September 12, 1988 12:00 PM

If I have access and I can help the athletes, I be there. I don’t go over there to monkey around, and I don’t go overdoing politics, I don’t go to Seoul to watch. Period.—Bela Karolyi

Four summers ago, a smitten nation looked on in wonder as a twinkly, muscular sprite named Mary Lou Retton twirled, vaulted and flipped her way into America’s heart, winning the Olympic gold medal in women’s all-around gymnastics. At her side was a bearlike immigrant named Bela Karolyi, a coach who knew what it took to win because he had been there before—eight years before, to be precise, when he had guided a Rumanian team, and its supple marvel Nadia Comaneci, to their own Olympic triumphs in Montreal.

Now Karolyi, 47, is at it again. In a gym on the outskirts of Houston, he is putting his newest crop of mobile moppets through their paces, in search of perfection. Five tiny, sweaty, lithely muscled teenage girls stand in line, and as one little dynamo steps onto the mat, Karolyi’s booming voice seems to propel her toward the vault. “Go!” he roars in his heavy Rumanian accent. “Go, go, go!” By this he means, “Do even better than your best.” If a girl performs badly, he scowls and calls her a “dead frog.” If she does well, he’ll pat her on the head. But only when the performance is flawless will one of his charges receive the perfectionist’s famous bear hug. It is in hope of one of those embraces—the Karolyi equivalent of Olympic gold—that these girls go to the mat again and again, eight hours a day, six days a week, until they get a routine the way Bela wants it.

This relentlessly demanding style has made Karolyi the most successful, the most controversial and, arguably, the most respected coach in his sport. At the Olympic trials in Salt Lake City last month, Karolyi’s gainly minions catapulted into four of the seven slots on the U.S. women’s team, while another pupil, Kristie Phillips, is an unofficial alternate. Next week Karolyi’s kids—overall U.S. champion Phoebe Mills, Chelle Stack, Brandy Johnson and alternate Rhonda Faehn—will lead the American challenge against the favored Rumanians and Soviets. And they will be competing under the stern eye of a coach who almost missed making the team.

The latest in a long line of Karolyi squabbles began last January when the United States Gymnastics Federation passed him over and, as it had in 1984, named his California rival Don Peters as the head U.S. coach. Though Karolyi claims he never wanted the job for himself, he did want to be an assistant, since only coaches and assistants are allowed on the floor during Olympic competition. Closeness to his girls—and to the TV cameras—is important to Karolyi, and when Peters didn’t pick him to be an assistant, Karolyi vowed he wouldn’t go to Seoul at all. Knowing that his presence would be reassuring to his athletes and might keep the testy East European judges on their toes, federation head Mike Jacki offered Karolyi a ceremonial title. He accepted—until he learned that he still couldn’t appear on the floor. “What?” bellowed Bela. “Go over and stand in some bleachers and try to wave to my girls who can’t even see me?” The translation was “No!”

The point was made moot after five of Karolyi’s gymnasts won at the trials and not one of Peters’ athletes made the team. Battle weary, Peters quit. Jacki then announced that there would be no titular coach—and said that anybody with a participating student would have access to the floor. If coaches were awarded points, Karolyi would have walked away from the fracas with a 10.

Throughout his astonishingly successful career, Karolyi has been beset by charges that he is both a Svengali and a publicity-mad egotist. His disputes with the federation have fueled those accusations. Yet Karolyi, whose drooping mustache and wide face give him the demeanor of a fuzzy walrus, seems unfazed by the furor. Relaxing in his gymnasium office, surrounded by press clippings about his triumphs, a signed photograph from President Reagan and a concessionaire’s cabinet from which he sells sweatshirts, autograph books and his gymnastics video, he insists that his critics are just jealous. They have been, he says, ever since he defected in 1981, a year after his Rumanian team won the silver medal in Moscow. “When I came over here, they said I’d give the girls hormones or make them starve or turn them into robots,” he says with his usual bluster, arms waving. “That’s stupid. The coaches don’t like me because I criticized their safe mediocrity, showing them you have to push hard and sacrifice if you are going to achieve something special. All I offer is my own honest hard work, which I invest in the kids.”

