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."