Those hard-to-resist-Svengalis: Bela Karolyi


That Bela--alternately so jovial, so brutish! The image of Karolyi hoisting Kerri Strug to the champion's podium is one of the most ubiquitous images of the 1996 Olympics. Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, et al. have defended him, but others--most notably Joan Ryan of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes fame--contend that his techniques are psychologically damaging.

A Slate profile circa the 2000 Sydney Olympics illuminates the shadows Ryan explores:

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."

None of this can change the fact that as a doomed gymnast-child, I longed nightly to be teleported to Karolyi's Texas Valhalla. The groupthink operating in my little gym was powerful enough that I still have dreams that it's 95 degrees outside & my coach is guzzling a 32-oz something as he counts backwards while we hold our legs at an unfathomably obtuse angle. At least he didn't call us "pregnant goats"! And to all our former child athletes: who was your Bela?