Bela Karolyi and his innovative approaches to women's gymnastics helped to transform the sport in the 1970s. One of the most famous coaches in the history of gymnastics, Karolyi commenced his elite level coaching career by guiding the Romanian women's team, headed by Nadia Comenich in the mid-1970s. Karolyi made a successful transition to the sporting culture of the United States where he trained notable American teams and individual gymnasts such as Marie Lou Retton. Karolyi's enduring appeal as a coach and his drawing power have anchored a state of the art training facility that he heads in the United States.
Karolyi's coaching career was highlighted by success at a relatively young age. After obtaining a university degree, Karolyi became a full time gymnastics coach. By the time that he was 26 years old, Karolyi had established a national training facility for Romanian gymnasts. It was at this facility that Karolyi first introduced his own theories regarding gymnastics training, the most prominent of which was the introduction of sophisticated gymnastics routines to very young gymnasts.
Karolyi was not the first gymnastics coach to specifically seek out small boned and slender young female gymnasts for international competition. In gymnastics disciplines such as the vault and the uneven bars, the fundamental principles of biomechanics and the specific forces at play in gymnastics confirm the likely greater opportunity such athletes possess to leap higher and more explosively. Karolyi became a strong proponent of the intense training required to take smaller and younger gymnastics further into the international arena. Karolyi believed that these athletes, with their small body masses and greater inherent ranges of motion in their joints, were better suited to the acrobatic flips and leaps, the dramatic form of gymnastics Karolyi believed would lead to international success for his athletes.
In 1971, Karolyi was first introduced to both American culture and the current gymnastics training techniques used by American coaches through his participation in a tour by the Romanian national team of the United States. This tour, made during the height of the Cold War, would serve to create a permanent desire on the part of Karolyi to move the United States.
The 1976 Olympics in Montreal was the first international triumph for both Karolyi and his Romanian team. Karolyi's prize student, 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci proved to be one of the great stories of the Games, winning a number of gold medals, in addition to scoring the first perfect mark in the history of Olympic gymnastics.
Karolyi continued as the head coach of the Romanian team in the period leading up to the 1980 Moscow Games. A number of leading gymnastics nations, including the United States, boycotted the Olympics. Karolyi was distressed by what he perceived as significant inequities in the Olympic gymnastics judging, as he expressed complaints that the judges had improperly inflated the scores of certain competitors from other Eastern Bloc nations ahead of his favored Romanian athletes. Comenich had failed to win an expected Olympic gold medal. Karolyi tendered his resignation as the Romanian national team coach after the Games, an gesture that was rejected by the Romanian authorities.
In 1981, Karolyi took advantage of a Romanian national team tour of the United States to renounce his Romanian citizenship, seeking political asylum from the American government. Karolyi would ultimately become an American citizen in 1990. Karolyi was quick to solidify his new position in the United States: by the fall of 1981, plans were in place for Karolyi to open a gymnasium in Houston. With $40,000 in backing from a small group of investors, Karolyi opened the Sundance Gym in Houston in the early months of 1982. He brought his first American team to a regional competition soon afterward, winning the Texas Class I title.
Karolyi's international reputation and newly acquired American training base soon lead to a number of coaching opportunities as the United States readied itself for the 1984 Los Angeles Games. The most prominent of the American gymnasts trained by Karolyi in his private coaching capacity at that time was 15-year-old Mary Lou Retton, who won two individual gold medal at the Games. Retton was the first American woman ever to achieve a perfect score in an event. In a sport where it was common for a coach to have assisted with only one member of a national team, Karolyi's reputation and coaching influence was so profound that he regularly had three or four athletes at any given time selected to the United States national gymnastics team.
Karolyi parlayed his student's Olympic success into a remarkable private gymnastics training academy; at one point there were over 1,400 students associated with his Texas training facility. His return to Olympics coaching was anti-climactic, as the United States women's team posted a disappointing finish in the 1992 Olympics. Karolyi regrouped to lead the American women into the 1996 Olympics at Atlanta, where the team secured a gold in the team competition, highlighted by the efforts of Kerri Strug, who was injured mid way through the event but continued to compete in spite of her injury.
Gymnastics coaches have an often well deserved reputation for being demanding of their athletes. Gymnastics, with its profound emphasis on both repetitive movements and long training sessions, is a grueling sport. Karolyi was seen in some quarters of the gymnastics world to be an over bearing, dictatorial mentor. More unsettling were the allegations that Karolyi had reprimanded various gymnasts for being overweight; in a sport that is vulnerable to athletes becoming subject to eating disorders, such criticisms were the subject of great debate.
Karolyi was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in the Lifetime Achievement category in 1997.
There have been criticisms of his methods since his early successes with the Romanian team and the legendary Comenich. In the face of lingering controversy over his aggressive coaching style with such very young female athletes, Karolyi's innovative contributions to the sport of women's gymnastics endure into the twenty first century.