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The U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team Falls From Grace

Since winning medals in ’84, Karolyi’s squad faces infighting and financial woes

Mary Lou Retton, Olympics.Mary Lou Retton, Olympics.

Mary Lou Retton of the United States is congratulated by team mates after scoring a perfect 10.0 during the vault section, Los Angeles, California, August, 1984

Steve Powell/Getty

Four years ago in Los Angeles, members of the United States women’s Olympic gymnastics team finally earned what had eluded them for nearly forty years. They made eight trips to the podium for medals, including Mary Lou Retton’s gold for best all-around gymnast. It was a dizzying arrival. Nobody expected them to stop winning.

Yet the team has since taken a gigantic tumble backward. Last year at the world championships, team members put on a display that made onlookers cringe. They fell off the balance beam, collided with parallel bars, and team leader Kristie Phillips managed to land one vault smack on her face. Well out of medal contention, the best finish by an American was a dismal nineteenth place.

The depressing performance is just one sign that things are terribly wrong in the gymnastics community. Federal prosecutors are examining the finances of the United States Gymnastics Federation (USGF), whose executive director has admitted that the federation underreported nearly $2 million of income to the Internal Revenue Service. Coaches and critics within the gymnastics community accuse the federation of being top-heavy with committees and of spending more money on the sport’s adult volunteers than on the athletes themselves. The most visible sign of trouble has been the bitter squabbling between the top personal coaches and the flammable Bela Karolyi, who coached Mary Lou Retton in 1984 and, before his defection to the West in 1981, Romanian gold medalist Nadia Comaneci. While everyone slugs it out, the athletes, distracted by the confusion around them, seemingly can do nothing but land on their faces.

There is a story in gymnastics circles that when Karolyi failed to board the plane in New York in 1981 after an American tour with the Romanian team, no one waited.

Years later, Karolyi still wasn’t making any friends. When Retton landed a perfect-10 vault to win the all-around title in 1984, television cameras quickly swung around to show the bearlike Bela Karolyi tripping over a barrier to embrace her. He mugged for the cameras – an unbridled display of affection, shown repeatedly in slow motion – and instantly became America’s most famous gymnastics coach.

What burned up Karolyi’s associates was that he wasn’t even supposed to be there. On the competition floor, crowded with apparatus, athletes, score runners and judges, only two coaches per country were allowed – the national coach and his assistant. As Retton’s private coach, Karolyi had no position with the Olympic delegation. He had finagled a maintenance man’s pass in order to stand close enough to the floor so he could speak to his athletes.

Karolyi’s antics annoyed the other private coaches and divided the girls on the team. He ignored the instructions of Don Peters, the national Olympic coach, and held special supplementary workouts for his two girls. At night, he slept in his rented car in the arena parking lot. All of this confirmed a suspicion held by the other private coaches that Karolyi placed his own and his athletes’ interests above the American national effort.

Resentment of Bela Karolyi has only grown since the 1984 Olympics. While other personal coaches continue to run modest operations, Karolyi’s Houston gym has thrived since Retton’s success. Karolyi received thousands from McDonald’s to wear the golden arches on his sleeves and bought a ranch in the Sam Houston National Forest, outside Houston.

With the private coaches hopelessly polarized after Los Angeles, USGF administrators were convinced that the next Olympic coach should be neutral, an outsider, someone with no private students and no financial interest in promoting one girl over another. For two years, the federation’s executive director, Mike Jacki, flew repeatedly to Salt Lake City, trying to persuade Greg Marsden, a well-respected college coach, to accept the job.

A serious and quiet man, Marsden pretty much owned the NCAA national gymnastics title. His women’s team at the University of Utah had won it six consecutive times, a collegiate record. Jacki had been given clearance by the USGF board of directors to hire Marsden, a change from the usual process, in which the International Women’s Program Committee – made up of four coaches (including Karolyi), one former athlete, three judges and an administrator – elect the Olympic coach. Marsden, who liked the autonomy of his job at the university and was well aware of the bickering among the top private coaches, felt no need to accept the hot seat offered him by the federation. “It was never my ambition to be the national coach,” he says. For two years Marsden bargained with the federation to keep his university job and run the national gymnastics program part time out of his office there. And he made it clear he would take orders from no one: “I said, ‘Hire me like you would hire a football coach. Give me a sufficient budget to be successful and a time frame. And like a football coach, as long as I don’t break the rules or steal money or something, you leave me alone to do the job.’ “

In May 1987, Marsden was appointed Olympic coach. While previous coaches only had control of the team, Marsden was also supposed to assume control of the entire national effort – through the Olympics and afterward – in order to unify the various clubs scattered around the country. The new system was not unlike that of the Soviets, who have proved extraordinarily successful, turning our unbeatable teams or eight Olympics. Though Marsden’s experience was limited to the collegiate level, which is a flight down from international competition, the other coaches, without exception, welcomed him. His first international meet would be the Pan Am games in Indianapolis in July.

