Martha Karolyi is one of the most well-known and controversial figures in gymnastics. But one detail of her career that has frequently provoked confusion amongst gymnastics fans is the proper spelling and pronunciation of her first name. In this article I’m going to explain the differences between the two common spellings of her name. But I’m also going to highlight how the “Marta” vs “Martha” distinction is more than merely the inclusion/omission of a single letter. Hidden underneath this spelling controversy is symbolism reflecting who they were and how their careers came to be.
The simplest way to explain it, both “Martha” and “Marta” are correct spellings of her name. “Martha” is how her name is spelled in America, while “Marta” was her original name in Europe. This difference wasn’t a change forced upon Martha, but a change Martha herself openly embraced.
To give a brief background for those who may not know, Martha Karolyi is a former Romanian coach, but descends from Romania’s Hungarian minority. Both Martha and Bela Karolyi hail from a region of Europe that has had its sovereignty transferred between Romania and Hungary on three different occasions during the 20th century. This includes World War II, the time period in which both Martha and Bela were born in. Bela and Martha Karolyi are descendants from an ethnic group/region that didn’t move, the border did.
The name “Marta” is of Hungarian origin and coincidentally, Hungary’s top gymnast during the 1970s was 2x Olympian Marta Egervari who had the exact same first name as Martha Karolyi. It was the career of Egervari that first brought awareness to gymnastics fans regarding the usage of this name and how it should be spelled.
Currently, the universal media standard amongst American news sources is to spell her name as “Martha.” This is how major publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, New York Post, Associated Press, USA Today, and ESPN spell Martha’s name. While some publications still use the “Marta” spelling, they are vastly outnumbered by the number of publications that use “Martha.” And most are instances of news sources that are of lower prestige and editorial standards that were simply misinformed that Martha’s preferred spelling within the American market includes an “h.”
But the previously mentioned major media outlets do make mistakes that are usually the byproduct of a breakdown in communication. In one example I found, NBC’s YouTube channel put “Marta” in a video title because it was probably a video editor in charge of creating a title rather than a veteran journalist. In another example, the New York Times wrote “Marta Karolyi” on list featuring hundreds of names of Olympic coaches and officials across every Olympic sport. But New York Times reporters doing a direct program review of gymnastics or an in-depth article where there is better editorial oversight regarding every named printed, almost always get the spelling correct.
On its official website, USA Gymnastics has been using the “Martha” spelling going back decades, and before then its official magazine had been using said spelling since the 1980s. Even during the late 1980s it had become clear that “Martha” was the near-universal spelling of her name amongst journalists. And this includes both local media in Oklahoma/Texas where the family was first based out of upon their move to the United States, as well as national media. There are even advertisements produce by Bela and Martha themselves using the “Martha” spelling.
The decision to use the “Martha” spelling has been endorsed by USA Gymnastics and Martha herself.
The early origins on the decision to change the spelling can be traced to a New York Times profile of Bela and Martha published in early January of 1982. At the time Bela and Martha Karolyi had been less than ten months removed from their defection to the United States and the article included the following line.
Martha Karolyi, whose first name is pronounced Marta
The “Martha” spelling is not a relatively new change, or something that evolved later in her American coaching career. The decision to incorporate an “h” into the spelling of Martha’s name goes all the way back to the very beginning of her move in the United States. There was never a misunderstanding regarding the spelling of her name, nor was it something forced on her because Americans couldn’t get the spelling right after years of trying.
But the pronunciation of her name was a different story. The decision to use a Hungarian pronunciation, but an American spelling was a recipe for confusion. While the media frequently did a good job of properly utilizing the “Marta” pronunciation, there would be numerous instances where a television commentator and/or American Olympic gymnast used the “Martha” pronunciation during a national broadcast or interview. And when that pronunciation wasn’t corrected, it would give viewers a false impression on what the proper pronunciation actually was.
That’s the history of the Martha vs Marta spelling, but now I want to talk about the meaning behind it.
One reason people are reluctant to believe Martha openly embraced the addition of an “h” to her name is they interpret it as a move where Martha made a decision at the cost of her own ethnicity. Changing the spelling of a name is a deeply personal matter and minor spelling differences often have significant ethnic meaning to them. One of the best examples of a gymnastics figure that this is true for is ironically, Martha Karolyi’s daughter.
Martha Karolyi’s daughter is named Andrea Karolyi, the “Andrea” having only a single “e” in its spelling. This is because Andrea Karolyi is like her parents, ethnically Hungarian and takes the Hungarian spelling of the name despite being born in Romania. This is in stark contrast to Romanian gymnasts such as Andreea Raducan, Andreea Munteanu, Andreea Isarescu, and Andreea Cacovean who all have the Romanian spelling of “Andreea” where there is a second “e” in their names. Just like Marta Egervari in the 1970s, there is a corresponding Hungarian gymnast where this spelling difference can be observed. That is Andrea Molnar who represented Hungary at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics and has only a single “e” in her name.
