"It's not worth it": ESPN podcast "Heavy Medals" probes the Karolyis' ruthless gymnastics empire

Salon spoke with ESPN's Alyssa Roenigk about the price that Mary Lou Retton, Simone Biles, and more paid for gold

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published July 16, 2020 6:00PM (EDT)

Heavy Medals (Amy Sancetta/ESPN)
Heavy Medals (Amy Sancetta/ESPN)

For nearly four decades, as athletes came and went, there was one constant presence in Olympic gymnastics: the Karolyis. The couple — Bela and Martha — erupted onto the world stage when their 14-year-old gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic history in 1976. 

Five years later, after defecting from communist Romania to America, they began climbing to the top of the sport yet again. During their 32-year reign, they delivered 46 Olympic medals for the United States. And in return for their success, they were granted unprecedented power, and became more recognizable than many of their gymnasts. 

Now, ESPN's "30 for 30" has released "Heavy Medals," a seven-episode podcast series about the Karolyis' life and legacy in the sport, and how their leadership both helped propel American gymnastics to the top of the podium, but also created an atmosphere that hurt the athletes who ended up there. 

Hosted and reported by ESPN senior writers Bonnie Ford and Alyssa Roenigk, "Heavy Medals" serves as a revealing companion piece for recent releases like Netflix's striking documentary "Athlete A," which focuses on the survivors of the abuse of USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. 

"It's now almost four years since the Larry Nassar news broke," Roenigk said. "It's still a very important story, but it's time to start looking at those around him who enabled him, who cultivated the culture that allowed for a predator like him to abuse for decades."

Roenigk spoke with Salon about the production of the podcast, the dichotomous opinions about Bela Karolyi, and why American parents, athletes, and coaches should adjust their definition of success. 

You covered the last seven Olympics — is that right? 

I did. So that includes winter and summer; my first Olympics with ESPN was the 2006 Reno Winter Olympics, and then every Olympics after, this would have been my eighth, I believe.

Right on, so for people who are maybe unfamiliar, could you talk a little bit about how large the Karolyi legacy looms and influences the sport of gymnastics? 

You know, arguably I don't think there are bigger figures in the sport of gymnastics.Their name became synonymous with the sport. You know, the Karolyis — people tended to not even pull them apart as Bela and Martha Karolyi. Martha is not someone who ever loved the spotlight, but Bela lived for the spotlight and played the media better than perhaps any sports figure. You know, it'd be a tough competition to match Bela Karolyi in the game of playing the media. He was the carnival barker of the two of them, right? 

They came here on the heels of Nadia Comaneci's success and the Romanian team's success, so they already had names when they arrived and then quickly had Mary Lou Retton, and then world champion, then Olympians after Olympians. They were these consistent figures where as an individual gymnast would have maybe a four-year cycle — especially back in that day. You didn't see a lot of repeat Olympians, right? So the Karolyis were easy to wrap your coverage around, especially Bela because he was so media- and camera-friendly. 

I mean, we know what Bela Karolyi was saying to the gymnasts because he was mic'd when no other coaches were. You know, a lot of gymnasts told us "What you heard him saying in those moments of 'You can do it,' we didn't hear any of it." But the fans could hear him because he was mic'd and the people at home could hear him. The media understood what a character they were building, and so over the years he became a much larger character to viewers, the media, and eventually to USA gymnastics. 

You know, in 2000 when they believed they needed someone to come in and save the day, they reached out to the Karolyis who had essentially retired from elite gymnastics. 

So the amount of power that they were given and the lack of oversight they had over the past 40 years really was one of the things we wanted to explore with this series. I don't think it's any secret that too much power concentrated in too few hands can lead to bad outcomes, especially in sports and youth sports. 

Speaking of youth sports, in the second and third episodes, we establish Mary Lou Retton as an American hero, an American icon. So you've got an entire generation of young girls, aspiring gymnasts, at home wanting to follow her path. And I was curious how common it was for young girls to make these cross-country moves to enter programs where they are essentially eating, sleeping, and breathing gymnastics? 

