book reviews, sports

A review of Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics by Bela Karolyi and his ghostwriter, Nancy Ann Richardson…

The women’s gymnastics competition is over at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. For the first time in many years, the last name “Karolyi” was not part of the Olympic action. Although I have never been the slightest bit gymnastically inclined myself, I’ve watched the sport since the late 1980s. In those days, Bela and Marta Karolyi were super hot gymnastics coaches who were known for guiding athletes like Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to global stardom. By 1991, the Karolyis had added the teenaged phenom, Kim Zmeskal, to their stable of amazing gymnasts. In those days, it seemed the Karolyis could do no wrong, even if behind closed doors, things were not as they seemed.

I just finished reading the book Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics. This book, published May 31, 1994, was probably mostly written by ghost author Nancy Ann Richardson, but it’s Bela Karolyi’s life story, such as it was at that time. In the 90s, most of us either didn’t know or turned a blind eye to the abuses suffered by women gymnasts, particularly at the elite level. The Karolyis, while controversial, were also very charismatic people. And so, it made sense that Bela would share his story to the masses. As it’s written in this book, the whitewashed version of Bela Karolyi’s tale is the stuff of which American dreams are made. It would take many years before more of the truth about the Karolyis started to leak out, and their motives and methods were questioned.

I picked up a used copy of this book a few months ago. At the time, I also purchased Kerri Strug’s book, Landing on My Feet: A Diary of Dreams. Both Bela’s and Kerri’s books are out of print, so I had to wait for physical copies of them to reach me. Kerri Strug was one of Bela’s gymnasts, and she’s best known for sticking her second vault at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when she was badly hurt. In the wake of Simone Biles’ controversial decision to withdraw from most of the Olympic events in Tokyo, there’s been a renewed interest in Kerri’s famous Olympic story. Consequently, I’ve noticed a lot of people hitting my review of Kerri Strug’s book, which I wrote in April of this year.

Kerri’s book got to me much faster than Bela’s did, and as I recall, I managed to read it within a day or so. It was an overwhelmingly positive book, even the parts about disgraced former physician, Larry Nassar, who was there to help Kerri after Bela carried her off the floor following her historic vault. I think I actually meant to read Bela’s book first, and threw Kerri’s into my Amazon cart as an afterthought, not realizing that Kerri Strug would be remembered at this year’s Olympic Games. But as it turned out, Bela’s book would prove to be less interesting and relevant than Kerri’s book is, especially in 2021. Kerri Strug is now relevant, while Bela Karolyi no longer is.

Feel No Fear begins with a story about the 1979 Gymnastics World Championships, which were held in Forth Worth, Texas. At the time, Bela Karolyi, and his with, Marta, were the women’s gymnastics coaches in Romania. They had brought a young team of gymnasts with them to Texas, along with Nadia Comaneci, who had recently gotten back into shape after having been “kidnapped” from Karolyi’s tutelage and “trained” by less oppressive coaches in Bucharest. Nadia had injured her wrist, and Bela had dressed the minor wound the night before, but a Romanian official– Bela’s nemesis– had spirited Nadia away to the hospital. There, doctors had supposedly done a surgical procedure on the injury, numbing and heavily bandaging it, and effectively rendering Nadia useless to the team. Bela was, of course, livid, but at the time, he was subject to the whims of government flunkies who did the bidding of Romania’s dictatorial president at the time, Nicolae Ceausescu. The Fort Worth story isn’t resolved until later in the book.; it serves as a hook to get people invested in Bela’s story.

After setting up the scene, Karolyi’s life story starts at the beginning. He was born in Romania on September 13, 1942, the second child of an engineer father and his mild mannered wife. He also had an older sister. Karolyi mentions that his paternal grandfather was a very gregarious Hungarian man who liked parties and pretty women. His grandmother was a very stern German woman. Karolyi, who thinks he’s a bit like his grandfather, explains that his grandparents split up, and he was denied much of a relationship with his grandfather. Bela laments that he never really got to know the man, especially since his father was more like his strict and apparently humorless and demanding German grandmother.

