Béla Károlyi

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The native form of this personal name is Károlyi Béla. This article uses the Western name order.
Béla Károlyi
Béla Károlyi.JPG
Béla Károlyi, gymnastics coach at the Visa Championships held in the American Airlines Center, Dallas on August 15, 2009.
Born (1942-09-13) September 13, 1942 (age 73)
Kolozsvár, Hungary (now Cluj-Napoca, Romania)
Residence Huntsville, Texas, U.S.[1]
Alma mater Romania College of Physical Education[2]
Occupation Gymnastics coach
Known for Romanian centralized gymnastics training system and coach to world champions
Spouse(s) Márta Károlyi

Béla Károlyi (Hungarian: Károlyi Béla; pronounced [ˈkaːroji ˈbeːlɒ]; born September 13, 1942) is a Romanian gymnastics coach of Hungarian ethnicity. He was born in Kolozsvár, Hungary (now Cluj-Napoca, Romania).[3][4]

Károlyi and his wife, Márta, also of Hungarian origin, immigrated to the United States in 1981, and both have dual citizenship in Romania and the United States. The Károlyis have coached both Romanian and United States Olympic teams to medal-winning success.

Among the gymnasts Béla and Márta Károlyi have trained are Nadia Comăneci, Ecaterina Szabo, Mary Lou Retton, Betty Okino, Teodora Ungureanu, Kim Zmeskal, Kristie Phillips, Dominique Moceanu, Phoebe Mills, and Kerri Strug, whom Béla famously carried to the podium after she injured her ankle on the gold-medal-winning vault in the team competition at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. In total, Károlyi has coached nine Olympic champions, fifteen world champions, sixteen European medalists and six U.S. national champions.

Early coaching career[edit]

Béla Károlyi was originally a national junior boxing champion and a member of the Romanian hammer throwing team. He met his future wife because she was involved in gymnastics.[5] After competing in the 1956 Olympics in the hammer throw, he enrolled at the Romania College of Physical Education, studying and practicing gymnastics after having had trouble with a mandatory skills test in the sport.[2] In his senior year at the college, he coached the women's gymnastics team, whose star was Márta (then named Márta Erőss). They married in 1963, then moved to a small town in the coal-mining region where Béla had grown up.[2] They started a gymnastics class in their elementary school. They were later invited to create a national school for gymnastics.[2]

Romania's famed centralized training program has its roots in the 1950s; Károlyi helped develop the program further in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He worked as a coach at the boarding school in Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (now named Oneşti), training young girls specially chosen for their athletic potential. One of the first students at the school was six-year-old Nadia Comăneci, who lived near the town and commuted from home.[6]

Károlyi debuted as an international coach in 1974. He had to persuade the Romanian gymnastics federation to have Comăneci and his other athletes named to the 1975 European Championships and the 1976 Olympic team, because the federation favored athletes from the competing Dinamo club in Bucharest.[6] At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, he was head coach of the Romanian squad, and most of the members of the team were Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej athletes. The team took the silver medal, and Comăneci 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.

After Comăneci'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. However, he came under fire from Romanian officials because of his score protests at several international meets, including the 1980 Olympics.[6]

Defecting to America[edit]

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.[6][7][8]


In 1981, a group of businessmen invited Károlyi to join a gymnastics business venture. He decided to invest in the business, and the Károlyis relocated to Houston. The gym ran into financial problems, and Károlyi ended up buying it.[7]

Károlyi's status as "Nadia's coach" quickly attracted gymnasts to his club. Only three years after his defection, he was at the 1984 Olympics as the individual coach of all-around champion Mary Lou Retton and uneven bars gold medalist Julianne McNamara.[7] Károlyi's clout in America grew after 1984, and by the time of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, he was influential enough to be made head coach of the women's Olympic gymnastics team. When that status 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 bill to waive the waiting period and grant him early citizenship.[8] 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.[7]

After the 1988 Olympics, Károlyi's sphere of influence continued to grow, as did the number of elite gymnasts training in his gym. At one meet in 1990, a journalist dubbed six top Károlyi gymnasts the "Karolyi six-pack."[9] 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 and one alternate) were either trained by him or one of his protégés.

