An Update on Nassar’s Abuse: Martha and Bela Karolyi

So much has happened over the past month. Former and current heads of USAG, USOC, and MSU have testified before Congress, even more details about who knew what and when have emerged, and we are starting to work towards a path to hold the enablers of Larry Nassar accountable.

I’m splitting up this update between the main players this month, first starting with Martha and Bela Karolyi. Let’s have a bit of a recap:

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Martha (left) and Bela (right) are two of the most famous coaches in the sport.

Bela and Martha Karolyi are heralded as one of the legends of the sport of women’s gymnastics. Bela famously coached the Romanian National Team in the 1970s, including Nadia Comaneci, the first gymnast to score a perfect ten. After immigrating to the US, they coached many American greats including Mary Lou Retton, Betty Okino, Kim Zmeskal, Kerri Strug, and Dominique Moceanu. Both retired following the 1996 Olympics, where the American women won their first Olympic team gold medal.

In 2000, Bela was (controversially) hired as the National Team Coordinator prior to the Olympic Trials because the women’s program was not producing the results expected by USA Gymnastics. In 2001, Martha became the NTC and implemented the de-centralized system that has contributed to the success of the American program. Each month, training camps were held at the Karolyi Ranch; this was also the location for the selection camps prior to World and Olympic championships. The Ranch is also the location where many gymnasts were abused by Larry Nassar.

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To be clear, this was absolutely Martha’s program. She was in charge of the teams that went on to become some of the most successful and dominant in the history of the sport. Many former athletes allege that Martha controlled their food, weight, training programs, and did not allow chaperones. Following the 2016 Olympics, Martha and Bela quietly retired. They have remained silent as multiple lawsuits have been filed against the couple, many alleging mental, emotional and physical abuse at the Ranch.

Last month Martha and Bela finally broke the silence on their role in Nassar’s abuse (“It wasn’t us! We are victims too!”) in an interview with Dateline, as well as in written testimonies and lawsuits.

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I can only imagine this to be Martha’s reaction.

The NBC News Dateline Interview

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In late April NBC News interviewed a number of survivors (Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney), parents (the Nichols’, the Raismans’) and Bela and Martha Karolyi for a Dateline special on Nassar’s abuse.

In the interview, Martha (and Bela) continue their “Whaaaa? We were just little coaches who just worked with coaches and maybe selected teams!” narrative:

“In their Dateline interview, the Karolyis said they didn’t know of Nassar’s abuse. Martha Karolyi said she ‘never, ever (heard), not one single complaint’ about the doctor.

‘I heard during the testimonies that some of the parents were in the therapy room with their own child and Larry Nassar was performing this,’ Martha Karolyi said. ‘And the parent couldn’t see. How I could see?’

‘The whole gymnastics community couldn’t recognize this,’ she added. ‘Everybody said Larry Nassar is a good doctor, Larry Nassar is a good guy.'”

The issue here (again) is the lack of accountability. Sure, Martha and Bela may have not known that Nassar was abusing gymnasts in their home–even though he was the only adult allowed in the personal rooms of the athletes during camps–but it is the culture of abuse that enabled him to hurt so many gymnasts. The Karolyi Ranch is isolated, with minimal cell phone service and lacks even the most basic of medical facilities (the “massage room” was a table in a TV room); chaperones were not allowed at camps or competitions. Martha was a very intense NTC who was notorious for creating pressure-filled situations, controlling of food and the weight of the athletes, and also lacked empathy for injuries; this allowed Nassar to groom gymnasts into trusting him while also protecting Martha’s abusive environment:

“While the Americans became the world’s most dominant team under the Karolyis, winning 97 world championship and Olympic medals, some have said their exacting standards fostered an atmosphere in which gymnasts and their coaches were afraid to speak up. It was that culture that allowed Nassar to prey on young gymnasts, some have said.

‘Larry acted like our friend. He always had a sympathetic ear for complaints about our coaches,’ [Jordyn] Wieber said Wednesday during an appearance before a Senate subcommittee investigating sexual abuse in the Olympic movement. ‘He would bring us food, candy and coffee at the Olympics when we were hungry. I didn’t know that these were all grooming techniques that he used to manipulate and brainwash me into trusting him.'”

In the interview, Bela states that while he was abusive toward gymnasts in Romania, he “never” verbally or physically abused American athletes. Although many gymnasts over the past twenty years have stated otherwise.

The Karolyis also said that they had hoped to use the Ranch now as a place for orphaned children, but because of Nassar’s abuse and the stigma now on the location, they will not be able to become foster parents.

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This is just so, ugh, that I can’t even comment on how ridiculous of a statement it is, furthering their continued lack of empathy AND responsibility in the health of their former athletes; they would rather be seen as victims than own up to the fact that they did not protect the gymnasts that trained there. The entire interview can be seen here.