Back in Mary Lou's day it was incredibly common. And you're right, the influence she had on the sport is tough to measure. You know, every coach we talked to, their attendance tripled; they called it the "Mary Lou effect." But it wasn't just an effect on kids, right? It was an effect on parents, as well, who looked at their children and saw this potential — not only to make it to the Olympics, but to be on a Wheaties box and make tons of money and be an icon. So that was tempting to parents as well as athletes. 

So when the Karolyis moved here, there were very few top-level gyms, and across those gyms there wasn't a lot of sharing of information. So if you lived somewhere that wasn't in commuting distance to the best coaches, you'd have to make a change. You know, two things you wanted as an elite gymnast as you start reaching those really high level goals were coaches who had experience coaching elite athletes, and then other elite gymnasts to train alongside to push you. 

This happened with Mary Lou Retton. I mean, her own coach, Gary Rafaloski, told us he realized he needed to find her another gym. I mean, Bela Karolyi ended up sort of pushing her away before Gary had a chance to do that for her, but it was so very common back then for athletes to move away from home. 

It still happens, like when Gabby Douglas moved to Iowa to train with Shawn Johnson's coaches, but it's not as common as it was back in Mary Lou's day. 

Sure, that makes sense. I wanted to pull back briefly and talk a little bit about the actual process of reporting out this project because it is so incredibly in-depth. How long did you spend working on it and about how many interviews were conducted? 

Yeah, so Bonnie and I started reporting along with our producers in early August. You know, we signed on to the project at the beginning of summer [2019], but we both were in Europe. I was covering the Women's World Cup straight into Wimbledon. So when I got back to the U.S., we started reporting. Our very last reporting trip — now it wasn't supposed to be, we ended up cancelling a lot of flights — was on March 6. 

And then of course the world shut down, and we canceled all our future flights and trips. But what ended up being a pretty meaningful last trip was a trip to Houston to go to the Karolyi ranch. We had that experience to sit with throughout our production. It wasn't planned that way, and we would have just kept recording up until this morning if we could have have. 

But we did the majority of our interviews between August and early March, and then were a handful that we found creative ways to do in the months since. You know, [for] Simone Biles we did over Zoom in Houston with her mother there. There were a couple of journalists who happen to have their own radio shows who have wonderful recording equipment. 

For interviews, there are sort of different categories. Recorded interviews where we actually sat with someone and recorded them, we did around 60. But total interviews, including background and on the record and off the record, there were over 100. It was a really intense several months. 

Yeah, I can imagine. One of the things that really struck me about this podcast was the dichotomous descriptions of Bela — which I think really come to a head in the fifth episode, "The Karolyi Way," which details the period of time when he became the national team coordinator and gymnasts were required to attend training camps at his ranch. Some people speak about him very fondly, others don't. What is your sense of who he was? 

I mean, the thing you just really nail on the head is the timing, right? So, pre-2000, when they were personal coaches, you were or your parents were making a choice to be coached by them. That influenced how you viewed your time with them. 

There were a lot of things we realized that influenced the way you viewed your time with them. Your own personality — all gymnasts are tough, but some just have a personality where, no matter what he said, it just bounced right off. There was your level of parental support, your goals, the success you had, what filters you've put over those memories as an adult, right? All that influences the way you saw that time and Bela as a personal coach specifically seems to have had an ability to make gymnasts believe all of those bear hugs and all that motivation, all those kind words, were really honest. That he loved them and loved reveling in their success.

But as soon as you weren't at the top, as soon as you were either injured or not winning, you were invisible to him. 

You know, he was incredibly charismatic, right? He was captivating. You wanted to be around and listen to his stories, and no one thought to ask if the stories he was telling were true. 

In 2000, it was no longer a choice. You were mandated to go to the ranch and to be part of this program, so you saw him differently. You had your personal and had a relationship with that coach, but with Bela it was very much "my way or the highway." He took a lot of credit when there was success, but never too [much] responsibility when the team wasn't successful. So I think how you came to be coached by Bela Karolyi affected the experiences. 

That's interesting, and this is discussed in the podcast, but did you come across similar conflicted feelings about Martha? 

Martha was perhaps more interesting to research and report and dive into because she has always been such an enigma. 

That's why I really loved her breakout episode, where we turn the spotlight on her. 

