Gymnastics Doctor Sex Abuse Scandal: Did the Legendary Karolyi Coaches Turn a Blind Eye?
For more than 35 years, the names Bela and Martha Karolyi have been synonymous with elite American gymnastics. The duo — who defected from Romania in 1981 — have coached legends from Mary Lou Retton to Kerri Strug, and Martha oversaw both the 2012 and 2016 gold-medal winning teams.
Young gymnasts dreaming of Olympic gold knew there was only one place to go if they wanted to earn their place on the Olympic team: Karolyis Camp.
The secluded ranch in the Sam Houston National Forest is now under scrutiny as several former gymnasts have come forward to allege that former team doctor Larry Nassar sexually abused them on the property. John Manly, a California attorney, is representing three former gymnasts who are accusing the Karolyis and USA Gymnastics of failing to protect them.
“The story here is that no one was watching to protect these girls. And they put medals and money first,” Manly told 60 Minutes for a segment that aired last Sunday. “It was an environment of fear. And [Nassar] stepped in and became the good guy.”
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Karolyis Camp has been the designated Olympic Training Site for the USA women’s national gymnastics team. According to their website, gymnasts sleep in cedar log cabins with air conditioning, bathrooms, and showers inside. Jeanette Antolin, one of the three gymnasts Manly represents, told 60 Minutes Nassar sexually abused her while they were alone in one of the cabins. Jamie Dantzscher, who won a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics, said the same — and claims the Karolyis knew Nassar was alone in the cabins with the girls.
“They had to know. I mean, there — there was no one else sent with him. And that’s the thing, too, to think, like– what– they– in– in the bed? Why would you– like, the treatment was in the bed, in my bed that I slept on at the ranch,” she said.
The Karolyis Respond
Attorneys for the Karolyis provided the following statement to PEOPLE about the charges against them: “We are ethically limited to how we can respond due to the pending litigation. However, the Karolyis vehemently deny the allegations made against them – including that they physically abused gymnasts and deprived them of food. The Karolyis did not have any knowledge of any complaint from anyone concerning any athlete’s alleged mistreatment by Dr. Nassar until they learned of his dismissal from USA Gymnastics during the summer of 2015. At the National Training Camp, the Karolyis encouraged the attending athletes to eat well, sleep well, and train with heart. The Karolyis deny the existence of a “toxic” environment. In addition, the Karolyis were never aware that Dr. Nassar would be performing any procedures which are now the subject of the present litigation. Finally, the Karolyis will not offer an opinion on any complaining athlete’s veracity considering the pending litigation.”
In 2012, Today‘s Natalie Morales spent time at Karolyi’s Camp and spoke to Bela Karolyi about why he and his wife have run the ranch since 1981 — and say the focus there is on team building.
“It’s absolutely the number one goal since we have this training center,” Martha Karolyi told Today.
Gabby Douglas spoke to Morales for the piece, and admitted the atmosphere at the elite camp can feel intense — especially at first.
“I was so nervous I started crying because I was all alone,” she said. “Just talking to my mom on the pay phone I was like, ‘Mom, I’m so alone!’ ”
Although many gymnasts have spoken favorably of their experience with the Karolyis — with the gold medal-winning 2016 Olympic team even dubbing themselves the “Final Five” to honor Martha, who retired after the Rio Olympics — others have spoken out about the alleged abuses they suffered under the exacting coaches.
Dominique Moceanu, who brought home gold in the 1996 Olympics, has repeatedly spoken about about alleged abuses. Last year the former gymnast told PEOPLE that “the methods they used of threats and body shaming and humiliation as a tactic to motivate you to perform better, or calling you names of being fat or overweight were methods of physiological and emotional abuse. That does not create success for athletes.”
Sports Illustrated legal expert Michael McCann tells PEOPLE that the Karolyis could potentially be at fault for negligent supervision if it’s believed they created an environment of fear at the ranch.
“If the Karolyis, through actions or omissions, created a culture of fear and that deterred children from feeling capable of coming forward with injuries they suffered … that goes to the issue of negligence,” he says.
McCann said whether the Karolyis could be found at fault hinges on the “quality of evidence in terms of key legal factors.”
“One would be the extent of their supervision and their control of Nassar: How much did they know? If they had knowledge and did nothing, that would be there worst. If they didn’t know but should have known, that could be considered negligent,” he says.
Mitchell Garbedian, a lawyer who represented thousands of victims of priest sexual abuse (and was portrayed by Stanley Tucci in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight) tells PEOPLE that the case against the Karolyis has echoes of the case against Cardinal Bernard Law with the Archdiocese of Boston, and the Penn State coaching staff that was believed to have overlooked accusations against coach Jerry Sandusky.
“Institutions unfortunately are more interested in their bottom line and profit than protecting children,” he says.
Garabedian adds that many sexual abuse victims blame themselves and do not feel comfortable coming forward with allegations of abuse.
“Many sexual abuse victims have a harder time dealing with supervisors,” he says. “When a child is sexually abused the child feels he or she did something wrong — they feel they can’t tell anyone or will be reprimanded. That’s [often] why victims of sexual abuse can’t come forward for decades until they are emotionally able to cope with it.”