Five-ring Circus

The Karolyis’ Tainted Glory

The celebrated coaches’ legacy includes the alleged physical and psychological torment of young gymnasts.

Bela Karolyi, left, and Martha Karolyi speak with Kerri Strug at the U.S. gymnastics Olympic trials in Boston on June 30, 1996.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Martha Karolyi is taking her victory lap. At age 73, after a half-century of coaching world-class gymnasts in her native Romania and in the U.S., she has said that Rio de Janeiro will be her last Olympic Games. In Karolyi’s honor, her phenomenal women’s team—led by Simone Biles, the newly crowned individual all-around gold medalist and possibly the greatest gymnast of all time—has dubbed itself “Final Five.” A borderline hagiographic New York Times tribute on Tuesday hailed Karolyi as “the woman who lifted U.S. gymnastics” alongside her husband and fellow coach, Bela. “He was the boisterous cheerleader, the emotional one,” the Times wrote. “She was the quiet technician who knew exactly how to tweak a gymnast to make her great.”

The Karolyis undoubtedly lifted U.S. gymnastics. Bela was the personal coach of such Olympic champions as Mary Lou Retton, who in 1984 won the U.S.’s first individual all-around gold, and Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug of 1996’s “Magnificent Seven.” And since 2001, when Martha took over the role of national team coordinator from her husband after his tumultuous two-year run, American women have dominated world-class competition much in the way that Soviet women did in the second half of the 20th century.

But as Biles and company give Martha Karolyi a last blaze of glory, it’s worth giving a spotlight, too, to the many gymnasts who have said they were psychologically and physically tormented under the Karolyis’ tutelage. Perhaps some of the harsher methods the Karolyis employed “lifted gymnastics.” And perhaps some of them could be likened to child abuse.

Trudi Kollar, who was known as Emilia Eberle when she won two silver medals at the 1976 Montreal Games, was just 12 when she joined Romania’s national team under Bela and Martha Karolyi’s leadership; her teammates included the Karolyis’ first superstar, Nadia Comaneci. In 2008, Kollar told KCRA Sacramento that Bela regularly beat her for making mistakes during practice. “You know, he has huge hands, and it hurts,” Kollar said. “I had blood coming out of my body. I had my ears—my skin ripped behind my ears.” As for Martha, Kollar said, “Occasionally, she scratched us. She stuck her fingernails in the back of our necks and she shook us.” KCRA corroborated Kollar’s story with former Romanian team choreographer Geza Pozsar (“Of course I saw the beatings and abuse,” he said) and a team nurse, Joanna Voss, who confirmed, “The girls were verbally and physically abused.”

After Kollar’s allegations emerged, USA Gymnastics issued a statement indicating it had never received a formal complaint against either of the Karolyis. On Nov. 19, 2008, the Associated Press reported that “in an interview with Romanian daily Cotidianul, Bela Karolyi did not deny Kollar’s allegations, but said he feels no guilt for anything he did.” ”Some of the girls have bad memories. Perhaps others say it was the best time of their lives,” Karolyi reportedly told the Romanian publication.

Rodica Dunca, who at age 15 competed for Romania at the 1980 Moscow Games, gave a startling 2002 interview to ProSport about life at the Karolyis’ Deva, Romania, training center. (The interview, not available online, was later unearthed by the gymnastics blog Triple Full.) “Some days we were beaten until the blood streamed out of our noses,” Dunca said. “Hunger was our eternal enemy.” Breakfast, she recalled, consisted of “one slice of salami, two nuts, and a glass of milk. In the evening we’d get the same menu, only without the nuts.” The gymnasts’ water intake was severely restricted, too, Dunca said, with desperate gymnasts driven to drinking toilet water. (The coaches cracked down on this practice by making the athletes use the bathroom with the door open.) Dunca also alleged that the gymnasts were given injections to prevent them from menstruating and said they were forced to take dozens of unidentified but speedlike pills per day.