So the thing is, you kind of see this evolution of Bela a bit, but Martha seems to have always been the same person. When you ask someone from Romania, when you ask the athletes from the '70s, '80s, '90s and today, they all describe her in the same way. The coaches say, "You know, I couldn't get close to her." She was impossible to know, she was cold, she was not someone who had that ability to make you feel immediately loved or cared for. There was always a big, ice cold stone wall around her. 

There is endless archival footage of Bela Karolyi; we could have done a 400-hour podcast on just him. But just finding interviews with Martha before she took over as the national team coordinator and it became part of her job, there are maybe three or four clips of her on television? 

They were incredibly different people and they were motivated by different things. But the one thing that motivated both of them, where they intersected, was control. You know, Martha, she clearly loved the sport, seemed to be obsessed with the sport — I don't think you coach until you are almost 80 and travel the world to do that unless you have a true passion for it. 

But I think she came into an ownership of her power and I think that power gave her control. Same with Bela; Bela loves the fame. He was driven by success and money and winning and fame. But both of them did all of that in pursuit of control, and I think that's where they intersect. 

So, I was a competitive figure skater for years and was adjacent to people who decided to homeschool so they could train during the days. There were endless stories — and I think this is typical for youth athletes at a high level — of teens who were forced to decide between, like, qualifying competitions and prom, for instance. It's not a typical childhood. And something that stood out to me about this podcast is several people allude to these young athletes giving up portions of their childhood for the United States, for a gold medal. Some people speak about it almost like it's an act of patriotism. And I was curious if you think that line of thinking is coming under more scrutiny right now? 

Oh, goodness, yes, I sure hope so. We did a panel last night, and Tasha Schwikert was on it. And one of the questions put to her — and I think it was framed in a way that said, "You know, I don't know if this is possible, but if you can take Larry Nassar and his abuse out of the equation, was it worth it? Would you do it again?" And her answer was no. 


And I can't tell you how many times in these interviews — as someone who grew up in the sport and was a massive fan, who then felt incredibly honored to cover it, and then thought we were asking the right questions post-2016 . . . to realize the hell the 2000 team went through. To hear someone like Tasha say she cried herself to sleep every night at the Olympics as a 15-year-old because she was starving. 

Nothing is worth that, right? I mean, no gold medal is worth that. So many of them are our national treasures. You know, if we're going to put statues up, let's throw Carly Patterson, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles up. They were treasures and to realize how they were treated — no, it's not worth it. 

I think that it requires all of us — journalists, broadcasters, parents, coaches — to change the way we view winning and change our definition of success. I don't think that is easy to do. But I would love to be able to watch gymnastics and cover gymnastics and simply be amazed by these young athletes and what they are able to do with an understanding that the coaches they are working with care as much about creating good people as they do about marching into the Olympics and winning a gold medal for the United States. 

Absolutely. So my final question, and I feel like we touched on this in various ways throughout our conversation, but in speaking about practices that require more scrutiny, I was curious about what made right now the right time to release a critical survey of the Karolyis' life and work, warts and all? 

So when "30 for 30" came to Bonnie and I last summer, it was with the knowledge that they wanted this project to come out now. So in another alternate universe, we would be getting on planes to fly to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics right now and the gymnastics trials would have happened a couple weeks ago. We looked at this moment as the first time in 40 years that American gymnasts would have walked into the Olympics without the tangible presence of the Karolyis, so what does that look like? What does that mean for the sport moving forward? 

That is one reason this was the perfect time we thought to release the project. Also, in the industry, it's now almost four years since the Larry Nassar news broke. It's still a very important story, but it's time to start looking at those around him who enabled him, who cultivated the culture that allowed for a predator like him to abuse for decades. 

You know, you really need the full support of a company like ESPN to tell two reporters to step aside from all their other assignments for a year and dive into this fully with the backing and support and a production team. I mean, we were able to work with just the most incredible producers at "30 for 30" and we had investigative help. 

I just can't tell you what a big team it took to put this out.. Last August, this looked like a mountain and to be at the finish line. . .  I mean, it wasn't until I looked and saw you could actually listen to it that I believed we had gotten there. 

Listen to all seven parts of "Heavy Medals" on the "30 for 30" podcast on ESPN radio or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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30 For 30 Alyssa Roenigk Bela Karolyi Espn Gymnastics Heavy Medals Interview Martha Karolyi Olympics Podcast