Marsden won detractors quickly by naming another neutral person his assistant coach – Sal Lake City resident Donna Cozzo. Karolyi, who was friends with Marsden and thought he would get the job in order to be on the floor with his girls, was understandably surprised and threatened to boycott the meet. “What Bela didn’t know,” explains Marsden,” was that I thought some of the concerns the other coaches had about him were legitimate.” Another complaint came from an American judge. “She said the international people didn’t know Donna and that that would hurt us politically,” says Marsden. With Mike Jacki negotiating, a deeply offended Bela Karolyi was dissuaded from skipping the Pan Am meet.

However, when Marsden drove to the Indianapolis airport to meet Karolyi and his girls, only the three gymnasts emerged from the gate, When Marsden jokingly asked if Bela had sat at the back of the plane, the girls looked surprised. They explained Karolyi had stayed in Houston because a horse had fallen on him at his ranch.

Soon after, Marsden learned that a horse had indeed fallen on Karolyi and that he’d broken a couple of ribs – but the accident had occurred two weeks earlier. Karolyi, still angry for not being named Marsden’s assistant, had other reasons for skipping the Pan Am meet. ‘I am providing fifty percent of the team,” says Karolyi,” and I am not allowed to be a coach on the door. Even though Mike Jacki gave me a favor of going down, to participate in the workouts, I just felt that their problem was a misuse of resources.”

With no major competition, the team captured first place and then flew home for six weeks of rest before the mother championships in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Just before the team was ready to leave, the mother of Kristie Phillips (the national champion, dubbed ‘the next Mary Lou” by back in 1986) called Marsden, concerned that Bela was not adequately preparing her daughter for the world competition.

Marsden arrived in Rotterdam with a delegation of five personal coaches, three of their assistants, his own assistant and three judges. With the exception of Karolyi’s three gymnasts, who were handled by his wife, Martha, all the athletes had brought their personal coaches. The fighting began almost immediately. The coaches argued about whether to get to the Ahoy Sports Palace by bus or subway.

“While it appears to be a positive thing to have all the personal coaches there,” says Marsden, “it turns out to be difficult. They’re all trying to handle their athletes differently.”

When Marsden announced the team lineup, the delegation exploded. Gymnastics is more of a team sport than, say, figure skating, not only because team medals are awarded but because each gymnast influences her teammates’ scores. The six gymnasts on a team are placed in the lineup according to their chance for medals, with the best girls performing last. Most likely, if the first girl hits her routine, her score will fall around 9.7; the next girl, provided she does a clean routine, will probably beat that score by .05, and so on to the last. The scores build. In other words, the earlier gymnast sacrifices her chance for a medal to her teammates who come up later.

The discord in the American camp over Marsden’s lineup grew so loud that other delegations couldn’t help noticing. A French coach was moved to suggest that the Americans would improve their chances if they just shut up.

“We continue to be our own worst enemies,” says Marsden. “We beat up on ourselves. By the time we get to competition we are so beat up that the other countries don’t have to worry about us.”

Nothing could save the performances of the American gymnasts, not even a behind-the-scenes effort by Marsden to manipulate the scores (see “Dirty Dealing”). Fifteen-year-old Phillips, who confided to another coach that she felt abandoned by Karolyi, made her world debut as the American champ. She clobbered one of the uneven bars, bobbled on the balance beam and missed a vault. Her performance earned forty-fifth place. The others didn’t fare much better. Only one gymnast, the sturdy Sabrina Mar, from Don Peters’s club, performed well enough to make the individual-event finals. The final tally had the American team in sixth place.