He dismisses the thought that he craves publicity. “Holy cat,” he protests in his fractured English, a Rumanian version of Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy. “Hey, the only reason the media watches me is that I’m the one producing. Guys, if you want to take my place, produce.” As for the notion that his coveted bear hugs are a form of grandstanding, that makes Karolyi really mad. “If one of my kids is perfect, sure, I’m going to give her a big old hug,” he says. “They’re working their little butts off, so why should I play the cold stone?”

Whatever price he exacts, Karolyi’s Olympians are devoted to him. “He knows how to motivate and inspire you,” says Phoebe Mills, 15, who moved with her mother to Houston five years ago to train with him. If the girls feel manipulated, they don’t seem to mind. Says Rhonda Faehn, 17, “He knows how to push us past our limit.” The 1987 national champion Kristie Phillips, 16, did leave Karolyi in January, after a couple of losses, and bolted to Peters’ gym, but she returned in May, feeling she was losing her competitive strength. “It’s the intensity that stands out with Bela,” Kristie says. Chelle Stack, barely 15, has another reason for admiring her mentor. “He knows lots of people,” she says. “He can get us Michael Jackson tickets.”

It was Karolyi’s obsessive hatred of failure that got him involved in gymnastics in the first place. Raised in Transylvania, the son of a civil engineer, Bela helped herd cattle, worked the family farm and became a top discus thrower and hammer thrower in school. He didn’t pay much attention to gymnastics until he flunked that course at 18 while attending the five-year Physical Education University. “I was this macho player, feeling I was good in everything,” Karolyi says. “When I flunked, it became a challenge. It’s a sport that brings you down to earth, and your ego has to go away. All you have is your own body, and it can be a torture to try and make it perfect.” While perfecting his body and making the college gymnastics team, Karolyi fell in love with Marta Eross, another gymnast. After graduation, the two married and started teaching gymnastics. In 1968 they founded their own school and by 1971 were producing champions.

Karolyi and Marta defected in New York at the end of a 1981 exhibition tour. He says he was sick of being hassled by Rumanian bureaucrats. “They followed me everywhere and were trying to make me give speeches about how the Communist system, with its discipline and its sports program, created the great athletes,” he says. “But what about my contribution?” With a little money they had saved, the Karolyis flew to California. Unable to find a top coaching job right away, Bela loaded freight on the Long Beach docks and swept floors in restaurants. Later that year a friend helped him get a coaching position at the University of Oklahoma, where daughter Andrea, then 7, was allowed to join her parents. In 1982, Bela was asked to start a gym in Houston. With Marta as his partner, he advertised by tacking posters on trees. Within a year, Retton, then 14, joined him as a pupil.

Once the 4′ 9″ Mary Lou became America’s shortest pop icon since Lassie, Karolyi had no need to state his case on tree trunks. Today he has eight assistants, more than 600 students and maintains a contemporary-style home in Houston, plus a 50-acre ranch an hour away in New Waverly. He bulldozed the property himself, helped build the cedar log cabin and has populated the ranch with goats, deer, horses, pheasants, 20 beagles and 50 head of cattle. When he finishes coaching at 9 in the evening, Karolyi heads out to the ranch, feeds his livestock and dabbles in taxidermy, often until 4 a.m. “He’s a workaholic who can get by on four hours’ sleep,” says Marta. “He just loves that land so much.” Recently he built a gym and three cabins for his girls to stay in on weekends. Now they can practice seven days a week.

This will be Karolyi’s fifth Olympics, and he is already planning for the 21st century. He begins training some would-be Olympians when they are as young as 2, and it is with these very young children that his missionary streak is revealed. “When they come in, hiding behind their mama’s skirt, they’re so cute,” says Karolyi. “When they get older they start feeling like the lady, but the little ones look at you and eat you up with their little eyes.”

As his current Olympic contenders prepare to resume their afternoon workout, Karolyi stands, waiting ominously, at the balance beam. In another room, the girls’ mothers and curious onlookers observe the session through a window. Carrol Stack, Chelle’s mother, watches and fidgets as her daughter takes the first of her turns for the maestro. “Bela knows what to get out of the girls,” she says. “As a mother, you want to go out and kill him sometimes. It’s hard to hear your daughter screamed at, kicked out of practice and reduced to tears. It’s hard to watch someone come down on your child like that. But it has to be done. He doesn’t want good; he wants a 10. And if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right.”

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