Martha and Bela Karolyi, the former coordinators and coaches of the United States women’s gymnastics team, insisted they were unaware of the repeated sexual abuse of athletes perpetrated by Lawrence G. Nassar, the former team doctor.
Nassar was investigated over two separate cases of sexual assault earlier this year, after over 200 former patients accused him of harassment. The disgraced former doctor was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in prison for criminal sexual conduct in one of the cases, while the other saw him sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison for a conviction related to child pornography in a separate case.
In their first interview since the allegations became public, the Karolyis said the discovery had left them feeling “hurt” although they denied any responsibility for what happened.
“I feel extremely bad,” Martha Karolyi, the longtime national team coordinator, said in an hour-long NBC News Dateline special on Sunday. “I don’t feel responsible, but I feel extremely hurt that these things happened and it happened everywhere but it happened here, also.”
The Karolyis had two lawsuits filed against them in 2016, which alleged they hit or scratched gymnasts and withheld food and water at the 2,000-acre former national training facility in Sam Houston National Forest.
The facility was part of a semi-centralized training system that Bela implemented in 1999, which saw gymnasts train at home before attending team camps at the ranch once a month.
The couple admitted the atmosphere at the training facility was “intense” but insisted it was simply aimed at getting the best out of the athletes.
“It’s a very serious atmosphere to try to come as close as possible to perfection,” Martha Karolyi said. “You have to find out who are the best ones; who are the best ones who are able to stand the pressure?”
The NBC special also featured an interview with McKayla Maroney, a member of the five-woman team that won gold at the 2012 London Olympics, who strongly criticized USA Gymnastics for failing to protect athletes adequately.
In October last year, Maroney came forward and gave a statement that was read during one of Nassar’s sentencing hearings at a Michigan court.
“All they cared about was their reputation, money, gold medals and that was it,” Maroney told Dateline.
When asked to elaborate on the nature of “they”, she replied: “Martha, the camp, everybody, every single person that worked there.”
However, the Karolyis refuted the claims.
“Verbally, we were not abusive,” Martha Karolyi said. “Emotionally, it depends on the person. You have to be a strong person to be able to handle the pressure.
“Maybe you say a little overweight, but in order to be a good gymnast, you need to have the right ratio between strength and weight.”
Bela Karolyi also dismissed allegations of hitting gymnasts as “dirty lies,” insisting the practice had long been abandoned.
“Probably about 50 years ago in Romania when [...] even slapping or spanking, that was a common procedure, yes,” he said. “I never touched anybody [in the U.S.] and if anybody comes up with that one, that’s a dirty lie.”
Having risen to prominence as Romania’s coaches at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, where Nadia Comaneci recorded the first perfect 10 in history, the Karolyis defected to the U.S. in 1981, a year after Bela Karolyi had strongly criticized the judging at the Moscow Olympics.
Once in the U.S., they opened a gym in Houston and, in 1984, Mary Lou Retton won the Olympic all-around title, the first U.S. woman to achieve such a feat. The couple retired after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where the U.S. won the team event for the first time, but Bela returned in 1999 to become the first national team coordinator until he stepped down in 2001, when he was replaced by Martha, who remained in charge until after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
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