In 1981 Romania lost three of its best coaches after they defected to the United States. They were the husband and wife duo of Bela and Marta Karolyi. The third defector was their top choreographer Geza Pozsar. But one question that many fans have asked, what about the family members they left behind in Romania? More specifically, what happened to Bela and Marta’s eight year old daughter Andrea?
Like any story involving Bela Karolyi, there are conflicting accounts. Whereas every other element of this story has events that are rather straight-forward, there is one minor inconsistency and that inconsistency is where this story starts.
Bela and Marta Karolyi would ultimately settle in Oklahoma on their first leg as gymnastics coaches in America. Most sources cite Bela having a wide range of offers to coach gymnastics, but one account states that Bela Karolyi first started working as a painter at the Los Angeles airport. While working at the airport he had a chance encounter with Bart Conner. Conner put Bela in contact with his college coach Paul Ziert who was the head coach of the men’s gymnastics team at the University of Oklahoma.
Regardless of how Bela came into contact with Ziert and how many competing offers he had, the end result was the same. Paul Ziert set Bela Karolyi up with two jobs in Norman, Oklahoma that paid a combined salary ranging from $45,000 to $47,000 a year. It included free housing, insurance, and a car. It was one month before Bela and Marta Karolyi managed to contact Andrea.
Any speculation of the Romanian government punishing Andrea in retaliation for the defection is unfounded. The Romanian dictatorship was evil and one of the most horrific governments in 1980s Europe, but they weren’t that evil. At the time of the defection Andrea had been staying with her aunt. Andrea would later recall waiting for her parents to return at the train station. She saw the girls (gymnasts) return, but came to realize her parents weren’t there. Asking herself “where’s mom and dad?” In her adult life she would call it a “pretty scary” experience.
Bela Karolyi and Bart Conner went to Washington D.C. looking to find someone willing to help. It ended up being a representative from Houston, Texas by the name of Bill Archer. Not only was Bill Archer passionate on the topic of gymnastics, he was in a position of power to do something about Andrea.
In 1975 Romania secured “most favored nation” status (MFN). It is a designation that gives a country enhanced rights to trade with the massive American economy. Nowadays it is known by the more politically correct term “permanent normal trade relations.” The designation is highly sought after by foreign governments and a designation worth far more than a few Olympic medals.
It just so happened that Bill Archer was a senior member of the committee that was tasked with awarding MFN status. If there was one person on Capitol Hill who was in a position to give the Romanian government a headache, it was Bill Archer. But he had more tools up his sleeve.
The most important requirement of MFN status for communist nations receiving it, they must have fair emigration rules. Not only could Archer and his committee bring the Romanian government to its knees, they could do so in a way where Romania would lack the political capital and diplomatic recourse to fight back. Allowing Andrea to leave Romania was an emigration issue and Archer was completely justified to take up her case.
Romania’s MFN status must be renewed after a Congressional review on a yearly basis. Archer didn’t have to cancel or break a deal between the United States and the Romanian government. All it took was allowing Romania’s MNF status to expire in just a few months time. These two factors gave Romania zero room to maneuver or counter Archer’s actions.
Bill Archer informed the Romanian government that the United States would not partake in trade talks until Andrea was returned to her parents. The Romanian government placed Andrea on the next flight out of the country. Within 24 hours she was back with her parents. The time in between Bela and Marta’s defection to the reunification with their daughter was just six months.
With all three members of the Karolyi family together, they returned to Oklahoma. But their stay wouldn’t last long. Bela’s relationship with Paul Ziert ended after Ziert discovered Karolyi had placed an advertisement to train gymnasts at a rival club. Their breakup led to a series of hilarious quotes.
Karolyi stated his reasons for leaving as “it was not my lifetime goal to teach college students to make cartwheels.” In regards to Bela, Ziert said “we tried not to give him too much to do” he continued by calling that “a mistake.” Bela would claim he worked day and night to save enough money to start his own club and delivered newspapers by bicycle to supplement his income. When asked about it Ziert said he had no recollection of Karolyi’s paper route and was quoted as saying “he was the only $48,000 paperboy I know.” But the breakup wasn’t bitter. Ziert described Bela as “audacious” but said “I like him.”
So how did Bela Karolyi get the funds to start his own club? Bill Archer played a role in that too. Archer had tried to recruit Karolyi to Texas almost soon as he met Bela, but had failed as the family stayed in Oklahoma after the reunification. On his second attempt Archer succeeded. Archer’s office put Bela in touch with a gym located within his district in North Houston. The meeting Archer helped arrange for Karolyi involved the owners of the Sundance Athletic Club who wanted to add him as a 25% partner.
The die was cast. The Texas chapter of the Bela and Marta story had started and the success would soon follow. Within seven months Karolyi had bought out his partners and would rise all the way to the top of the USA Gymnastics power structure by the end of the decade. It wasn’t a coincidence that a Congressman from Houston just so happened to be the one who would come to the assistance of Bela. Archer is the reason Bela and Marta ultimately came to Houston. Bela would later say it was Archer’s suggestion he come to Texas and completed the move to “show my gratefulness.”
Andrea would go on to serve as a dietitian at the Karolyi Ranch. Her role is not without controversy as it provokes questions about her involvement in a training center now heavily scrutinized over allegations of abusive training methods. With allegations involving food restrictions and poor food quality, Andrea is under particular scrutiny as those were tasks she was responsible for.
Her involvement with gymnasts at the Karolyi Ranch was an issue in itself. It raises questions of nepotism, but also the well being of the gymnasts. The dietitian should be a neutral observer willing to challenge coaches on whether their gymnasts are being pressured into unhealthy eating habits. The daughter of the national team coach is ill-suited for the role of a neutral observer.
Romania kept its MFN status for another seven years. The Romanian dictatorship opted to forfeit it in 1988. The reason? They no longer wanted to abide by its restrictions on human rights abuses. It was a move of desperation for a government struggling to hold onto power. The following year the Romanian dictatorship fell. Romania would regain MFN status in the early 1990s.
Bill Archer would rise from “senior member” of the committee he used to bring Andrea home, to becoming its chair and outright leader. His career in Congress started after he took the seat of future President George H.W. Bush. He won reelection 14 consecutive times, all in landslide fashion, and retired in 2001. Congressmen who did their proper opposition research knew to invoke conversations on gymnastics if they needed an “icebreaker” when they met with Bill. One such figure who used that tactic was Ted Kennedy.
American gymnastics history would be far different if not for the little known Congressman who worked on trade deals. But why did Archer do all of this? When Bela and Marta Karolyi needed help why was a Congressmen from a different state so quick to act when he learned of their plight? The answer is simple. Bill Archer had seven children, four of which were daughters.
His children were gymnasts.