Károlyi mostly acted as a personal coach for Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug at the 1996 Olympics, but still managed to draw the spotlight. His motivational speech to Strug after she injured her ankle on her first vault ("Shake it off! You can do it!") was broadcast on television and was widely viewed. After Strug's successful final vault, Károlyi carried her to the podium to accept her gold medal. The moment was photographed and widely publicized, and it became one of the most enduring memories of the 1996 Olympics.[10]

Károlyi retired from coaching after the 1996 Olympics. He and Márta still have a ranch and gymnastics camp in New Waverly, Texas.[7] In 1997, Béla was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.[11]


Following the success of the U.S. team, dubbed the "Magnificent Seven," at the 1996 Olympics, USA Gymnastics experienced a lull. A new requirement that competitors be at least 16 years old (up from the previous minimum of 14) kept some 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 Championships, 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 tried to revamp its program by hiring Károlyi as national team coordinator. Károlyi required that all national team members attend frequent, grueling camps at his ranch north of Houston, and selection procedures for international meets became more arbitrary. Coaches resented what they felt was Károlyi's intrusion onto their domain, and athletes were under a considerable amount of stress. By 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.[12][13][14] (On April 28, 2010, the International Olympic Committee stripped China of its team medal at the 2000 Olympics after it was discovered that one of their gymnasts had been underage, and the U.S. team was retroactively awarded the bronze medal.)[15]

In 2001, the national team coordinator position was handed over to Károlyi's wife, Márta. While Márta has retained some aspects of Béla's program, such as the training camp system, she has reduced the frequency of the camps, and her approach has been 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. Between 2001 and 2015, they have won five World Championships team titles (2003, 2007, 2011, 2014, and 2015) and one Olympic team title (2012); all three Olympic all-arounds (in the 2004 Olympics, 2008 Olympics, and 2012 Olympics); seven World Championships all-arounds (2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015); and eighteen individual event World Championships titles.

Later career[edit]

Márta Károlyi remains the national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics. During the 2008 Summer Olympics, Béla appeared as a guest commentator for NBC News. He claimed that the Chinese women's gymnastics team was cheating by using athletes who did not meet the minimum age requirement.[16] 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."[17]

Károlyi has said, however, that he disagrees with the age limit, and has called for the International Olympic Committee to abolish it, saying that if a gymnast is good enough to earn a spot at the Olympics or World Championships, he or she deserves to go. He has praised the Chinese for their competitiveness and skills during the competitions, and said that his issue was not with the athletes but with the fact that they were potentially 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 with a lineup of eligible athletes."[16] Károlyi also claimed that the score Cheng Fei of China received on vault was a major judging error and a "rip-off".[17]


Several of Károlyi's athletes from the "six-pack" era have criticized his training methods. Some of his former athletes, including Kristie Phillips, Dominique Moceanu, 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.[18] Some gymnasts, such as Phillips, Moceanu, and 1988 Olympian Chelle Stack, have also said they were compelled to continue training and competing even when coping with serious injuries such as broken bones.[18] In one interview, Moceanu, who was one of Károlyi's final protégés, said: "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 six-feet something, and I was four-foot nothing."[19]

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.[20] Even Károlyi's 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.[18]

However, many of Károlyi's most prominent gymnasts have vehemently defended him against these allegations. Nadia Comăneci, 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 other civilians in the country at the time.[6] Olympic medalists and Károlyi gymnasts Mary Lou Retton,[21] Phoebe Mills, and Kim Zmeskal, among others, have also praised Károlyi and his training regimen.[18][22]

A number of former Károlyi gymnasts, both supporters and detractors, have acknowledged 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 said: "What Béla did worked. He motivated me by getting me mad." Some have claimed that Károlyi stopped treating gymnasts harshly when parents directly requested that he do so.[18] In a column she wrote rebutting many of the claims of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, Okino wrote: "Károlyi 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. Béla wanted to know that when push came to shove, his athletes could handle any situation thrown at them."[23]

In an interview in the December 8, 2007 edition of the Romanian newspaper Evenimentul Zilei, Adrian Goreac [1], the coach of the Romanian national gymnastics team from 1981 to 1990, after Károlyi left, spoke of Karolyi's "dictatorial regime" during his time coaching the Romanian gymnastics team.

