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How Are Gymnastics' Most Famous Couple, The Karolyis, Connected To Sex Abuser Larry Nassar?

The Karolyis have trained some of the most prominent athletes in the history of gymnastics. But in both "At The Heart Of Gold" and "Athlete A" their reputation is under fire.

By Connor Mannion & Eric Shorey
Martha & Bela Karolyi

How did Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics doctor who will spend the rest of his life in prison after being convicted for decades of sexual abuse, manage to get away with molesting young athletes for so long? 

This is precisely the question that documentaries like Erin Lee Carr's, "At The Heart Of The Gold," and Netflix’s newly released “Athlete A” explore.

As key players involved in what may amount to a cover-up are examined, many wonder what role the legendary Karolyis, a famous duo of coaches who trained several Olympic gold medalists, may have played in Nassar's crimes. Who are Béla and Martha Karolyi and what did they know about Nassar before he was caught?

Béla Karolyi hails from Cluj, the capital of Transylvania, according to a 2008 article in The Rocky Mountain News. Béla had been a relatively prolific champion boxer and Olympic-level hammer thrower — but it was his introduction to Martha that actually got him interested in gymnastics, according to The Guardian. Béla helped coach Martha to success in Romania and the two were married in 1963. The duo established a boarding school for young gymnasts in Oneşti, where several prominent athletes were trained — including Nadia Elena Comăneci, who is famously the first ever gymnast to receive a perfect score at the Olympic Games, according to the Rocky Mountain News.

Béla found himself in skirmishes with the Romanian authorities, who suspected they may defect to another country. The government's hunch wasn't wrong, and the two ultimately sought asylum in the United States after slipping away during a gymnastics tour.

"It was the day President Reagan was shot," Martha told The Rocky Mountain News. "By the time we were able to get through the phone lines, the secret police knew that we hadn't returned. They cut the connection. We couldn't get in touch with anybody."

The two survived in poverty in California until they got coaching jobs in Texas. When their student, Mary Lou Retton, scored Olympic gold in 1984, the two were returned to a position of grace within the sport. The pair were even welcomed back to Romania in 1993 as heroes, the local outlet reports.

However, under scrutiny amidst several investigations in the wake of the Nassar trials, the Karolyis have had to deny that practices they used to train their gymnasts were abusive. When discussing the Nassar case with NBC’s Dateline in April 2018, the two were interrogated about their own training regiments.

“OK, verbally, definitely not abusive. Emotionally, it depends on the person. You have to be a strong person to even handle the pressure," Martha said.

“I never touched anybody. And if anybody comes up with that one, that's a dirty lie," Béla added.

Although many still regard the two as icons in the industry, their reputation has further been questioned as victims of Nassar's push for charges to be filed against them. Nassar had seen several of the Karolyis’ trainees as a doctor through USA Gymnastics, according to NBC News.

In “Athlete A,” interviewees speculate that the tough environment at the Karolyi Ranch allowed Nassar to easily prey on victims. Gymnast Maggie Nichols, the central figure in the documentary, recounts how she was abused by Nassar at the ranch — and how USA Gymnastics leadership ultimately did not report the abuse to authorities.

“He was kind, he was funny, he made them laugh … he engendered trust in all these young women,” Nichols attorney John Manly tells the documentary. 

“You know these kids go to these national training centers when they are 10 years old,” former gymnast Jennifer Sey said in “Athlete A.” “They are abused and mistreated for years, so even when they come of age, the line between tough coaching and child abuse gets blurred.”

Sey goes on to speculate many of the athletes probably internalized the abuse for fear of being ostracized from the sport or their coaches, especially considering the environment at the Karolyi Ranch.

Attorneys for some of the athletes who were victimized by Nassar say that the Karolyis violated child protection laws by not alerting police to Nassar's behavior when they allegedly became aware of it in 2015, NBC News reports. Nassar had been fired and reassigned from his clinical positions with the USAG in 2016, but complaints had been lodged against him since 2014, according to SB Nation.

The Texas Rangers had opened an investigation into what happened at the ranch. But victims claimed the state wasn't doing enough work on the matter, noting that a special prosecutor was appointed in Michigan — but not in Texas, according to CNN.

In May 2018, a group of athletes held a meeting outside of Attorney General Ken Paxton's office in Austin, Texas, demanding action be taken against the couple.

"I can't understand why this is not taken seriously in Texas right now," Jamie Dantzscher, an Olympic bronze medal gymnast who was abused by Nassar told NBC News.

The Texas Rangers, meanwhile, defended their efforts.

"They are interviewing and looking at evidence along with potential offenses," said prosecutor Stephanie Stroud of the Walker County district attorney's office to CNN. "This is a big task. It is multifaceted, and it spans a long period of time and that's why the investigation is taking time."

In legal documents, the Karolyis maintain that they were not aware misconduct allegations against Nassar meant sexual abuse accusations until the news went public in 2016: "The Karolyis first learned of the exact nature of Nassar's conduct leading to his dismissal — e.g. allegations of sexual misconduct — sometime after the 2016 Summer Olympics," they wrote in a suit against USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee, in which it claimed the two organizations wrongfully canceled plans to purchase their ranch after Nassar's arrest, citing the "breaches of contract and duties owed to plaintiffs which have resulted in severe damages to plaintiffs' reputation, health, and real property," according to CNN.

But contradictory testimony from Martha indicates she may have known earlier. 

In a video of 2017 deposition released by John Manly, a lawyer representing several of Nassar's victims, Martha indicates that she was aware that some athletes said Nassar had molested them as early as 2015. The video shows lawyers objecting to the question as Martha offered this answer. Her lawyers continue to claim she misunderstood the question.

Manly notes in a press conference featured near the end of “Athlete A” that Martha would have been required by Texas law to report any allegations of child abuse she received, like the one Nichols reported in 2015. 

In 2018, former USA Gymnastics president and CEO Steve Penny was charged with covering up sexual abuse at the Karolyi Ranch, according to The New York Times

But by June 2018, the Karolyis were officially cleared of any wrongdoing, according to USA Today. The investigation ultimately concluded it was USA Gymnastics to blame for failing to protect its athletes and characterized the organization as a "total failure."

The investigators interviewed the Karolyis extensively but ultimately found “no corroborated evidence of criminal conduct," according to Stroud.

Meanwhile, the Karolyis continue to face suits from several athletes who claim they didn't do enough to prevent Nassar from abusing them. Their ranch was permanently closed in January 2018, according to “Athlete A,” and the Karolyis’ suit against USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Commission over the canceled sale of the ranch is ongoing, USA Today previously reported.

"The Karolyi Defendants were responsible for the Ranch and allowed Nassar to be alone in cabins with ... gymnasts which allowed him to sexually abuse them," reads a 2018 filed by gymnast Sabrina Vega, according to NBC News. "Upon information and belief, the Karolyi Defendants turned a blind-eye to Nassar’s sexual abuse of Vega and other children."

The Karolyis' attorney has not offered a comment on the suit. In 2020, the Karolyis do not face any current charges. Penny has pleaded not guilty to charges and is currently free on bond while his case continues, according to the Indianapolis Star.

"At The Heart Of The Gold" is available to stream on HBO’s platforms. “Athlete A” is available to stream on Netflix

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