The Shame of Martha Karolyi

To give a quick update, there are a lot of cool projects I have coming up in the near-future and finishing them up was what I planned to be doing right now. But right now, it was a recent interview featuring Martha Karolyi that has me putting all of that aside. Because honestly, this interview has me so bugged I can’t focus on anything else other than producing a couple of thoughts on Martha that must be addressed.

The interview was brought to the English-speaking Gymternet thanks to the brilliant work/contributions of Lauren Hopkins. This is not the first time I’ve linked to her site, but getting a complete translation of such an important interview must have been a difficult process and I want to go the extra length in emphasizing how much I appreciate the work Lauren put in to obtain a translation of this interview.

As for the interview itself, most of it is what you would expect. Martha has the classic unapologetic tone where she takes no accountability, reiterates she did nothing wrong, and there is nothing she did that is worthy of blame. It is the same story we have heard in the past and now come to expect, but there are a couple of quotes that weren’t what I expected.

Documentaries made by HBO (At the Heart of Gold) and Netflix (Athlete A), and millions of articles published, silenced the fact that these were not our athletes.

I could have had fun with the last team, the “Final Five,” but I never did because none of them were my athletes.

The two sentences above are separate quotes in the interview. While I wasn’t surprised Martha believes she is blameless regarding Larry Nassar, I was shocked to see her make references that Olympians from 2000-2016 were “not our athletes” and “none of them were my athletes.” The fault in this particular commentary is that it lacks both accountability and humanity.

It lacks accountability because while her lawyer will try to argue in court that the training conditions under Martha’s regime did not make gymnasts more vulnerable to Larry Nassar, it can never be argued that these gymnasts did not take orders from Martha Karolyi. These gymnasts followed Martha’s commands. When Martha Karolyi told them to do something, these gymnasts did it. Under the Karolyi regime the gymnasts of Team USA not only followed every order issued by a Karolyi, they did it without asking questions or voicing objections.

Martha Karolyi issued orders and these gymnasts followed them, even putting their own lives in Martha’s hands as they followed her commands. And now Martha wants pretend that none of that ever happened. Because the implication of framing these athletes as “not mine” implies Martha did not wield control over their lives. And that implication is probably what Martha intends when she tries to distance herself from the likes of McKayla Maroney and Simone Biles. Martha is avoiding accountability by trying to argue she wasn’t as close to the Fierce-Five and Final-Five as she actually was, so she can argue she is less responsible for the damage that was done to them.

The “Final” in Final-Five is a direct reference to Martha, meaning Martha is trying to claim she was not the coach of team that was named after her. The Karolyi-owned training facility featured countless pictures of 21st century American gymnasts, and even their names in its iconic “Walk of Fame.” And this is the same person who now claims we shouldn’t be calling her their coach.

Martha Karolyi is claiming these weren’t her gymnasts, yet how many times did she willingly subject herself to NBC fluff pieces promoting herself as the figurehead and face of the program? The denialism regarding her culpability in the Larry Nassar scandal was expected, but I didn’t expect this convoluted logic where Martha tries to claim gymnasts she gladly associated with in the past are suddenly not her gymnasts. That a coach who once barked commands and gladly flexed her influence over the program suddenly takes the tone where she downplays how much control she actually had over the national team members.

But this tone of commentary also lacks humanity and I mean that in every sense of the word. The Larry Nassar scandal was a tragedy. Children were hurt and entered into their young adult lives dealing with mental scars, the fallout of which will take them decades to recover from. If they ever recover from those mental scars at all. When someone you are associated with endures tragedy and is suffering, the humane reaction is to treat them as an extension of yourself. That their suffering is your suffering and sympathize with them as such.

Instead, Martha Karolyi wants to have a conversation about how these gymnasts didn’t belong to her.

Provoking this conversation in the context of tragedy would be out of line in any and every circumstance. It would barely be appropriate for a coach in Wyoming who never coached a gymnast beyond Level-8 or set foot in Texas to say something like this. And the person who was the face on USA Gymnastics on national TV, owned the land where these gymnasts were abused, and the namesake of the facility they were abused inside of has decided she wants to respond to these hurting gymnasts as “I’m not their coach.”