In November 2008, Emilia Eberle, a Romanian national team member during the Károlyi coaching era, gave an interview to KCRA-TV in Sacramento, California, claiming that while she was on the national team, both Béla and Márta Károlyi regularly beat her and her teammates for mistakes they made in practice or competition. "In one word, I can say it was brutal," she told KCRA.[24] Other Romanian team members, including Ecaterina Szabo and Rodica Dunca, as well as Géza Pozsár, the team choreographer who defected with the Károlyis, have made similar charges of physical abuse. When asked in 2008 to comment on the allegations, Béla said: "I ignore it. I'm not even commenting. These people are really trash."[25]



Béla Károlyi was in the episode "At the Edge of the Worlds", in the ABC Family show Make It or Break It. He portrayed Coach Sasha Belov's father.


Béla Károlyi was mentioned in Sir Mix-A-Lot's song, "Beepers". The line in the song is: "That's Attitude Adjustor, my homie...huggin' more girls than Béla Károlyi".[26]


  1. ^ Garcia, Marlen, "Karolyis build haven for American gymnasts", USA Today, February 20, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d Latimer, Clay, "Karolyis' Olympics rise is gym dandy: Husband-and-wife team have shaped gymnastics in U.S.", Rocky Mountain News, August 3, 2008
  3. ^ "Restoration - Northern Transylvania: 1940". Central European University. 
  4. ^ Cf. Northern Transylvania and Cluj-Napoca articles for precise history and further citations
  5. ^ Rendell, Matt, "The Perfect Ten", The Observer (UK), Saturday 3 July 2004
  6. ^ a b c d e Comaneci, Nadia. Letters to a Young Gymnast. 2004, Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-01276-0
  7. ^ a b c d e Béla Karolyi's bio at USA Gymnastics
  8. ^ a b Thomas, Robert McG. Jr and Michael Janofsky. "Citizen Karolyi" The New York Times, March 10, 1987.
  9. ^ "Whatever happened to Amy Scherr?" Gymnastics Greats, July 11, 2000
  10. ^ Weinberg, Rick. "Kerri Strug fights off pain, helps U.S. win gold" ESPN.
  11. ^ "Bela Karolyi". International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Retrieved May 12, 2007. 
  12. ^ Mariotti, Jay. "Bela-aching tough to stomach" Chicago Sun-Times, 20 September 2000
  13. ^ Shelton, Gary. "Time to bid Bela goodbye" St. Petersburg Times, 20 September 2000.
  14. ^ Roberts, Selena."U.S. Gymnasts Try to Catch Karolyi's Eye" The New York Times, 19 August 2000.
  15. ^ Macur, Juliet. "China Stripped of Gymnastics Medal" New York Times, 28 April 2010
  16. ^ a b Bela Karolyi incensed about underage rules
  17. ^ a b New York Times Olympic Coverage August 20, 2008
  18. ^ a b c d e Ryan, Joan (1995). Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. Garden City: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-47790-1. 
  19. ^ Reid, Scott M. "Gymnasts in pain: Out of balance" O.C. Register December 19, 2004
  20. ^ Reid, Scott M. "Emphasis on thin is a heavy burden" O.C. Register, December 20, 2004
  21. ^ Béla Karolyi 2007 Interview with Mary Lou Retton on Sidewalks Entertainment
  22. ^ Okino, Betty. "Betty Okino's Olympic Report: Bela Karolyi" Sports Hollywood, 2000
  23. ^ Okino, Betty. "The Balanced View: Betty Okino", SportsHollywood.com, 2000.
  24. ^ "Gymnast Says trainer Karolyi beat her up". [UPI]. 2008-11-19. Retrieved 2008-11-20. 
  25. ^ Simon Burnton (December 14, 2011). "50 stunning Olympic moments No5: Nadia Comaneci scores a perfect 10". The Guardian. 
  26. ^ Video on YouTube

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