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Bela Too Far Away for a Magic Touch

September 20, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — The greatest sideline motivator in the history of gymnastics bounced off his heels, but nobody looked.

He grunted and shouted, but nobody listened.

He waved his hands, but nobody cared.

For as long as most gymnastics fans can remember, from Nadia Comaneci to Mary Lou Retton to Kerri Strug, a certain bearhugging coach has left the Olympics without a medal.

On Tuesday, a U.S team that Bela Karolyi now coordinates gave him only a number.

Section 12, Row B, Seat 249.

Banned from the sidelines by a silly rule enforced with a petty jealousy, Karolyi watched the team finals in a lower-level seat in press row.

On a scale of dumbness, this is sort of like the Lakers ordering Phil Jackson off the floor because he makes Tex Winter nervous.

Take that back.

This is like Notre Dame banning Knute Rockne from the locker room because they had already promised his clothes hook to George Gipp.

Four years ago in Atlanta, the women's team finals were about courage and strength.

On Tuesday, they were about politics and control.

For nearly two hours, far beyond his team's reach, Karolyi bobbed around as if on a bad sailing trip. He swiveled his head. He clenched his fists.

"I never sweat so much blood in my life," he said. "I had to stand on my butt throughout the competition, which is now bleeding."

Yet for nearly two hours, the U.S. women conveniently ignored him.

The defending gold medalists eventually completed a long fall by finishing fourth.

Then decorum really tumbled.

Karolyi implied that this team didn't have the sort of heart he could have instilled in them from the sidelines.

"This team is divided, going so many different directions," he said afterward. "Too many different ways to coach. Too many people around."

At least one member of the team responded that Karolyi mostly cares about Karolyi.

"He takes credit when we do good, but he blames everybody else when we do bad," Jamie Dantzscher said.

Her makeup-streaked face hardened.

"I heard Bela say if he's on the floor, we'll do better," she said. "No way."

Give Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics, credit for bravely wading into the mud to set the record straight.

But after hearing him, those millions of once-every-four-years gymnastics fans will question that record.

"I hired Bela to coach the coaches, not the kids," he said.

That's not how it sounded last November when Colarossi brought Karolyi out of retirement precisely, it seemed, to inspire those kids.

When asked at the time whether he was worried about Karolyi's personality, Colarossi said, "It's absolutely the reason why we appointed Bela. You need to be strong on the floor in Olympic competition."

Then what in the name of Korbut was Colarossi doing keeping Karolyi off the floor Tuesday?

This is a coach who can coax an extra flip out of a hug, and a quicker twirl from a cheer.

Judges will never admit it, but this is also a coach who can gain an extra percentage point with a glare.

But this is not a coach who makes other coaches comfortable.

And when he was brought back to revive a fading sixth-place world finisher, it was with the understanding that he wouldn't step on the sneakers of other U.S. coaches.

Which sometimes, of course, leads to stealing their gymnasts.

When the Olympics requested the names of the two coaches who could accompany the team on the floor earlier this summer, he wasn't one of them.

When one of those coaches, Mary Lee Tracy, was discarded after her gymnast, Morgan White, suffered a broken foot here, the U.S. had a chance to fix things.

OK, so Karolyi wasn't registered as a coach. Fix it. Change it. Nobody in the sport has enough precious medal ammunition to argue.

But his bosses ignored him again.

There is certainly nothing wrong with current coaches Kelli Hill and Steve Rybacki, a good West Covina guy.

But they're not Karolyi. Nobody is Karolyi.

Just ask Karolyi.

"Judges knew I would never line up an unprepared gymnast in my life," he said. "Our team needs to be better organized. Better controlled."

So he's full of himself. He overshadows the gymnasts and indeed sometimes takes the credit while deflecting the blame.

But he's also full of gold medals.

And, OK, he can also be harsh and abrupt to the point of being counterproductive.

Dantzscher showed up at Sydney to discover that she had been dropped from the bars and the beam. She said it wasn't until her fine performance Tuesday that she recovered from the shock.

"I basically got screwed," she said. "I did everything he asked, and yet he played favorites and picked Tasha Schwikert instead. He made me feel terrible."

Yet every four years, he can make tiny gymnasts feel giant and wonderful.

"I tell them, 'Now is never,' " Karolyi said, as only he can say it. "I say, 'If you want to laugh, laugh. If you want to jump, jump. Take the people with you.' "

The gymnasts could have used those words Tuesday.

Despite their claims that they were at their animated best, they only really cheered together as a team during the final floor exercises, and seemingly only when the camera was in their faces.

Of the six teams on the floor, they were the most indifferent.

Some teams constantly chirped at each other during routines. Sometimes the U.S. women wouldn't even look at one another.

The traditionally perkiest athletes here needed spark.

The most passionate athletes in Atlanta needed fire.

The U.S. gymnastics program needs Karolyi, not only as a team leader, but as a touchstone.

The ones who don't agree need to either look at a mirror or a scoreboard.

Now is never.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:

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