Ecaterina Szabo, who won four golds and a silver at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, said in a Romanian-language interview translated by Triple Full, “I’ll never forget the slaps in the face and the beatings I got from Bela Karolyi.”

Betty Okino, who competed for the U.S. team in the 1992 Barcelona Games, estimated in Joan Ryan’s 1995 exposé Little Girls in Pretty Boxes that she and other Karolyi gymnasts consumed fewer than 1,000 calories per day in the weeks ahead of the games, despite the fact they were also training eight hours each day. Breakfast was an apple.

However, Okino told Ryan of her training with the Karolyis, “It’s not child abuse. Because if it were child abuse, they would have to be tying us down and holding us in the gym and not letting us leave and forcing us to do gymnastics and not eat.”

Dominique Moceanu, who trained with the Karolyis in Houston in the 1990s, told the Los Angeles Times in 2008 that Martha once grabbed her by the neck—which she had just injured in practice—shoved her face into a telephone, and told her to call her parents. At age 14 and weighing 70 pounds, Moceanu said, she was constantly berated by the Karolyis about her weight. She was also forced to train through injuries and severe pain, a scenario corroborated by multiple coaches and gymnasts in Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.

In response to Moceanu’s allegations, Martha Karolyi stated, “I feel sad that a gymnast so accomplished as Dominique, being a part of the 1996 Olympic team and being the individual medalist in the 1995 world championships, can remember the harder days during the preparation. I feel sad.”

In her 2012 memoir Off Balance, Moceanu captured what she saw as the Karolyis’ brand of gaslighting, in a passage worth quoting at length:

I can’t count the number of times I watched other gymnasts push through unreasonable and dangerous pain just so they wouldn’t have to admit to the Karolyis they were hurting in the gym. It happened to others time and time again and, for me, it ultimately led to my body breaking down right before the biggest competition of my life, the 1996 Olympic Games, with a stress fracture in my right tibia. The Karolyis knew when I was injured—it was obvious to everyone in the gym—but they also knew I didn’t dare complain about my pain. If I had ever started to talk about my pain or injury, they would immediately cut me off, dismissing it or making comments or gestures that I was becoming weak, faking, or exaggerating injury out of laziness.

These negative mind games were a regular part of their coaching style and confused my psyche. I actually started to buy in to their psychology and believe that, perhaps, I didn’t hurt that much and the sharp drilling pain in my leg was coming from my head. I remember thinking, Is it my fault that I am in so much pain?

Slate reached out to USA Gymnastics, enumerating each of the above allegations from Romanian and American gymnasts. In response to a request for comment from both the organization and from Martha and Bela Karolyi, USA Gymnastics sent the following response from the Karolyis:

We lived in a different era under a strong communist system where little girls were selected and taken to permanent training camps. Under this communistic system, many things were not the choice or decision of individuals or coaches but mandated. That’s also the main reason that we defected from Romania.

For all of the gymnasts who have come out against the Karolyis in recent years, many of their former students—including Retton, Strug, and 1992 U.S. team member Kim Zmeskal Burdette, who is now a coach herself—have expressed admiration and gratitude while acknowledging the occasional brutality of their methods. Notwithstanding Biles’ “mild rebellion” (in the New Yorker’s words) against Martha’s relentless training schedule following the 2015 world championships, we will mostly hear hosannas from the Final Five for Martha Karolyi in the twilight of her career. “She’s a legend,” Laurie Hernandez told Bob Costas on Tuesday night, after the U.S. women secured the team title. “She’s a gymnastics god,” added Aly Raisman.

A second later, Biles broke into a grin. “I’m sure if she sees one … crack in the team, she might be back,” the gold medalist said. “Yes!” Raisman shouted. None of the five women could contain their laughter. Costas asked, “Is she that tough a taskmaster?” Raisman’s one-word reply: “Perfectionist.” As Biles recited a maxim about giving 150 rather than 100 percent, Hernandez turned to Raisman and said, half out loud and half in a whisper, “But that’s why we’re so good.”

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.