Béla Károlyi

Béla Károlyi (born September 13, 1942), is a world-renowned gymnastics coach. Born in Kolozsvár, Romania, to an ethnic Hungarian family, Károlyi and his wife, Márta, defected to the United States in 1981 and possess Romanian and American citizenships. The Károlyis have coached both the United States and Romanian Olympic teams to medal success.

Among the gymnasts Béla and Marta Károlyi have trained are Mary Lou Retton, Betty Okino, Kerri Strug, Teodora Ungureanu, Nadia Comaneci, Kim Zmeskal, Kristie Phillips and Dominique Moceanu. In total, Károlyi has coached nine Olympic champions, fifteen world champions, sixteen European medalists and six U.S. national champions.

Early coaching career

Károlyi pioneered the Romanian centralized gymnastics training system in Romania in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He worked as a coach at the boarding school in Oneşti, training young girls especially chosen for their athletic potential. One of the first students at the school was six year old Nadia Comaneci, who lived near Oneşti and commuted from home.

Károlyi debuted as an international coach in 1974. He had to persuade the Romanian gymnastics federation to have Comaneci and his other athletes named to the 1975 European Championships and the 1976 Olympic team, as the Federation favored athletes from the competing Dinamo club in Bucharest. At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, he was Head Coach of the Romanian squad, and most of the members of the team were Oneşti athletes. The team took the silver medal and Comaneci was one of the outstanding performers of the Games, scoring the first ever perfect 10 in Olympic competition. Altogether the Romanians won seven medals in Montreal: three gold, two silver and two bronze.

Following Comaneci's astounding success in Montreal, Károlyi's importance as a coach was recognized. He was named Head Coach of the Romanian team at the 1980 Olympics. Károlyi came under fire from Romanian officials due to his score protests at several international meets, including the 1980 Olympics. After the Olympics, Károlyi again clashed with Romanian Federation officials, and tension escalated. During a 1981 gymnastics tour, Béla, Márta, and Romanian team choreographer Géza Pozsár defected and sought political asylum in the United States. They settled in Oklahoma.


In 1981, a group of businessmen invited Karolyi to join a gymnastics business venture. He decided to invest in the business and the Károlyis relocated to Houston, Texas. The gym ran into financial problems, and Károlyi ended up buying the gym.

Károlyi's status as "Nadia's coach" quickly attracted gymnasts to his club. Only three years after his defection, Károlyi was back at the 1984 Olympics as the individual coach of all-around champion Mary Lou Retton and uneven bars gold medalist Julianne McNamara. Károlyi's clout in America grew after 1984, and by the time of the 1988 Olympics, he was influential enough to be made head coach of the women's Olympic gymnastics team. When Károlyi's status as the 1988 Olympic coach was jeopardized by the fact that he had not yet fulfilled the five-year residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen, two U.S. senators sponsored a special bill to waive the waiting period and grant him early citizenship. Károlyi was also the personal coach of three athletes on the squad: balance beam bronze medalist Phoebe Mills, the only female U.S. gymnast to medal in Seoul; Chelle Stack and Brandy Johnson.

Several of Károlyi's athletes from the six-pack era were critical of his training methods. Some of his former athletes, including Kristie Phillips and Erica Stokes, have stated publicly that Károlyi was verbally and psychologically abusive during workouts. Károlyi's constant critical remarks about weight and body type were said to drive some gymnasts to develop eating disorders and low self-esteem. Some gymnasts, such as Phillips and 1988 Olympian Chelle Stack, have noted that they were also compelled to continue training and competing even when coping with serious injuries such as broken bones. In one interview, Dominique Moceanu, one of Károlyi's final proteges, noted: "I'm sure Bela saw injuries, but if you were injured, Bela didn't want to see it...You had to deal with it. I was intimidated. He looked down on me. He was 6-feet something, and I was 4-foot nothing.

Károlyi was also said to strictly monitor his gymnasts' food intake: Moceanu, for instance, stated that at meets away from home, gymnasts were limited to consuming as few as 900 calories a day. Even Károlyi supporters have admitted that at certain competitions, his gymnasts ate so sparingly that members of the men's gymnastics team smuggled food to them in their hotel rooms.

However, many of Károlyi's most prominent gymnasts have vehemently defended him against these allegations. Nadia Comaneci, in her memoir Letters to a Young Gymnast, remarked that she literally trusted Károlyi with her life. She also stated that in Romania, the gymnasts at Károlyi's school consumed well-balanced diets and, in fact, ate better than most of the other civilians in the country at the time. Olympic medalists and Károlyi gymnasts Mary Lou Retton, Phoebe Mills and Kim Zmeskal, among others, have also praised Károlyi and his training regimen.