Bela Karolyi’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as an engineer. But Bela was more interested in sports. Bela’s interest in sports and lack of affinity for the sciences caused friction in his home. When Bela decided to study physical education instead of science, his father threw him out of the family home. Bela Karolyi had to live by his muscles and wits to get through university. He pursued sports with a passion– hammer throwing, handball, track, and boxing, specifically. He had to take a gymnastics class as part of his studies and apparently hated it, at first. But then he met Marta, who had been a gymnast in high school, and was also studying physical education. The two were a love match, and they got married.

The story/legend continues, much as I’ve seen it depicted in movies like Nadia

I watched this movie on TV years ago. It was made in 1984. Kerri Strug wrote in her book that she watched it many times. Nadia herself once said that this movie was “pure fiction”, but Bela Karolyi’s book indicates that this movie is pretty accurate. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Karolyi explains that he found the Romanian regime oppressive. He was constantly at odds with government officials, who wouldn’t let him run his program without interference. In 1981, having been forced to lead a team of Romanian gymnasts, including Nadia Comaneci, on a U.S. tour, Bela and Marta Karolyi, along with the team’s choreographer, Geza Poszar, decided to defect. They lost their minders in the busy streets of New York City. At the time, the Karolyis didn’t speak English, and they only had one of Marta’s aunts to help them assimilate. Their young daughter, Andrea, was still in Romania, and they weren’t sure if they’d ever be able to get her out of there. They had no home and no money. Still, through apparent grit and determination, the Karolyis were able to claw their way into the U.S. gymnastics scene, and they went on to create a “powerhouse” of women gymnasts.

Karolyi writes a bit about some of his more famous American clients, to include Dianne Durham, one of the first Black elite gymnasts. Durham recently died, and her first name is repeatedly misspelled “Diane” in the book. He includes comments about Mary Lou Retton, Kristie Phillips, and her mother, Phoebe Mills, Chelle Stack, Brandy Johnson, Rhonda Faehn, and Kim Zmeskal. I found this part of the book interesting, although I also thought some of his more candid comments, particularly the negative ones, were kind of telling. I remember reading an unofficial manuscript Chelle Stack’s mother wrote about working with Bela. It seems there wasn’t much love lost there.

Throughout the book, Bela Karolyi comes off as passionate, dedicated, and even kind. He includes several well known stories about how he achieved the American Dream. Some of the stories are kind of funny, like, for instance, his tale about how, when he was learning English, he thought the term “son of a bitch” was a compliment. Karolyi is supposedly an animal lover who loves dogs, and thought it was a good thing to be called a “child of a dog”. He writes that he’d actually wanted to be a veterinarian, but lacked the political and social contacts in Romania to achieve that dream. Physical education was actually Karolyi’s second choice of a career.

This generous, humorous, and gregarious side of Karolyi’s was also the public persona most people saw, especially when he was on television. However, in the wake of the gymnastics scandal of a few years ago, we found out that this was mostly a facade. Gymnasts like Dominique Moceanu have spoken out about Karolyi’s methods, which were said to be abusive and even sadistic. In fact, just this year, there was a book published in Romania called Nadia and the Securitate, which includes information about Bela and Marta Karolyi. It was written by Romanian historian, Stefjarel Olaru, and based on interviews with Romanian gymnasts and records kept by the Securitate (Romania’s secret police during Ceausescu’s reign). The gymnasts reported that the Karolyis beat and starved them, and in fact, Comaneci supposedly attempted suicide by drinking bleach when she was fifteen years old. She reportedly was happy to be hospitalized for two days, because it meant she didn’t have to go to the gym.

I remember reading this article. It made Nadia sound like a bulimic tramp.