Think about this from the perspective of every gymnast who represented Team USA after the 1996 Olympics. These gymnasts gave their literal blood, sweat, and tears to Martha and Bela Karolyi. They endured one of the most rigorous and grueling programs in all of sports. These gymnasts rose to that challenge and did so knowing an Olympic gold medal wasn’t guaranteed. But what should have been guaranteed even if they failed to make the Olympic team was some form of appreciation for all the work and effort they put in.

That all the time and energy these gymnasts put in netted them enough respect to be acknowledged and remembered by Martha herself as gymnasts who actually mattered to her. That they met the minimum level necessary to be told they left a lasting mark of some kind. Instead, Martha Karolyi is implying that these gymnasts who often broke their bodies to win over Martha’s approval don’t even qualify as being counted as one of Martha’s own.

To even open the door on this thought process is another cruelty in its own right. If you are a coach, whether it be the Olympics or recreational volunteer activity on a local junior varsity team, the bare minimum of human decency is to treat all your pupils as your own and to treat them equally. Martha violated both of these principles by openly stating she doesn’t see the 2000-2016 Karolyi gymnasts as equal to the ones from 1996 and before. While putting in the effort to distance herself from the 21st century gymnasts who under her watch, were sexually abused.

I’m not their coach. Simone came to the Karolyi Ranch with her own coach, Aimee Boorman, each time. She worked under Aimee’s supervision for those five days, and this is when she had contact with Larry Nassar. We only saw the little girl’s tremendous talent and supported her with our knowledge in training. I decided on the captain during the team selection, and trained Boorman. The girls and their coaches who turned up at the Karolyi Ranch were given the way to the top step of the Olympic podium thanks to us. 

It should be completely unsurprising that Martha Karolyi would have contradictory messaging. Specifically, in regards to claiming credit for what occurs with her gymnasts when things go well, and refusing such credit when things go wrong. Very few gymnastics fans would be surprised if Martha took the tone of claiming victory in regards to 2012 and 2016, while putting the blame regarding Larry Nassar on everyone else but herself.

I would go as far as to say it would be more surprising if Martha didn’t make this contradiction at some point in the interview.

But what I wasn’t expecting and what was even more shocking is to see Martha Karolyi be so blatant in this contradiction, she’d do it in a singular moment. In the above quote, Martha Karolyi completes the previously mentioned contradiction in just a single paragraph. First stating “I’m not their coach.” But later on she says “thanks to us” these gymnasts became Olympic medalists.

To be clear, Martha believes she wasn’t their coach, while simultaneously believing their athletic success wouldn’t be possible if not for her. The only point that is to be made here is that Martha Karolyi’s logic and thought process is so convoluted, she contradicts herself in only a matter of seconds.

It also goes without saying that given Martha’s personality and previous history of lacking integrity/accountability, it is not surprising she would blame others for her own personal failures in enabling Nassar. But none the less, I still found it surprising to witness the extent of which she tried to pin the blame on someone else. Going as far as to invoke another coach by name (Aimee Boorman), and mentioning her on three separate occasions. Even by Martha Karolyi standards, it felt like an escalation in an attempt to pin Larry Nassar on someone else.

We consider the Romanian and American girls with whom we worked 350 days a year until 1996 to be our gymnasts. None of them criticized us, no one testified against us. Neither Nadia Comaneci, nor Mary Lou Retton, nor Kerri Strug, nor the others.

This was the most controversial moment from the interview and a quote that has already made its rounds on the Gymternet. But one important thing to note, for those who didn’t read the full article and only read this quote, they may interpret it as Martha being completely oblivious to all the gymnasts who came forward voicing criticisms regarding her coaching habits in the aftermath of the Larry Nassar scandal.

But that is actually not the case here as Martha is specifically referring only to the gymnasts who competed under her during the 1996 Olympic quad and beforehand when she made this statement. In other words, Martha isn’t denying what gymnasts such as Aly Raisman have said regarding her coaching tenure, she is claiming their opinions don’t matter at all.