Why Martha Karolyi opted to embrace a more Americanized spelling of her name represents more than a simple letter change, it is fundamental to understanding how Bela and Martha Karolyi rose up the ranks of the American program. Prior to the Larry Nassar scandal, Bela and Martha would achieve widespread fame, media coverage, and outright admiration from the American public.
This wasn’t so much Bela and Martha Karolyi winning over support of mainstream Americans because of who they were, but because of the story they sold. Bela and Martha Karolyi crafted messages that Americans wanted to hear. Messages that validated middle-America’s views on immigration, politics, and the United States’ status as the leader of the free world.
Bela and Martha Karolyi genuinely were an inspirational success story of two immigrants who came to a country with no assets, no knowledge of the local language or its customs, only to build an empire for themselves. At face value, that alone was impressive. But that wasn’t enough for Bela Karolyi, so he sought to make the story even more impressive by getting creative with the truth.
The roll of megadonors, investors, and even members of Congress who came to Bela and Martha’s aid were minimized. Replaced with a story of how Bela and Martha lived in cheap motels and worked minimum wage jobs in order to survive.
The fictional narrative that made an impressive story even more impressive, created what amounted to a supersized success story of the American dream that amazed people who took it to truth because of how unbelievable it sounded. If Mary Lou Retton was the perfect gymnast to win over middle America because she was from West Virginia and could play up a country-girl persona, the same could be said for her coaches. In a political atmosphere where many have come to believe that one should pick oneself up by the bootstraps and that philosophy dominates the national discourse, Bela Karolyi and his supersized version of a self-made success story was the perfect narrative to endear himself to those believed in it.
It wasn’t enough for Bela to use his skills to generate wealth that was later used to build the Karolyi Ranch. As Bela told it, he built that Ranch himself with his own two hands, literally. Bela would go as far as to claim he didn’t have a bulldozer so her chopped down the trees with a chainsaw instead. And then there was Bela’s open love-affair with all things American culture that NCAA coach and future International Gymnast publisher Paul Ziert called the “country-bumpkin image, the cowboy from Romania.” The cowboy dressed, Texas rancher, who had an open love affair for guns and hunting became as American as apple pie.
In the context of this occurring while the Cold War was still ongoing, Bela Karolyi, Martha Karolyi, and their story seemed to validate those who believed that every communist secretly wanted to be an American and loved all things America. Bela and Martha Karolyi’s story would symbolize more than just the American Dream or the Cold War, but even reached into the realm of American exceptionalism. Validating those who subscribed to the idea that American culture was so superior, foreigners would gladly trade their country and culture for a Texas ranch and cowboy hat. Fueling a belief that the rest of the world wanted to be more like America and dreamed of becoming Americans.
Martha Karolyi adding an “h” to her name sounds like such a trivial thing to highlight, but it reflects exactly what the Karolyi persona was from 1981-2016 where a massive part of their brand was adopting American culture as their own. Remembering the “h” in Martha is important to understanding why their popularity with Americans skyrocketed so fast, and how that popularity allowed them to wield total power over the American program.
To conclude this article, I want to make one final point on the meaning behind “Martha.”
Nadia Comaneci is famed for being a gymnast who is frequently referred to on a first-name basis. Whereas other gymnasts such as Mary Lou Retton and Simone Biles would receive similar treatment from fans and the media, there was a fundamental difference. Phrases such as “Mary Lou” and “Simone” were nothing more than an attempt at affection/admiration, if not trying to liken them to Nadia herself.
During the 1976 Olympics commentators struggled with the gymnast named “Comaneci” from a town called “Onesti” because both names end in a silent “i” which is a feature of the Romanian language. Whereas affection and admiration were certainly a factor in the reason “Nadia” became so popular, it was a trend born out of necessity because her first name was so much easier for Westerners to pronounce than her last name.
Martha Karolyi is probably the second most high-profile gymnastics figure who was given the “first-name” treatment, and the reason for its usage was out of necessity. Why it was so necessary was to differentiate Martha from her husband. The bulk of Martha’s coaching career, roughly two-thirds of it was spent being overshadowed by her husband despite having coaching skillsets that were equally worthy of recognition.
This wasn’t so much the exception, but the norm in gymnastics where for decades husband and wife coaching duos featured only the husband receiving disproportionate, if not all of the attention in media coverage. There is something to be said of the simultaneous rise of Martha Karolyi and her Russian counterpart Valentina Rodionenko. Not only did two women rise to take control of the two most powerful gymnastics programs, but in both cases they had reversed a trend where their last names had once been associated exclusively with their husbands, while they themselves had been relegated to the shadows.
The reason gymnastics fans pay so much attention to the “Martha” in Martha Karolyi is because she never had a chance to be remembered as simply “Karolyi.” By the time Martha had her time to be in the spotlight, Bela had already had his. After having one Karolyi rule USA Gymnastics for so long, and the gymnastics media discourse since 1976, the emphasis on “Martha” became necessary to differentiate one Karolyi from the other. In retrospect, “Martha” was the only way for her to ever have an independent identity.
None of this article is meant to praise the career of Martha Karolyi, but rather to provide an educational understanding regarding the spelling controversy. But also, to add additional context of the meaning behind “Martha” and how it came to be.