I remember in March 1990, an issue of Life Magazine came out. Nadia was on the cover, as she had recently defected from Romania, just weeks before the Ceausescu regime fell. I recall reading that article in the library at Longwood College (now university), shocked by the negative way Nadia was portrayed. She reportedly had bulimia and was “narcissistic”, although it later came out that the much older man who had helped her escape Romania was actually holding her captive. Nadia revamped her image and is now married to fellow Olympic gold medalist gymnast, Bart Conner. But I clearly remember that in the early 90s, Nadia was depicted as some kind of “euro trash”, while her former coach was supposedly the greatest gymnastics coach ever. I guess it just goes to show that you can’t always trust what you read.

I think Feel No Fear is basically well-written. The ghostwriter did a good job making the story sound like it came directly from Bela Karolyi. There are two photo sections, which include old photos of Karolyi and his family. Those photos might have even been worth the price of the book. However, I think this book is largely whitewashed PR, which depicts Karolyi in an undeserved flattering light. I notice that Karolyi is quick to take credit for successes and just as quick to deflect blame when things go wrong. There’s no question in my mind that many of Bela’s methods were extremely abusive, even if the Karolyis did produce some champions. I wonder if the fleeting fame of a gold medal is worth a lifetime of psychological and physical trauma. I suppose I’d have to ask Karolyi’s former gymnasts about that. Karolyi himself is reportedly now suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

I did find Feel No Fear to be intriguing reading, although perhaps not in the way Karolyi had intended it to be. It’s especially interesting to read about Karolyi’s methods in the aftermath of Simone Biles’ decision to look after her own mental health and well-being over taking one for the team. Biles was one of Larry Nassar’s many victims, and she has suffered incredible stress. Not only was she under tremendous pressure to perform perfectly at the Olympics this year, but she’s also had to contend with her brother’s serious legal issues, which only now seem to be rectifying. I think if Bela or Marta Karolyi had been coaching this year’s gymnastics team, Biles would have been under insane pressure to perform, even if it meant seriously injuring or killing herself. As the world witnessed back in 1996, Bela Karolyi had no problem spurring his gymnasts on to fame, even when they were seriously hurt, as Kerri Strug was. Yes, she stuck her vault, but at what price? And isn’t she very lucky that she didn’t tragically permanently injure or kill herself on live TV?

I don’t think Feel No Fear is widely available anymore. I do think it’s worth reading, if only for historical purposes, and if only to demonstrate how much bullshit the U.S. gymnastics machine has been peddling for so many years. Joan Ryan’s 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, is the first one I remember reading that shined a light on just how abusive the sports of women’s gymnastics and women’s figure skating can be. It’s taken over 25 years for people to realize how right Joan Ryan was, especially in light of Larry Nassar’s abuses. Remember, Nassar was regarded as a “nice guy”. Gymnasts trusted him because he was “kind” and gave them food and comfort, while coaches like the Karolyis (and others) would scream, throw things, starve them, and even beat them to get results. That trust set them up for even more egregious abuse.

The Karolyis defend themselves.

I, for one, am glad to see this sport evolving, and people like Simone Biles, who is unquestionably extremely athletically gifted, showing everyone that there’s more to life than winning… and more to gymnastics than competing at all costs. I hope she’s able to continue to usher an end to the abusive era in which Bela and Marta Karolyi encouraged and participated. I admire the Karolyis for their ability to get out of Romania and succeed in the United States, but I do not appreciate the unethical manner in which they achieved those dreams– by abusing impressionable and ambitious young women (and their parents) who simply wanted to win at all costs.

As for Feel No Fear, I think it’s a well-polished and whitewashed version of the Karolyi legend. It’s an enjoyable enough read, if you don’t know anything about gymnastics or the truth regarding the Karolyis. But I think anyone who knows anything about elite gymnastics during the Karolyi era is going to see this story for what it really is… well-formed and highly polished bullshit.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

Standard
law, modern problems, rants, sports, stupid people

Idiot proofing…

Back in September 2015, Bill and I had the experience of a lifetime. We went to Tarrenz, Austria and swam naked in a big vat of hot beer.

Okay… so it wasn’t beer like you and I might think of it. It was actually wort that was in a huge vat that was once used for brewing Starkenberger beer. It was just the two of us. No lifeguard was on duty. We were allowed to drink as much beer as we wanted. All we had to do was be done by 10:00pm… and even that was negotiable.

