Karolyi: master or monster? Gymnastics: Debate on famed coach's methods rages on, and it seems unlikely to die even after he calls it quits for real.

Olympic spotlight

June 25, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON -- You expect to find some high-tech laboratory with hundreds of leotard-clad clones running around. Lithe little Nadias doing their flips and tumbles in one corner, muscular little Mary Lous doing their vaults in another. You expect to see this great bear of a man -- and certainly hear his booming voice -- the moment you walk in the door.

But Bela Karolyi's gym is different from what you expect, mostly because it looks pretty much the same as hundreds of other neighborhood gyms across the country. And the man who owns the place is different, too. Or were you expecting someone closer in personality to Bela Lugosi?

In fact, Karolyi isn't here.

"He's out at the ranch fixing some pipes. They had a flood last night," said a pleasant woman behind the front desk.

So you walk around for a couple of hours, looking for signs that have led some to paint Karolyi as a monster who cares little about the health and welfare of his prodigies, a coach who chides prepubescent girls into abusing their fragile bodies and minds for the sake of living out his Romanian-American dream.

And you talk to those who've known Karolyi, 54, and his wife, Martha, since they defected to the United States in 1981. You hear the good, the bad and the ugly, sometimes in a single breath. You come away trying to figure out whether Karolyi is the greatest coach in the history of the sport or a man who has taken advantage of a system that seems to be out of control. Or both.

You talk to Kim Zmeskal, the former phenom who is trying to come back for the second time. The first followed her retirement after a disastrous performance at the 1992 Olympics and brought Karolyi back from his ranch after his own retirement. This time, Zmeskal is attempting to return from a serious knee injury that resulted in reconstructive surgery.

Now 19, Zmeskal was a kid from the neighborhood who came to Karolyi's gym shortly after it opened. She was a few years behind the group of Olympic-bound gymnasts who charged Karolyi and his assistants with abusing them verbally, making them compete despite serious injuries, as well as encouraging them to use laxatives in order to lose weight.

"I know all those girls, and the stories they tell are not true," said Zmeskal, whose latest comeback has fallen short of her goal to make this year's Olympic team. "Bela never did anything to anyone except think of ways to help us . . .

"In any sport, you need to have a coach who's going to be tough on you if you want to be a world-class athlete. A lot of it is focused on us being young and being girls. He's always helped this country try to produce the best athletes."

You talk to Melanie Strug, whose daughter, Kerri, is considered one of the favorites to make it through the Olympic trials in Boston this week to next month's Games in Atlanta. After making the 1992 team as a 14-year-old, Kerri Strug was forced to find other coaching when Karolyi called it quits at a memorable news conference in Barcelona, Spain.

After going to four gyms in four years and getting seriously hurt, Strug returned here earlier this year and wound up winning the prestigious American Cup.

"Obviously, we wouldn't have let her go back if we thought it wouldn't have been good for her," said Melanie Strug, who lives with the rest of the family in Tucson, Ariz.

"Part of the genius of Bela and Martha is they figure out how to deal with each girl. Kerri couldn't take as much pressure as some of the other girls when she was younger. They're very demanding, but they don't demand as much from the girls as they do from themselves. They're always in the gym."

You talk with several of the other mothers waiting in the lobby for their daughters to finish for the afternoon. A few have read "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes," San Francisco columnist Joan Ryan's explosive account of what is, in the eyes of many, a sordid, unchecked world filled with legal forms of child abuse. Some say Karolyi created this world with his two-a-day workouts and the rest of the system he brought with him from Romania.

"Bela's awfully successful, and he's made himself a lot of money," Jack Rockwell, a trainer on the elite gymnastics circuit from 1976 through 1994, said recently. "He's done a lot of good things. But I've seen too many kids who'll you never hear about tossed aside like a rotten potato. They were pretty good gymnasts when they showed up at his gym, but they were destroyed in their time with Bela and Martha."

Those who defend Karolyi, and there are many, say the malcontents are former gymnasts and their parents whose visions of Olympic gold turned into so many empty dreams. In most instances, they say, the dreams belonged as much to the parents as the gymnasts -- in some, even more so.

"The people who come here know what they're getting into," said the mother of a 9-year-old. "They're either doing it for recreation, doing it to help their daughter get a college scholarship or they're doing it because they want their daughters to be the next Mary Lou."

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