“Apparently they had some problems. I was a little skeptical about what they were going to do,” says Mary Lou Retton. “But I try not to get involved in the scandalism.” At the federation offices in Indianapolis, thirty-seven full-time employees oversee the vast and mostly volunteer network governing the sport. In 1983, there were only six people. Now, there are departments for in-house television production, merchandising, events and public and media relations. Coaches and judges were admonished in a memo from public and media relations last winter: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”

Executive director Mike Jacki presides over the federation and campaigns for corporate dollars. In most other matters, he is just a figurehead, for the real authority lies in the committees. They have the power to change rules, distribute money, make assignments for international competitions basically, to decide everything of consequence.

In gymnastics, there are no less than twenty-four committees, and not all are on harmonious terms with the others. “There’s a committee for everything,” says Marsden. “That’s part of the problem. It’s so damn confusing, so damn overwhelming. Who could figure it all out?”

Even Mike Jacki seems browbeaten: “Too many committees? Are you asking me as a businessman? As a businessman, yes, there are too many committees. There should be none.” Nearly every one of the thirty-six committees arranges one or two general meetings per year, sometimes in pleasant resort locales. “I had to sit at all these committee meetings,” complains Marsden. “I wanted to do conference calls. They were uncomfortable with that. I wasn’t going to let them fly around and meet as much as they wanted to.”

In November of 1987, the committee overseeing the junior program went to the executive board and succeeded in wresting control back from Marsden. He responded by announcing his resignation. As former national champion Kurt Thomas says, “He was committeed to death.”

“What they did with Greg Marsden was a shame,” says Becky Buwick, the coach of Kelly Garrison-Steves, who, at age twenty-one, is the mature grande dame of the Olympic team. “They threw him into the lion’s den. Rotterdam was a big competition. It probably would have been better if we had put someone else in charge and he had watched to get his feet wet.”

“His mistake,” says another coach, “was that he tried to move too fast.” At a January meeting the coaches voted unanimously to seek Marsden’s reinstatement. The following day, the International Women’s Program Committee, by a narrow vote, seconded their request. But it was too late. Marsden refused to return.

He appeared on television late last winter, criticizing the federation for spending too much money on the adults – “wining and dining and limos” – while neglecting programs for the athletes. Before the ’84 Olympics the federation paid athletes’ travel expenses to the national championships. Now, with the federation pulling in $7 million annually, athletes must pay their own way.

After Mike Jacki and USGF president Mike Donohue took over the organization in 1983 – it was perilously close to bankruptcy (losing $588,000 since 1980) – they solicited funds from McDonald’s, then Dodge and K Mart. “They have done a tremendous job of turning the business around,” says Marsden. “We have money enough to make significant improvements in our capabilities in international competition. Unfortunately, with more money, the bureaucracy has grown, and a greater percent of that money has to be spent to maintain that bureaucracy. The programs haven’t improved at the same level.”

“I know it doesn’t trickle down to the athletes,” says coach Mark Lee, who trains team member Melissa Marlowe. “I’m not saying the things they spend money on aren’t legitimate. But the federation could at least make the elite programs break even. Everyone loses thousands of dollars a year with their elite kids.”

In July the Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. Justice Department was investigating allegations of financial mismanagement made by unidentified members of the gymnastics community who have been collecting financial documents of the federation for the last three years. The documents apparently show that the federation failed to report $1.7 million in income to the Internal Revenue Service. As a nonprofit organization, the USGF has tax-exempt status, but such groups are required by the IRS code to file tax returns reporting all revenue or face possible fines.

Mike Jacki admitted the federation had provided incomplete returns to the IRS. He said he had been aware of the error for some time and had been working with several USGF committees to try to correct the way income is recorded by the federation.

After Marsden’s resignation, Karolyi openly campaigned for the job of team coach. He appealed to Mike Jacki, but the louder he grew, the more determined the other coaches were to block him. In January the Women’s International Program Committee voted Don Peters, the veteran coach of the Los Angeles games, back into the position. Peters didn’t want the job but accepted reluctantly. When he selected his two assistants for the summer games, he did choose a member of the Houston camp. Yet it wasn’t Bela but his wife, Martha, whom Peters describes as an excellent coach. “Oh, yeah,” says Bela. “My wife, she gonna be there. She gonna stay very close behind the kids. Still, it’s not the same.”

