Bela Karolyi sits tall in the saddle. It is spring in the Texas hill country, and Karolyi is right where he wants to be, comfortably astride his chestnut cutting horse, Law, following the fences across his 53-acre ranch. Dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt and well-scuffed boots, the 50-year-old Karolyi looks more like a happily prosperous Texan, which, by the way, he is, than like the Romanian-born World's Most Famous Gymnastics Coach, which, of course, he also is.
Karolyi rides easily among the pines, telling the story of how he found the land for the ranch—came upon it one day in 1983 when he got lost while rabbit hunting. It took him a year or so to save the money for the land and to persuade the owner to sell. In the years since, Karolyi bulldozed the land, built a log cabin and added dormitories for his gymnasts, a swimming pool, tennis courts and a 20,000-square-foot gymnasium. He has cattle, horses and a seemingly endless supply of dogs. And to Karolyi, it all seems perfectly natural. He knows what it took to get here—god knows, he'll never forget—and in typical Karolyi fashion, he wants to embrace it all. Why shouldn't a gym teacher from the mountains of Transylvania wind up as a prosperous rancher in Texas? Why shouldn't anyone?
People who couldn't tell you the difference between a back handspring and a flip-flop layout can tell you who Bela Karolyi is. He's the big guy with the mustache and the funny accent, right? Nadia. Mary Lou. All those little girl gymnasts. All those hugs. Out on the mat, with his tiny athletes prancing around him, Karolyi looks about eight feet tall. He is something less than that, of course, merely a bearlike 6'1", but in the world of women's gymnastics, no figure looms larger. In 29 years of coaching—first in Romania, and for the past 11 years in the U.S.—Bela's athletes have won seven Olympic gold medals and 15 world championships, Of the 10 most recent U.S. champions, seven have come from Karolyi. At last fall's world championships in Indianapolis, Karolyi, coach of the U.S. women's team, led his charges to the silver medal in the team competition, behind only the untouchable Soviets. His latest star, 16-year-old Kim Zmeskal, who has been with Bela since she was six, became the first woman in U.S. gymnastics history to win the all-around world championship.
"I never been happier in whole life, in whole coaching career," Karolyi said after that meet, his rich Romanian accent rolling with emotion. "It is greatest moment because this moment put U.S. gymnastics in whole new arena."
Indeed, heading into Barcelona, Zmeskal and the U.S. team—which includes two other Karolyi girls—seem poised to repeat their Indy performances. If they do, it will be the greatest moment ever in U.S. women's gymnastics. At the '84 Games, of course, Karolyi darling Mary Lou Retton won the gold in the all-around, and the U.S. women took the team silver. But that year the Soviets boycotted the Olympics and the Games were in Los Angeles. There will be no such breaks in Barcelona, but Bela, for one, is ready. "This gonna be our best team ever," he says, his broad face scrunched up behind that big mustache. "This gonna be it."
To some people in gymnastics, the reason seems obvious. Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation (USGF), puts it plainly: "The one thing over the past 10 years that's had the most effect on U.S. gymnastics, overwhelmingly, is the presence of Bela Karolyi."
Yet even after a decade of such consistent and visible success, it seems that not everyone in the U.S. gymnastics community agrees with Jacki. There are plenty of people, other coaches mostly, who see Karolyi as a kind of Coach Dracula, menacing the red-blooded American system. Don't be fooled by all those smiling, romping little girls, they imply. Women's gymnastics is a sport so factionalized, so fraught with infighting and blood feuds, that it could make Don King and Bob Arum blush. Talk to some national-level coaches and you will hear Karolyi accused of everything from raging egotism to intimidation of judges to violation of the child-labor laws. His peers paint a picture of Karolyi as a ruthless Svengali, overworking his innocent young gymnasts for his own megalomaniacal needs.
"You watch Bela on TV and then you watch him in the gym, you see a different man," says one national team coach, who insists on anonymity. "It is not pretty and it's not right."
"He's used to a totalitarian system," says another coach. "It shouldn't work in this country."
"Jealousy," Karolyi replies, fiercely. "I am challenging the system, challenging their sweet mediocrity. They are protecting so aggressively." He gives an elaborate shrug. "Holy cat! All I am saying is you must push hard. And you must have the highest standards." To Bela, it is that simple. With his walrus mustache and his theatrical cheerleading and his charmingly fractured English—holy cat?—it is easy to lose sight of just how serious Karolyi is. "He plays up the country-bumpkin image, the cowboy from Romania," says Paul Ziert, former coach at the University of Oklahoma and a longtime friend of Karolyi's. "But he is brilliant. And he represents absolute commitment to gymnastics." Maybe that is what is so threatening.