Karolyis File Lawsuit Against USA Gymnastics & USOC

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Martha Karolyi (left) consoles Sabrina Vega (right) after she was not chosen to make the 2012 Olympic Team.

This April the Karolyis filed a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee claiming damages over the canceled sale of the ranch to USAG, as well as stating they were not a responsible party for Larry Nassar’s abuse that occurred at their home over the past fifteen years.

The Ranch has been used as a training center by USA Gymnastics since 2000, and the organization was set to purchase the compound for more than $3 million after Martha Karolyi retired as National Team Coordinator in 2016. USAG canceled this purchase most notably after 2016 gold medalist Simone Biles stated on Twitter that she would not like to return to the site of her abuse. Current USAG CEO Kerry Perry may take credit for shutting down the Ranch, but the fact of the matter is that if Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, refuses to attend training sessions, you have to discontinue using that location, regardless of whatever purchase is in the works.

USA gymnastics to drop the Karolyi ranch for training camps after Simone Biles said going back to it would traumatize her

Simone’s tweet that closed the Ranch.

 

In addition to the “stigma” that Nassar’s abuse has brought to the Karolyi Ranch, their lawsuit also contends that the location was simply used as a training center by USAG and the USOC, thereby clearing the couple of any responsibility:

“The lawsuit seeks a declaration that Nassar was not subject to the Karolyis’ control, that he was subject to USA Gymnastics’ control and that the plaintiffs did not have knowledge of his sexual misconduct until 2016.

The lawsuit the Karolyis and their businesses filed against USA Gymnastics and the USOC seeks indemnification ‘as they were serving another corporation (USAG) at the request of USOC, and they were made party to litigation because of that relationship.'”

This lawsuit directly contradicts their 2017 deposition, which claimed the couple did not know about the abuse until 2016; this lawsuit states they were informed by USAG CEO Steve Penny in 2015.

It is important to note that there are three current lawsuits filed against the Karolyis by former national team athletes. The lawsuits contend that the couple physically abused gymnasts, withheld food and water during training camps, and created a culture of abuse that allowed Nassar’s abuse to occur. Former National Team Member, 2011 Team World Champion, and current UGA gymnast Sabrina Vega is the latest athlete to come forward. Her lawsuit was filed last month.

Martha is “too ill” to Testify to Congress

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Last week former USAG CEO Steve Penny, former MSU President Lou Anna Simon, former USAG Vice-President of the Women’s Program Rhonda Faehn, former USOC President Scott Blackmun, and former USAG NTC Martha Karolyi were scheduled to appear at a hearing before the United States Senate. Citing illness, Martha stated she was unable to attend. Unlike Simon and Penny, the Senate did not subpoena Karolyi to appear (why not?!)

Because she was too “ill” to appear before the Senate, Martha was allowed to submit a letter to the committee where she completely sidesteps any responsibility regarding protecting athletes from abuse:

“As the National Team Coordinator, my primary durites were confined to the gymnasium. I did not have any policy-making authority for USA Gymnastics or USOC. Nor was I ever consulted on sexual abuse prevention policies or hiring decsions. USA Gymnastics hired Larry Nassar to provide medical services to the US Women’s National Gymnastics Team.”

In her letter, Martha also advocates for requiring chaperones to camps and competitions, which is laughable considering she did not allow parents of athletes at the Ranch or during competitions.

In retaliation for her lack of appearance before the Senate, many former gymnasts have shared their stories of abuse at the hands of Martha:

  • 1999 Wold Team Member Jeanette Antolin: “When I was sick as an athlete, I was still expected to practice, compete, and see Larry Nassar for treatment.”
  • 2013 Junior National Elite Norah Flatley: “Yeah but when my feet were broken I was still required to come train at her Ranch. Lol ‘too sick’.”
  • 2015 US National Team Member Rachel Gowey: “Lol when I had an asthma attack for like 2 days in the middle of nowhere, my inhaler wasn’t working and she still made me verify a full floor routine when I couldn’t breathe…”
  • 2010 World Team Member Mattie Larson: “I was willing to physically hurt myself to get out of the abuse that I received at the ranch. When I attended the next camp Martha Karolyi approached me and said, ‘You know what? Kim Zmeskal fell out of the top bunk of the cabins in here and she didn’t miss practice the next day. She did not say another word to me the rest of the camp.”

The United States Senate needs to require both Martha and Bela to testify, especially after their conflicting narratives were discovered and former USAG CEO Steve Penny chose to plead the fifth during the committee hearing.

Nassar might be in jail, but the people that enabled him to abuse so many athletes remain free. They need to be held accountable.

Ashlyn

Currently Reading: Things We Haven’t Said by Erin E. Moulton