There wasn’t a single sign on the wall warning us of no lifeguard on duty. I don’t think we even had to sign any legal disclaimers or waivers. We just handed over the 250 euros it cost for our experience, and off we went. It was glorious! We had a great time. I will NEVER forget it. I distinctly remember thinking it was refreshing to be treated like someone with a brain and common sense. It occurred to me that over here in “the old country”, people are expected to take some responsibility for themselves. That’s what keeps things fun for everyone.

Do people over here get sued for negligence? Sure, they do. But generally speaking, I have noticed that people are also expected not to be idiots. If you do something stupid and get hurt, you can expect little sympathy. It seems that in the United States, people are often looking for reasons to sue, even when they’ve been partly at fault for their own misfortunes. Consequently, there’s a lot of “idiot proofing” that is done in the United States. Companies and, inevitably, their lawyers, are always looking for the next potential lawsuit and taking steps to guard themselves from them.

Strangely enough, our experience swimming unsupervised in warm beer wort came into my head this morning as I read about Salvatore Anello being sentenced for his part in a negligent homicide. Salvatore Anello made the news in July 2019, when he accidentally killed his 18 month old granddaughter, Chloe Wiegand.

Anello and his family were cruising on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas cruise ship on July 7, 2019 when they were docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Chloe liked to bang on the glass at the hockey games her brother played in Indiana. For some strange reason, Mr. Anello decided to place Chloe on a railing near a window in a children’s area on the ship. Thinking there was glass in the window, Mr. Anello tried to let Chloe “bang” on it, as if they were at a hockey game. But there was no glass, and before he knew what had happened, Chloe had fallen to her death, eleven stories below.

Mr. Anello was arrested by Puerto Rican authorities and charged with negligent homicide. However, Chloe’s family maintained that the cruise line was negligent, because they thought there was glass in the window. The family decided to sue Royal Caribbean, claiming that Chloe’s death is the cruise line’s fault for “not having a safer situation on the 11th floor of that cruise ship.” Chloe’s mother, Kim Wiegand adds, “There are a million things that could’ve been done to make that safer.”

Perhaps that’s true. However, the number one thing that could and should have been done to keep the toddler girl safe is not making the decision to put her on the railing in the first place. Clearly, the railing is NOT intended for children to be climbing on or set upon, and clearly glass windows were never meant to be banged upon. Why in the hell would anyone ever encourage their child to bang on a glass window in the first place? At best, it’s noisy and annoying. At worst, it can lead to a terrible injury or death.

Let me be clear. I am glad Mr. Anello is not going to be serving any jail time. He took a plea deal, so he will be on probation for three years in his home state of Michigan. I think that’s a just punishment. I don’t think he’s a bad person and I don’t think he will reoffend. And I am absolutely certain that this accident has been devastating on many levels. However, I do think it’s in very bad taste to sue Royal Caribbean, unless the family is ONLY doing it to get the cruise line to change policies, and not looking for a payday. There is no doubt in my mind that Royal Caribbean executives are already doing what they can to idiot proof their ships even more against people like Salvatore Anello, who apparently lost his grip on common sense while cruising. He says he wasn’t drinking. Thank God for that. If Anello makes these kinds of decisions while sober, I would hate to see what he does when he’s been drinking alcohol.

Chloe Wiegand would probably still be alive if her grandfather had not made the poor decision to put her on that railing… a place that is clearly not intended to be sat upon or walked on by anyone, especially children. She probably would not have died if he hadn’t decided to encourage her to bang on glass, as if she was at a hockey game. My God… they were on a mass market cruise line! Couldn’t they have participated in some other safe, kid-friendly, cruise line approved and promoted activity?

