Today is our last day of vacation, and Bill and I really should be heading into Copenhagen to get some last photos. BUT FIRST… I feel compelled to vent my spleen about something I read in the New York Times the other day.
Extraordinarily gifted women’s gymnast Simone Biles has decided to train for her third Olympic Games. Plenty of people commenting on the news article about Ms. Biles were very supportive of her efforts, even though she’s considered “old” for the sport, and even though she withdrew from some events during the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in 2021. Simone Biles was, if you recall, suffering from “the twisties”, which made competing even more dangerous than it usually is. She opted out of competing to protect her own health and wellbeing, which I think is her right.
But there were quite a few other comments, mostly from MALES, about how Simone Biles let America down in the last Summer Olympics. It always amazes me what these people think they have the right to comment on. I highly doubt most of the MALES commenting on women’s gymnastics even watch the sport. And a lot of them who do watch it probably just like looking at tiny women in revealing leotards doing death defying stunts.
It’s true that Simone Biles withdrew from several events and took up a spot that another athlete could have filled. But another American ultimately won the Olympic gold medal in the All Around competition, anyway. When I pointed that out, some guy posted that the women’s gymnastics team didn’t get the team gold medal. My reply to that is, “So what?” It’s a fucking medal. It’s not worth someone’s life or health.
Aren’t the Olympics supposed to be about “friendly” sports competitions among the world’s nations? Aren’t we supposed to be practicing good sportsmanship? Why is it so important to win medals? The medal isn’t worth someone’s ability to walk or talk. It’s not worth someone going through life with chronic pain due to preventable injuries brought on by taking risks and failing. It’s certainly not worth DEATH.
Women’s gymnastics at the elite level is a very dangerous sport. Many wonderful, extremely talented athletes have been seriously hurt or even killed due to performing when they weren’t ready or completely prepared. I would not have wanted to see Simone trying to land a difficult vault while she was suffering from the twisties. We would not have wanted to see her fail, especially if her failure included a catastrophic injury broadcasted on live television and the Internet. The Olympic medal is not worth that. It’s toxic to insist that an Olympic gold medal is worth all costs… especially when you’re a MALE who can’t do any of the things Simone makes look easy.
Some guy wanted to argue with me about this and I wrote that he wasn’t going to be someone with whom I should waste my time and energy arguing. I wished him a “nice day”. He wished me luck in my “safe space”. Translation? I bet he’s a Trump supporter who doesn’t see women as valuable in any capacity other than as objects of titillation. He obviously doesn’t care about female athletes as people. I probably shouldn’t have bothered, but I left him a short response… “I’m not in a ‘safe space’. I’m just right about this.” And while I didn’t bother to check his Facebook profile to see which politician he supports, I’m pretty sure I know…
Guys like him wear their political preferences like a badge, not unlike the idiot men I wrote about a few years ago who decided to test out a bullet proof vest while drinking. I knew they were Trump supporters just based on that, and when I checked out their social media profiles, I was proven right.
Simone Biles doesn’t owe anyone a goddamned thing. If she wants to try for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, that’s her prerogative. She may not be successful. Shannon Miller tried to make the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and she failed. Biles may fail, too. But she has the right to try if she wants to, and she should be respected for all she’s done so far. She’s won seven medals for Old Glory. I’m sure that’s way more than the moron male on Facebook has ever won.
It’s not just the athletes who have this ridiculous burden, either. Artists and performers face it, too. Maybe if people hadn’t expected so much of performers like Tom Petty, Karen Carpenter, Prince, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, and the like, they might all still be with us.
I’m sick and tired of toxic macho asswipes who armchair quarterback what extraordinary artists and athletes should be doing with their careers. It’s especially prevalent among men who comment on females. It’s the usual sexist bullshit… and in Biles’s case, it wouldn’t surprise me if racism came into play, too.
These guys have no room to talk about someone like Simone Biles. They probably ought to zip it… but we know they won’t. So I’ll just keep venting about it, as I wish Simone Biles the best of luck with her comeback. I hope she wipes the self-righteous smirks off the faces of the idiots who criticize her… but if she doesn’t manage to do that, that’s alright, too. She’s certainly done her part to “make America great,” and what she’s done is something I’d be proud to show my pseudo grandkids. I can’t say the same thing about Trump and his toxic macho ilk… and those who admire him.
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. At the time, it truly 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. It made sense that Bela would share his story with 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 wife, 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 a local 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. Bela Karolyi was born September 13, 1942, in what was then Kolozsvár, Hungary, but is now Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He was the second child of an engineer father and his mild mannered wife, and younger brother to his 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 Erőss, who was also an ethnic Hungarian. Marta had been a gymnast in high school, and was also studying physical education. The two were a love match, and they got married in 1963.
The story/legend continues, much as I’ve seen it depicted in movies like Nadia…
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 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 wake 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 intense 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, Kerri stuck her vault, but at what price? And isn’t she very lucky that she didn’t 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.
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.
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