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No medals for Bela

In this enlightened age of self-esteem, Olympic coach Bela Karolyi wins few votes with his take-no-prisoners style. What would we have: confident losers or broken winners?


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000

Two-million girls play interscholastic sports in the United States, and their successes make national headlines daily.

"Girls' participation in sports enhances body image, self-esteem, confidence and scholastic performance while (it) decreases school dropout rates, and reduces the risk of many physiological conditions such as obesity, osteoporosis and depression," according to Games Girls Play: Understanding and Guiding Young Female Athletes, by Caroline Silby, which was published last month by St. Martin's Press.

But other studies have shown that at the highest levels of women's sports, particularly in the individual endeavors of gymnastics and figure skating, athletes pay an extraordinary price.

"The intensive training and the pressure heaped on by coaches, parents and agents . . . often result in eating disorders, weakened bones, hormonal imbalances, stunted skeletal development and damaged self-image," wrote Joan Ryan in her 1992 expose Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.

One of the coaches Ryan singles out is Bela Karolyi, the most successful women's gymnastics coach in the world and the man who last week selected the six young women who will compete in the Olympics in Sydney next month.

What follows are excerpts from Silby's book (she is a former U.S. National Team figure skater) and from Karolyi's many public comments (and those of his critics) on how to encourage athletic excellence from little women. They highlight the stark contrast between our best intentions and the cutthroat reality of elite gymnastic competition.

* * *

Silby on the importance of winning:

"Undue emphasis on winning can prevent athletes from seeing the other benefits of sports participation. Young girls need to learn that if they want to win they must spend the majority of their efforts focused not on the win but on how to win."

Karolyi on the same subject:

"Who cares about pretty boxes? We are talking about the Olympic Games. There is nothing to change. (The methods) that were successful at the time were based on sturdy, solid and consistent performance of the girls and the combination between coach and athletes based on discipline and strong motivation to perform on the highest level possible."

* * *

Silby on the best course for very young girls to begin to play sports:

"Most often, I recommend that young girls who want to compete try team sports in the beginning and, if they appear to possess the maturity to accept responsibility for performance successes and failures, then add on an individual sport."

Karolyi, in a phone conversation with the mother of a 9-year-old gymnast he wanted to train on his Olympic Hopes team:

"Have her here next Monday."

Jean Pallardy, the mother of that gymnast, recounting what she thought, but did not say to Karolyi:

"You're talking about my firstborn and you're making it sound like I'm shipping out some kind of package."

* * *

Silby on how coaches should correct mistakes:

"A gymnast doesn't complete her series on (the) beam. Instead of threatening to throw her out of the gym and telling her she can never come back, I suggest that her coach first choose to attack her behavior by changing the purpose of the practice. Say something like, "I can see you haven't committed fully to this skill and that you are getting frustrated. When you commit to your series you do it beautifully. It's much easier to do your series when you don't have any fear. However, today you have some fear, which makes this skill ten times harder . . .' "

Karolyi, after witnessing gymnast Vanessa Atler fail to complete a practice routine on the uneven parallel bars:

"Hey, hey, what the hell is this? You call this a routine? That's crap, that's nothing. Go back and do it again. I said this is the difference, honey, between training and training. They need to understand, this is the standard. But someone has to push them to it. They need that strong voice, that support, to pull them through what they think are difficulties. To perform all the time their routines without falling, without walking away."

* * *

Silby on how to address failure:

"When failure occurs, let it go. Help her to accept it, figure out what she can do differently, and move on. Even after a dismal performance, find something positive about it, like, "You played your heart out,' or "I know how hard you were trying.' "

* * *

Karolyi on his famously blunt manner of speaking:

"Yes, I'm using strong words. I'm using today. I use all my life. "Hey, tiger. You want to be treated like a damn dog? Go get them.' That's coaching! "Think about it? You're a damn dead frog. You are just a piece of rock. You are not a man. You are? Well, let's show it. Come on. Let's show it.' "

Silby on proper diet:

"Coaches do need to be conscious about what they say about weight and how they say it. Weight should not be the primary topic of discussion. Instead, address the real issue, which is the health and fitness of the athlete . . . It's important for coaches to avoid linking performance with weight and refrain from ridiculing or making light of an athlete's weight concerns."

* * *

Gymnast Kristie Phillips, who trained with Karolyi:

Phillips "claims he pushed her to take laxatives, thyroid pills and diuretics to lose the weight brought on by puberty," wrote Ryan, author of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. Karolyi vehemently denies Phillips' allegations.

Says Phillips:

"I weighed 98 pounds and I was being called an overstuffed Christmas turkey. I was told I was never going to make it in life because I was going to be fat."

* * *

Silby on how to keep training fun:

"By being aware of the need for fun, coaches can structure the environment in a way that combines rigorous training with some alternative activities that are useful yet amusing as well -- for example, allowing athletes to work with one another or providing rewards such as ringing a bell when athletes show good effort . . . Remember, children are supposed to play sports, not work sports."

Karolyi on the same subject:

"It's work. It's intensity. It's repetition. Not wasting time, not hanging around. No talk. What to talk? Do it."

Bart Conner, who won a gold medal on the U.S. men's gymnastics team in 1984 and later married Nadia Comaneci, one of Karolyi's first stars:

"Bela knows only one speed and that's full-blast forward. He goes full-blast until they crash. It's hard for him to back off and nurture a kid."

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story.

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