I have only cruised on Royal Caribbean once, but I know from that experience that there are many child friendly activities. If Chloe had gotten hurt or killed while taking part in a child friendly activity that was previously deemed safe, maybe I could see her family’s decision to hold Royal Caribbean responsible. But she wasn’t. She was doing something that she shouldn’t have been doing, mainly because the adult responsible for her care was negligent. Or, at least, that is the impression I get when I read about this sad case. Nowhere have I read that Royal Caribbean encourages people to put toddlers on railings eleven stories up from the dock. Most people have enough common sense not to do that. Most people don’t need that much idiot proofing.

Having written all of that, I do feel very sorry for Chloe’s family. I’m sure this was heartbreaking for them. They will never, ever forget it, and life will never be the same as it was. I’m sure they feel guilty. Or, I hope they do. If I were one of them, I think I’d be very ashamed of myself on many levels. But I would also feel sad beyond belief and, if I know myself, I’d probably wonder if I wanted to go on living. Hell, I wonder that now, and I don’t even have children. I might be angry that there was no glass in the window, but when it came down to it, I think I’d know that I shouldn’t have put a toddler on a railing and encouraged her to bang on non-existent glass. That’s just stupid. But, if the family’s goal was to make cruise lines dream up more disclaimers and liability waivers for passengers, I think they succeeded. And, if it makes them feel better, I’m sure Royal Caribbean will make sure to put glass in all windows… and hang more signs and make more rules. That’s if the business survives the pandemic.

Speaking of idiocy and the pandemic… this morning I read an opinion piece in The Washington Post by Michele L. Norris, who seems dismayed that there were a bunch of optical illusions and cardboard cutouts of people in the stands at the Super Bowl. Ms. Norris expressed disapproval that the show was engineered to make it look like the stadium, which holds 65,000 people, was packed with happy fans cheering at the annual football game.

This year, thanks to COVID-19, there weren’t many people watching the game live. Norris writes that there were only 25,000 fans at the game, 7,500 of whom were vaccinated healthcare workers. Fans who weren’t able to make the game were allowed to pay $100 to have cardboard cutouts of themselves put in the seats. They could then check the “fan cam” to see their cardboard visages on camera.

Norris writes that this plan, which was supposed to give the illusion of a packed stadium, caused America to “suffer a loss”. She writes that we’re long used to not seeing packed stands. And the message should have been to “stay home and stay safe”. Evidently, this is more important than ever, since the game was played in Tampa, Florida, where people have been very lax about COVID-19 guidelines.

I don’t actually give a shit about the Super Bowl. I don’t watch it, even when there isn’t a pandemic. And I agree that people should be encouraged to be safe and responsible about preventing the spread of COVID-19. But I want to know– does Michele Norris really think that seeing stands with cardboard cut outs of fans is encouraging Americans to break COVID-19 protocol? Really?

I don’t know about you, but I have about had it with all the preaching and shaming about COVID-19. I really have. That’s not the same as not taking the virus seriously. I do take it seriously and have from the beginning of this fiasco. It’s true that I hate the masks and rarely wear them, but that’s because I’m ALWAYS AT HOME. If I weren’t always at home, I would follow the rules. I would hate following the rules, but I would comply with them. And it would not bother me at all, if I cared about football, to see a bunch of cardboard cutouts of people at the Super Bowl, nor would I care that the sound of the crowds were augmented to enhance the effects. We know a pandemic is going on. It’s been hammered in our heads for months. I don’t think seeing cardboard cutouts of fans is going to make the COVID situation worse. That’s just dumb.

I think, if I was going to complain about something related to the Super Bowl, it might be the creepy jockstrap halftime show. Yes, I know they weren’t jockstraps on the performers’ faces, but so many people thought they looked like jockstraps. I saw photos of the spectacle. It doesn’t look appealing to me. But then, pretty much everything about live entertainment and sports events has been fucked up this year. I don’t think I would be outraged over the illusion of a packed stadium. People are starved for fun. I know I am. But then, maybe Michele L. Norris has a point… maybe Americans really do require idiot proofing more than other people do. After all, a company is being sued because a grandfather wanted to let his 18 month old granddaughter bang on glass while on an eleventh story railing.

Featured photo is of me, in the buff at an Austrian death trap. We had a ball! No lifeguard on duty… and none required.

Standard