival audio in the podcast, Bela said that he had been warned that U.S. gymnasts were spoiled and wouldn’t work as hard as their Romanian counterparts, but he found that to be untrue. Once they were situated in Texas in 1982, the podcast details that the Karolyis didn’t have to change much about their approach except to lose the physical abuse. (Episode one, “Made in Romania,” chronicles their physical abuse of Romanian gymnasts, with interviews with Pozsar and two former gymnasts.) Everything else about the Karolyis’ practice—the crushing workload, extreme caloric restrictions, and psychological warfare—remained basically the same as it had been in Romania. Gymnasts training at Karolyi’s Houston gym quickly adjusted because for many of them, it wasn’t much of an adjustment: many of the harsh features of the Romanian system were already present in U.S. gymnastics culture.
Jennifer Sey, the 1986 U.S. national champion and the author of Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams, has insisted that the cruel coaching practices predate the Karolyis’ arrival in the U.S. “Many believe that the Karolyis set that standard, but I would argue that it was here way before then; they just perfected it,” she says in Heavy Medals. “I could tell you that there were people behaving badly in 1976 … There was screaming, hitting, sexual abuse. These things were all just standard operating procedure as far back as I can remember.”
She recalls a horrifying incident from a domestic meet in 1981. “I distinctly remember a coach screaming at a girl for landing on her head during [practice the day before the meet]. He didn’t check to see if she was okay. He didn’t have her looked at by a doctor,” Sey wrote in an email to me. None of the other coaches present intervened. “And she ended up vomiting during her floor routine during the competition and was then rushed to the hospital. She had a concussion.”
Other abusers operated in U.S. gymnastics circles when the Karolyis defected. Don Peters and Doug Boger, two well-known coaches, were banned by USA Gymnastics in 2011 and 2010, respectively, for abuses they committed in the seventies and eighties. Boger is not mentioned at all in the series, while Peters comes up briefly during an episode discussing the implementation of the semi-centralized training camp system in 1999; Roegnik quickly jumps in to note that Peters had been banned in 2011 for abusing his athletes.
Peters, however, should’ve been brought into the narrative much sooner and more directly. The series spends the better part of one episode talking about how desperately Karolyi tried to gain control of U.S. gymnastics shortly after he arrived in the early eighties. Well, who was he trying to wrest that power from? Peters, chiefly. Peters was the preeminent women’s gymnastics coach when Karolyi arrived. In the late seventies, he helped coach Marcia Frederick to first place on the uneven bars at the 1978 world championships—the first gold for an American woman. And then he moved to Southern California, where his club, SCATS in Huntington Beach, had produced several national team members. All the while, Peters had been sexually abusing his athletes, including Doe Yamashiro.
While Heavy Medals does a good job of faithfully presenting the Karolyis’ biography and the harm they caused, it could’ve taken a small step back so that listeners could get a feel for what the coaching landscape was like in the United States at this time, and how it paved the way for the Karolyis to build their Texas gymnastics powerhouse. Then you’d realize that for the Karolyis, integrating into U.S. gymnastics culture wasn’t a matter of trying to fit a square peg into a circle; rather it was fitting a circle into a circle. And that says more about us than it does about them.
This really shouldn’t surprise anyone, since the U.S. is well-known for its “win at all costs” culture. Still, I am somewhat puzzled by statements like this one from Joan Ryan, who was interviewed for the podcast: “Bela Karolyi brought that Eastern Bloc, no-holds-barred, you treat these girls like commodities, not like human beings, certainly not like children.” Ryan is author of the essential book about abuse in gymnastics, 1995’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, that became a canary in the coal mine when it came to abuse in the sport. But if there is anything that American capitalism does well, it’s turning everything—food, water, housing, health care, and yes, even people—into commodities.
That’s not to say that communist regimes didn’t also exploit and harm their athletes. (See: the first episode of Heavy Medals, about how the Karolyis abused their Romanian gymnasts.) But communist regimes also paid them more equitably compared with what Olympic-level athletes could be paid in the U.S., explains Dr. Johanna Mellis, assistant professor of history at Ursinus College and the cohost of The End of Sport podcast. “The way that Bela commodified athletes was largely due to what he learned was possible in the capitalist system here,” she wrote to me. “Our capitalist, profit-and-medals-above-all-else approach, and the fact that we welcomed him with open arms made the commodification and exploitation of girl gymnasts possible.”
It was in the U.S. that Karolyi could be himself fully. As Houston Chronicle reporter John Lopez noted, he had a “P.T. Barnum streak in his soul.” In Texas, he became the fullest version of that. And the media clocked Bela, not the athletes, as the star—a situation he milked for all it was worth, putting out an instructional how-to video, publishing a memoir, and hosting summer camps on his Texas ranch. Kathy Johnson Clarke, who moved into sports commentating after she retired from gymnastics in 1984, speaks in the series of being horrified when she realized that the producers wanted to make Bela the focal point of the meet coverage. “I was literally nauseous at one point,” she recalls on the podcast. “The show is the athletes. You’re creating a monster.”
And as the media built up Bela, they routinely dehumanized gymnasts. In this clip from 1988 Olympic Trials, the NBC commentators talk at length about Kristie Phillips going through puberty and gaining weight as some sort of tragedy. Then they had the gall to do a mini-PSA about eating disorders.
None of this, of course, changes the Karolyis’ culpability. They still have to answer for the abuse they perpetrated and what they enabled. But failing to properly contextualize their actions as part of the coaching culture in this country writ large has the effect of projecting all of the blame onto them so that there is less dirt on the rest of us.
Still, guilt and blame are renewable resources. There’s more than enough to go around in this story: for administrators who put profits ahead of athletes’ well-being; for protected coaches who were long known to be abusive; for coaches who belittled their gymnasts and drove them toward eating disorders. It also extends to the media—and I include myself in this—who didn’t treat the Karolyis with enough skepticism and helped them build their brand, which, in turn, helped them strengthen their hold on the sport.
As Heavy Medals makes clear, this isn’t something the Karolyis alone did to gymnasts training with them in Texas. It’s something that the American gymnastics establishment and all of the related institutions—USOPC, the media—did with them. The call was coming from both outside and inside the house.
Correction 07/30: A previous version of this article noted that an NBC clip was of the 1988 nationals. It has been amended to reflect that the clip is from the 1988 Olympic Trials, not nationals.