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ATLANTA 1996 / 12 Days To The Games

BELA OF THE BALL : When Karolyi Talks, Everyone in Gymnastics Listens-Even Judges

July 07, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — The little girls are all lined up, anxious, bouncing on their feet, intent on making the most of the moment. This could be as close as they ever get.

"Bela! Bela! Bela!" they squeak in unison, tiny voices rising from tiny bodies as the world's most famous gymnastics coach draws near.

But Bela Karolyi does not acknowledge them. He is down on the floor of the FleetCenter, where there is important work to be done this evening, and they are up in the stands, in the hope-and-dream section, calling out for a wave or, choicer still, a smile from Bela. It is not going to happen. The little girls are only feet away, yet they are worlds away. As Bela might assess the situation, the timing is no goot, no goot at all.

The compulsory phase of the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics trials is about to begin, and Karolyi's immediate mission is a complicated one. He has two gymnasts trying to qualify for the Olympic team--one, Kerri Strug, via traditional means, and another, Dominique Moceanu, by way of an injury-waiver petition. Moceanu, 14, already anointed as the third link in Karolyi's Nadia-Mary Lou golden ring chain, has a stress fracture in her right shin and is trying to qualify on the strength of her score from the national championships. Strug needs to outpoint nine of the 14 gymnasts competing here to earn her second trip to the Olympics.

So, Karolyi needs the scores on the floor to be low, low enough that Moceanu's nationals mark holds among the top seven, except for Strug. Strug's score has to be high.

Confusing?

No, just women's gymnastics.

Karolyi rubs his hands together, bracing for this fascinating game of high-low. He knows precisely what has to be done. So do the judges. But should they happen to forget, even for a moment, Bela has ways of refreshing their memories.

Strug begins the night with a 9.475 score on the uneven bars, which puts her fifth in her group of seven. Not great, not disastrous. Tentatively, Strug walks off the mat and approaches Karolyi with a half-flinching, half-crooked smile that says, "Was that passable, or should I start running laps right now?"

For a moment that feels like an hour, Karolyi towers over Strug. He wanted a better score, but he knows he has to keep Strug upbeat and confident. She has three more crucial events ahead, and, besides, the TV cameras are rolling.

"Vay to go!" Karolyi finally roars and he doles out his traditional sign of approval--the swarthy, sweaty Bela bearhug, which tends to make American television viewers melt in front of their screens and American gymnasts disappear temporarily from sight.

As usual, Karolyi pushes all the correct buttons. Strug nails her next event, the vault, with a 9.887 score and completes a strong balance beam exercise that sends Karolyi into fist-pumping gyrations. The judges, not quite as impressed, grade Strug at 9.575.

Then, two of the next four gymnasts on the beam, Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes, receive identical 9.637 scores for similarly solid, though unremarkable, routines.

This does not please Karolyi. The scores are starting to escalate--"Outrageous," is Karolyi's word for it--which does not bode well for Moceanu. Something has to be done, quickly, so Karolyi dispatches his wife and assistant coach, Martha, to the judges' table.

Soon Martha and Audrey Schweyer, the women's technical director for the meet, are standing in a FleetCenter tunnel, talking heatedly. Martha flails her arms, points emphatically and rolls her eyes. After that, Martha breaks into tears.

By the time the encounter ends, another group of gymnasts is ready to take its turn on the beam. News flash: Scores are suddenly lower--a 9.5 here, an 8.912 there, a 9.487 over there.

By the end of the night, overall scores are low enough that Moceanu is assured a spot on the Olympic roster and Strug is in strong position to join her--in third place heading into optionals.

And why were scores so low?

"A lot of mistakes on the floor tonight," Karolyi says.

Not a one, however, committed by Bela Karolyi.

*

He long ago eclipsed the sport from which he retired in 1992, amid bold headlines, and then unretired in 1994, amid bolder headlines. His bearhugs are now emblematic of what he has done to the business of women's gymnastics--engulfing it, overwhelming it, all but swallowing it whole.

In the last two years, three highly publicized books about women's gymnastics have been published in the United States. One was Karolyi's ghost-written autobiography, the illuminatingly titled "Feel No Fear." The second was Joan Ryan's "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters," which devotes much of its volume to a scathing assessment of Karolyi's "abusive coaching methods."

The third? "Dominique Moceanu: An American Champion."

Karolyi looms so large, first, because of his record: Nadia Comaneci's unprecedented perfect 10s in 1976, Mary Lou Retton's unprecedented American women's gold medal in 1984, Kim Zmeskal's world championship in 1991.

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