But in the end Martha is still denying statements from various gymnasts because Emilia Eberle, Melita Ruhn, and Dominique Moceanu are all examples of gymnasts from 1996 and before who have voiced opposition to the training tactics utilized by Bela and Martha.

While I’m not surprised to see Martha Karolyi engage in this sort of despicable rhetoric, I did find it significant that she invoked Nadia Comaneci, Kerri Strug, and Mary Lou Retton by name. In this article Martha validated something that gymnastics fans have long suspected. That the Karolyi coaching dynasty was built on using the opinions of a select few, high profile stars to frame the narrative.

In this interview Martha Karolyi lays out her vision was that the voices of some gymnasts matter, but not others. That gymnastics is a happy and safe place and only the opinions expressing support were the only opinions that are valid. That if one high profile athlete expressed positive opinions regarding Martha Karolyi, that gymnast spoke for everyone.

This was the attitude that ruined gymnastics and destroyed so many child athletes. And to see Martha Karolyi hint at the existence of this mentality speaks loudly. Specifically, her citing three of the most high profile gymnasts who were ever associated with Martha and Bela Karolyi. Making it clear and obvious as to what the tactic was when it came to courting their biggest stars to the Karolyi cause in an attempt to drown out those who criticized them.

But worst of all, and the attitude I have the most difficulty stomaching, Martha Karolyi genuinely believes that not every voice matters.

Even if they were not forcibly torn from us, they created a situation where they had no choice.

Lastly, there is one additional contradiction that needs to be noted. Martha Karolyi specifically said “they created a situation where they had no choice” in regards to how the Romanian dictatorship coerced her Romanian gymnasts into doing things they did not want to do. Yet Martha Karolyi seems fit to acknowledge that she never created a situation where gymnasts were subjected to such treatment under the Karolyi regime.

Does Martha not think to ask that just like what happened to Nadia and Teodora Ungureanu where they were coerced into doing things against their will, did the same not happen to American gymnasts who were coerced into keeping their criticisms silent and/or faking support for Martha in front of the media?

The five members of 2016 Olympic lineup decided as one, to name their team after Martha Karolyi. The “final” in Final-Five referring to this being Martha’s very last team. Yet later on these gymnasts would go on to highlight how much they despised Martha’s training habits, how wrong they were, and how they should never be repeated on future generations. In some cases, going as far to say winning a gold medal was not worth the cost of what was inflicted on them under Martha’s tenure.

How can Martha not make this connection that a team that once publicly named themselves after her which was meant to be an expression of endearment, have aligned themselves as fierce anti-Karolyi critics? How can Martha watch that occur and not think to realize that perhaps the “Final-Five” team name was the byproduct of coercion inflicted on young teenage girls rather than a genuine act?

When it comes to supporting gymnasts who were abused, Martha is completely incapable of acknowledging how coercion can occur inside the context of a flawed system. But Martha does acknowledge this concept, only when it suits herself.

3 thoughts on “The Shame of Martha Karolyi

  1. I agree with all of what you are saying. I just want to add this quote which is Dominque Moceanu repeating what Trudi Kollar (Emilia Eberle) told her: “Dominique, I still have nightmares about Bela. I still wake up in a panic in the middle of the night. I’ll grab my husband’s throat because I feel like he’s Bela, coming after me, hitting me with a chair like he did in Romania.”

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    1. Nadia didn’t speak out for a long time. In a podcast called Heavy Metals on Spotify by ESPN Nadia shares a little bit about that part of her life. She still has nightmares from that time. It’s a really good podcast.

      Also, I think if someone really wants to understand the mentality of Marta and Bela Karoli, Dominique Moceanu’s, “Off Balance” autobiography is a great place to start. Dominique Moceanu recalls a time when she was attempting to get back into elite gymnastics and was at a national training camp. She got up in front of Marta and Marta asked her, “What Olympics are you from?” Dominique knew that she was just playing with her head. Dominique was an athlete of Bela and Marta and Marta pretends like she doesn’t remember her. Sounds like Marta has a selective memory even with her own athletes.

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  2. I read her interview and I am romanian , I don’t think she said anything untrue, beside that Kerry won the gold for the team in 1996

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