By NANCY ARMOUR, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — It may have been Bela Karolyi's idea. It took his wife to make the grand experiment work.
In the 11 years since Martha (pronounced MAR-ta) Karolyi replaced her husband as coordinator of the U.S. women's team, the Americans have been transformed into a gymnastics powerhouse. They've been on a heavy-medal binge with 59 total at the Olympics and world championships — at least 20 more than any other country. They've won three world team titles and produced the last two Olympic all-around champions.
All that's missing is the Olympic gold — but perhaps not for long. No offense to the Russians, Romanians or defending Olympic champion Chinese, but the Americans are stronger than everyone else, and the gold is theirs to lose in Tuesday's team final.
"I guarantee one thing: The truth is going to come out on the Olympic Games," Bela Karolyi said. "The truth is that we are solidly in the first place on the team, no question about that."
If the Americans do win, it will be the defining moment in Martha Karolyi's long and illustrious career. Nadia, Mary Lou, the Magnificent Seven — she's had a hand in every big moment in gymnastics in the last four decades, and her influence will continue to be felt for years to come with a U.S. program that's become the sport's gold standard.
"As we've found our way, everybody has built consensus around Martha being the right person for the job," USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said. "She's got the green thumb. She's got the magic touch. She has the ability to nurture everyone individually and the team collectively, and I think that's the true genius of who she is."
For much of the 1980s and 1990s, the Americans were a team in name only.
A handful of big-name gyms — Karolyi's, Parkettes, SCATS, Hill's — churned out small armies of elite gymnasts, and the athletes would come together as a "team" just before an Olympics or world championships. The gymnasts barely knew each other, and the coaches were as fiercely competitive as the kids.
Certainly not the formula to challenge the centralized programs in Russia, Romania and China, where gymnasts lived and trained together from young ages at state-run facilities.
There was no way an approach like that would work in the U.S. But with the Americans floundering in 1999, Bela Karolyi agreed to come out of retirement and create a semi-centralized system. One person would oversee the entire U.S. program, with regular national team camps to ensure gymnasts were meeting established training and performance standards.
The camps would also be a resource for individual coaches, allowing gymnasts who didn't want to gym-hop around the country to stay at home and work with the same coach who got them started.
There was one problem: Coordination is not a word in any language Bela Karolyi speaks. Neither is cooperation.
Coaches who had been his equal chafed at his heavy-handedness, and were annoyed by his grandstanding. Gymnasts resented his bluster and demands. There was so much sniping and finger-pointing, a reality TV show producer would have been embarrassed.
"I say, 'No, shut up. Get in and work. Work,'" Bela Karolyi said. "That was my approach, which did not work very well."
By the time the Americans left the Sydney Olympics, about the only thing everyone agreed on was that the system couldn't work under Karolyi.
At least, not that Karolyi.
Though individual coaches were leery of replacing one Karolyi with another, they soon discovered what gymnasts who'd trained with the couple had known all along: Bela was the show, Martha the substance. Where her husband is brash and impulsive, Martha Karolyi is calm and measured. Where he is authoritarian, she is inclusive. Where he is impassive, she has a soft side.
Or, as her husband puts it, "She's more diplomatic. Absolutely. I'm wild. The opposite."
"Bela's the showman. Bela's the motivator. But he would be a lost puppy without her," Mary Lou Retton has said. "She's always been the stone behind them."
There's no question Martha Karolyi's standards and expectations are every bit as high as her husband's. Maybe higher.
Every practice is treated as seriously as a competition, with no detail too small to be scrutinized. Karolyi roams the floor, cocking her head to the side and narrowing her dark eyes when she stops to watch a particular routine.
"She sees us once a month, so it's more eye-opening for her," U.S. captain Aly Raisman said. "Whereas our coaches see us every day so they might miss a little, little detail."
Even the way the gymnasts finish their sessions at training camps has been drilled to military precision, their "Thank-you-Martha-coaches-national-staff-goodbye!" coming out in the rush of a single word.
And woe to the gymnast who shows up on time. In Karolyi's world, if you're not early, you're late.
"She's so organized and she always knows what she wants," Raisman said. "She's very strict, but also is really caring and compassionate. She loves the sport so much, so that's kind of really great and you can really see that."
She and the system have their detractors, of course.
Dominique Moceanu, who trained with Karolyi and her husband before the 1996 Olympics, has been a frequent and vocal critic, saying the training regimen is too harsh and the selection procedures too restrictive. Others have questioned the injuries the Americans have had — though there have been similar numbers in other countries and even on the men's side.
And while Karolyi will solicit the opinions of the personal coaches, hers is the final word. Even her husband of four-plus decades stays out of her way, busying himself with construction projects at their beloved ranch, now the national team training center, and promotional appearances for USA Gymnastics.
"We have a communist system running USA Gymnastics," said Andy Memmel, who is the father and coach of 2005 world champion Chellsie Memmel and has had his differences with the federation. "That's who they want to run it."
Ten months after Martha Karolyi took over, a young U.S. team won the bronze medal at the world championships. It was their first team medal in six years — and remains the last time they finished worst than first or second at a worlds or an Olympics.
The training camps keep gymnasts sharp, and the competition sharpens everybody. It's no coincidence the U.S. produced the best two gymnasts in Beijing, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, or that they had three in the top four in Sunday's qualifying. Raisman was second and Gabby Douglas third.
The U.S. is so deep that world champion Jordyn Wieber won't get a chance to contend for the all-around title. Though she had the fourth-best score in qualifying, countries are limited to two gymnasts in the all-around final and she finished behind Raisman and Douglas.
"This is the beauty of our program," Penny said. "On any given day one of the girls on our team can do it."
Karolyi turns 70 on Aug. 29, and had once said she would retire following the London Olympics. But she has backed off, saying in June that she would like to stay on.
"It's not USA Gymnastics, it's Martha Gymnastics because Martha does make every single decision," Memmel said. "Is that the way it's supposed to be? Well, that's the way it is."
Follow Nancy Armour at www.twitter.com/nrarmour
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.