A number of former Károlyi gymnasts, both supporters and detractors, have admitted that some of the allegations about Károlyi were true, but have also claimed that the ends—medals—justified the means. In Joan Ryan's Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, 1992 Olympian Betty Okino stated, "What Béla did worked. He motivated me by getting me mad." Some have claimed that Károlyi stopped treating gymnasts harshly when he was directly requested to do so by parents. In a column she wrote refuting many of the claims of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, Okino wrote, "Karolyi structured his training in a way that built your physical and mental strength to such a remarkable level, that even he couldn't tear you down. Bela wanted to know that when push came to shove, his athletes could handle any situation thrown at them.

Nonetheless, after the 1988 Olympics, Károlyi's sphere of influence continued to grow, as did the number of elites training in his gym. At one meet in 1990, a journalist dubbed six top Károlyi gymnasts the "Karolyi six-pack. Although the members of the six-pack would change, the name stuck and increased Károlyi's prominence in the sport.


At the 1991 World Championships, four of the six athletes on the U.S. women's team—Kim Zmeskal, Betty Okino, Hilary Grivich and Kerri Strug—were trained by Károlyi; the other two, Shannon Miller and Michelle Campi, were trained by ex-Károlyi club coaches. The situation was almost repeated at the 1992 Olympics, where Károlyi was head coach and five members of the seven-gymnast squad (six competitors; one alternate) were either trained by him or one of his proteges.

Károlyi mostly acted as a personal coach for his athletes Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug at the 1996 Olympics, but still managed to draw the spotlight. After Strug was injured during the U.S. team's final rotation on vault, Károlyi carried her to the podium to accept her gold medal. The moment was photographed and widely distributed, and became what was arguably among the most endearing memories of the 1996 Olympics.

Károlyi retired from coaching after the 1996 Olympics. He and Márta still have a ranch and gymnastics camp in New Waverly, Texas. The following year, in 1997, Béla Károlyi was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.


Following the success of the "Magnificent Seven" at the 1996 Olympics, USA Gymnastics experienced a lull. A new age limit kept some of their top gymnasts out of the World Championships in 1997. While American gymnasts did medal in international competitions such as the Goodwill Games and the Pacific Alliance, they were largely unsuccessful in most major meets. In both 1997 and 1999, the American team left the World Championships without a single medal.

After the 1999 World Championships, USA Gymnastics attempted to revamp their program by hiring Károlyi to serve as National Team Coordinator. Károlyi required that all national team members attend frequent grueling camps at his ranch near Houston and selection procedures for international meets became more arbitrary. Coaches resented what they felt was Károlyi's intrusion onto their domain; athletes were under a considerable amount of stress. At the 2000 Olympics, where the U.S. team placed fourth and once again came away without a single medal, the tension had escalated to the point where gymnasts were openly speaking out against Károlyi.

In 2001, the National Team Coordinator position was handed over to Károlyi's wife, Marta. While Marta has retained some aspects of Béla's program, such as the training camp system, she has reduced the frequency of the camps. Her approach appears to be different, and generally more acceptable to both coaches and gymnasts. It has also yielded impressive competitive results: between 2001 and 2007, American women won a combined total of 34 medals in World Championship and Olympic competition, including two team titles, the 2004 Olympic all-around, eight individual event World Championships titles, and the 2005 and 2007 World Championships all-around.

Later career

Károlyi's wife, Marta, remains the National Team Coordinator for USA Gymnastics. During the 2008 Summer Olympics, Béla Károlyi has appeared as a guest commentator for NBC News. He said that the 2008 Chinese women's gymnastics team cheated by using athletes who did not meet the minimum age requirements. He and his wife stated that "They are using half-people. One of the biggest frustrations is, what arrogance. These people think we are stupid. Károlyi does disagree with the age limit, however, and has stated that the solution would be for the IOC to abolish it completely, stating that if a gymnast is good enough to earn a spot on the team at the Olympics or world championships, that athlete deserves to go. Károlyi has praised the Chinese for their competitiveness and skills during the competitions, and says that his issue is not with the athletes, but with the fact that they may be being used. "They do good gymnastics and are a good service for the sport," he said. "They have the ultimate effective training program. That’s why I am more upset that they are cheating. They don’t need cheating. They would be just as good a lineup of eligible athletes.

Károlyi also claimed that the vault of Cheng Fei of China was a major judging error and a "rip off".


  • Károlyi, Béla and Nancy Ann Richardson. Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics. ISBN 078686012X (hardback), ISBN 0786880201 (paperback)


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