New Podcast Explores What Happened At The Karolyis’ Gymnastics ‘Empire’ Near Huntsville

The ESPN 30 For 30 podcast explores the prices paid for one of the greatest American sports dynasties.

By Laura RiceJuly 21, 2020 10:53 am,

Bela and Martha Karolyi defected from their native Romania to the United States in 1981. Over the next four decades, they enjoyed meteoric success as gymnastic coaches for the USA Women’s National teams.

A new ESPN 30 For 30 podcast series “Heavy Medals: Inside the Karolyi Gymnastics Empire” looks hard at the austere style the couple perfected in Romania during the Cold War and the emotional and physical price paid by the American gymnasts they trained.

ESPN senior writer Bonnie Ford co-reported the podcast series with Alyssa Roenigk. Ford told Texas Standard host David Brown they chose intentionally to focus on the Karolyis instead of USA Gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar – who was sentenced to 175 years in prison in 2018 after pleading guilty to seven counts of sexual assault of minors.

“Larry Nassar does not appear as a character until late in the series,” Ford said. “There’s been tremendous journalism done on him already. And he obviously is an important part of their story and an important part of how people regard their legacy. But this was not per se a Nassar piece of journalism. It is a story about the Karolyis.”

And the story gymnasts tell is not always flattering. Many talked about a culture of playing through pain – a concept hardly unique in the sports world but particularly striking considering the young age of the gymnasts.

“Bela, and later, Martha Karolyi built a very deep pool of athletes, which on its face seems like a very good idea,” Ford said. “But on the other hand, many athletes told us that they felt as if – if they did reveal the extent of their injuries, they would simply be kicked to the curb and someone else would be plugged into their place. And there wasn’t a whole lot of compassion or sensibility about them as human beings.”

Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil / CC BY 3.0 BR

USA Gymnastics team training at Rio de Janeiro.

The same was true when it came to eating disorders — which Ford says the Karolyis did not create but did not prevent.

“We were told by one gymnast, Tasha Schwikert, Olympic gymnast, that it was, you were considered to have won the meal, if you ate less than the other girls at the table,” Ford said.

Those involved told Ford USA Gymnastics did not ask questions because the program was so successful at the Olympic level. 

“I guess what I came out of it with is that I admire the strength and the grace and the discipline of these athletes, but they’ve been asked to be too strong and to tolerate too much,” Ford said.

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