Hypocrite Károlyi Points Finger At Underage Chinese Gymnasts
Posted by Sara Lewis on August 14, 2008
As if there wasn’t enough for us all to be complaining about with regard to the Beijing Olympics already, ex-U.S. women’s gymnastics coach Béla Károlyi (best known for coaching Nadia Comaneci to the first official ‘perfect ten’ score at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and now an NBC commentator for the current Olympics), has come out with a pearler.
In light of the recent media circus surrounding the age of various members of the Chinese women’s gymnastics team, Károlyi has been making narky comments on air, calling the girls “half-people” and kicking up a stink about the unfair acceptance of supposedly fake passports that, he propounds, falsely verified several of the Chinese gymnasts as being over sixteen years of age.
I don’t doubt for a second that Károlyi is right (especially considering the fact that young He Kexin’s birth date is recorded as being on January 1, 1992 – fishy, much?), but what troubles me is his audacity in delivering such accusatory comments from such a blatantly hypocritical subject position. The success of Károlyi, superstar of women’s gymnastics coaching in both Romania and the United States, has not been without its own controversy. Károlyi has been accused of starving his gymnasts, verbally and psychologically abusing them, as well as making them compete even with injuries as serious as broken bones. Perhaps a perfect example of this is the success of the Atlanta 96’s U.S. women’s gymnastics dream-team, the ‘Magnificent Seven‘, largely due to Kerri Strug’s final effort in carrying them to gold after completing her vault rotation on a severely injured ankle. Béla was quoted by ESPN as saying to Strug at the time “Kerri, we need you to go one more time. We need you one more time for the gold”. What’s more is that Time magazine online have quoted Károlyi in the past as having admitted to faking birth dates in his native Romania to allow underage gymnasts to perform.
So who is the medal-hungry Károlyi’s pot to call the medal-hungry Chinese kettle black?
Let’s forget for a second about breaking the official age-related rules of women’s gymnastics in the Olympics, and about the racist implications in Károlyi’s “half-people” statement, and think instead about the pressure that Károlyi, and gymnastics coaches all over the world alike, put on their students to appear like twelve-year old girls, whether they actually are or not. I could draw on the extreme example of Christy Henrich here, who died in 1994 with a weight of just 47lbs (around 21kg) after a long battle with anorexia nervosa as a result of pressures from her coach, various judges and international commentators to the sport. Or I could talk about Dominique Moceanu, superstar of the aforementioned Magnificent Seven hailed as “The Next Nadia“, who has spoken on numerous occasions about the abuse she endured by Károlyi and his wife, Martha, during her time training under them (Moceanu claims she was victim to constant verbal abuse and was allowed no more than 900 calories a day while training with the Károlyis). But we really needn’t look further than the current U.S. women’s team to see the real evidence. They may appear physically larger than the Chinese team, but the difference is marginal. This year at the Beijing National Indoor Stadium, you couldn’t blame a spectator for thinking they were at a Ms Fitness Kidz competition. Yet Károlyi still claims to know what real sixteen-year olds look like:
We are in the business of gymnastics and we know what a kid of 14 or 15 or 16 looks like. You don’t have to be a gymnastics coach to know what they look like at 16.
I should certainly hope not. In fact, Béla, I don’t think you have such a good idea yourself of what a sixteen-year old really looks and acts like at all, especially when the majority of your sixteen-year old students probably haven’t even started menstruating or developing breasts yet, what with the majority of their bodies no doubt plagued by injuries of overuse, and their parents probably considering gold medals and their children’s health mutually exclusive. Yeah, you must really get what it’s like to be a sixteen-year old girl these days!
I understand that not every gymnast is a prepubescent Little Miss Muscles, not every coach is a Károlyi and that not every parent is a gold-digger living vicariously through their offspring. But this year’s Beijing Olympics really show that the age-old (no pun intended) emphasis on petite stature and unhealthy body images in women’s gymnastics is as present as ever – and I’m not just pointing fingers at the Chinese here.
Béla Károlyi is splitting hairs. The important issue here is not simply the age of the women girls in elite gymnastics, but the various pressures put upon them (however legal or illegal by way of seemingly avoidable Olympics law) to look a certain way, eat a certain amount of food, be a certain height and win a certain number of medals as a result. While also true for a number of sports, women’s gymnastics for me remains at the top of the list of sports that need to be reassessed in terms of its values, training techniques and place in the competitive arena.