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Heard on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson

How Legendary Gymnastics Coaches Fostered Abusive Culture, Larry Nassar

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Image credit: Courtesy of ESPN 30 for 30

For almost 40 years, Bela and Martha Karolyi defined American gymnastics. A new ESPN 30 for 30 podcast examines how the couple’s coaching style enabled abusers like Larry Nassar.

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ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 podcast “Heavy Medals” is a seven-part series on the Karolyis reign of U.S. Women’s Gymnastics.

With the incredible outpouring of testimony of gymnasts from all over the world, we’ve seen that [abuse] is something that is endemic in the sport.”— Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN

The podcast includes shocking revelations about how Karolyis embraced and possibly turned a blind eye to the longtime USA Gymnastics team doctor and Michigan State University physician Larry Nassar as he sexually abused hundreds of victims at their training ranch near Houston. 


Listen: ESPN reporters on the physical and mental toll of the Karolyi coaching style. 


Guests

Alyssa Roenigk is an ESPN host and reporter for “Heavy Medals.” In her conversation with Henderson, she gives an overview of the history of the Karolyis and how the Romanian duo settled in the United States in the 1980s. 

For many years [Bela] became the most famous coach in the sport, the face of the sport, and in 2001 his wife then became that person,” says Roenigk. Then for 15 years they were the national team coordinators and overseeing the entire program.

Just a month before the Indianapolis Star broke the original story, Marta Karolyi stepped down. 

I think the biggest influence was the idea of a centralized training center. That was something Bela pushed for immediately,” says Roenigk. In the podcast, it’s revealed how this training center was an underlying factor in the abuse because the centralization meant that athletes would have to return for five days each month, some for as long as ten years. 

Roenigk now hopes that the awareness that athletes, coaches, administrators, parents, and journalists have for abuse changes how all of us interact with the sport. 

Bonnie Ford is an ESPN senior writer and co-reported “Heavy Medals.” 

The Karolyis did not invent abusive culture in gymnastics,” says Ford. “With the incredible outpouring of testimony of gymnasts from all over the world, in the last few weeks, we’ve seen that this is something that is endemic in the sport.”

She says the Karolyis were known for their rigorous and high-volume training approach that led them to dominate the competitive gymnastics world. It was simply seen as the way to create champions, which is why the abuse was tolerated for so long.

Whatever roots of abusive culture existed here in the United States when they arrived, their success and their influence over other coaches, helped cement that,” says Ford. 

She names the age of athletes, the singular pathway to Olympic success, and pressure from coaches as reasons why there was fertile ground for abuse within USA Gymnastics.

Larry Nassar was a great con-man,” says Ford. “He conned entire families to thinking he was the good guy in the USA Gymnastics structure.”

This article was written by Detroit Today student producer Lauryn Azu. 

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