Though Karolyi’s wild shenanigans have earned him mostly enemies in the sport, his contribution to American gymnastics cannot be denied. Karolyi has had a monopoly on the national champion for the past five years and has provided half the top American team members for the past two. His girls, first Mary Lou Retton, then Kristie Phillips and now Phoebe Mills, have kept the trophy from this country’s major international invitational meet, the McDonald’s American Cup, in Houston since 1984. Fifteen-year-old Mills, the 1988 national champ, who does part of her floor routine to the Addams Family theme song, should have the best shot at a medal at Seoul.

“People are really bitter about Bela because he gets so much media attention,” says coach Buwick, who took the Romanian and his wife into her home for a few months after they defected. “If he could work a little better with the community instead of isolating himself, he could have gymnastics in this country.” Marsden agrees: “He could have owned us.”

Aware of Bela’s potential contribution to the American effort in Seoul, not only as a coach and motivator but as an international figure with political savvy, the federation named Karolyi Olympic delegation leader. With authority over all aspects of women’s gymnastics except coaching, which was to remain under Peters, Karolyi would be going to Seoul after all.

On the steamy July day of the national championships this year, the top gymnastics coaches gathered in a Houston hotel room to air their gripes, which had been smoldering since the last Olympics. In part due to Marsden’s noisy resignation, Jacki was willing to hear the coaches out. Yet soon after it began, the discussion took a heated turn. One coach stood up and changed the subject to Bela Karolyi and his position as Olympic delegation leader. “Why do we need this guy?” he asked snidely.

Karolyi instantly resigned as delegation leader and raced out. The next day, major newspapers headlined only the news about Karolyi, not the results of the championships, which counted forty percent toward the selection of the Olympic team. It was a telling indication of how bad things had become. Jacki refused to accept the resignation. “I’ll tie him up and take him to Seoul,” he said. Karolyi understood from his negotiations with the federation that his role in Seoul, ironically enough, was to be peacemaker – to quiet the international uproar created only months before by Marsden, when he admitted he had tried to skew scores at the world competition.

Karolyi, who speaks five languages, including Russian, says, “I could be there as a mediator explaining to the people that it was just something that came out of the mouth of a maniac, that has nothing to do with reality. I might be able to clear up some of the accusations.”

Nonetheless, the stubborn Karolyi didn’t want that role unless he could be Olympic coach. He wanted only to be on the floor with his athletes. “I know they need me,” Karolyi says. “And it is not something I am guessing about. If my support is missing, they are in a big handicap. This is a nightmare that cannot be resolved. Nothing will be changed.”

At the Olympic trials in early August, three of the six gymnasts who won places on the Olympic team came from Karolyi’s gym (national champ Phoebe Mills, Chelle Stack and Brandy Johnson), as did both alternates (Rhonda Faehn and Kristie Phillips). If anyone has a chance for an Olympic medal, it is Mills, a lean, handsome girl who performed exuberantly throughout the trials.

Besides having the top gymnast, Bela also benefited from Don Peters’s misfortune. Peters’s two best gymnasts, Sabrina Mar, who was last year’s Pan Am champion, and Doe Yamashiro, had to withdraw from the competition because of injuries. Peters, who had five athletes on the 1984 squad, ended up without a single gymnast on the Olympic team.

When the results were final, Karolyi and Peters held dueling press conferences. Karolyi campaigned for the job of Olympic coach, citing his overwhelming representation on the team.Peters, who drew a much smaller crowd, vowed he wouldn’t give the position up. It had become a matter of pride. But to insiders, it seemed entirely possible that the federation would pressure Peters to resign and then install Karolyi. Indeed, two days later, Peters announced he was off the team. It was the third heated resignation in ten months. At press time, the USGF was still trying to appease everyone. It announced that no one would be named to replace Peters, that the delegation would head to the games without a leader, with each athlete handled by her personal coach. The coaches were to share the two passes for the competition floor.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the struggle, the athletes look on with disgust. Says coach Buwick, “Kelly [Garrison-Steves] thinks it’s a shame – and so do I – that they can’t find common ground to work on. That’s the federation’s problem.”

“There are a lot of egos in our sport,” says Kurt Thomas. “They should come off their high horses and work together to make the team we once had. I don’t really understand what’s going on.”

Paralyzed by the continuing trouble – the power plays, the fight over corporate dollars, the runaway bureaucracy – the women’s gymnastic team limps into Seoul. Even Mary Lou Retton, who is rarely given to be negative about anything, admits there will be no Mary Lou this year. 

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