No two people have loomed larger over U.S. gymnastics than Bela and Martha Karolyi. The coaches have been credited with leading the national team to dominance on the world gymnastics stage. But their legacy is complicated by questions about their training methods and their role in team doctor Larry Nassar’s predation on hundreds of young athletes.
The controversial reign of the Karolyis is the subject of a new season of ESPN’s 30 for 30 Podcasts franchise, Heavy Medals, which premiered July 14.
The seven-part series comes to listeners from ESPN journalists Bonnie D. Ford and Alyssa Roenigk, who have both spent years covering Olympic sports. The duo were a logical pairing for the project because of the breadth of their reporting experience on the Karolyis. “We bookend the Karolyis career,” Roenigk tells THR. Ford covered their 1981 defection to the U.S. from Romania while on tour with Olympian Nadia Comaneci, and Roenigk started covering Olympic sports for ESPN in the mid-2000s.
They began reporting Heavy Medals at the end of last summer and spent over six months traveling around the country to conduct more than 60 recorded interviews — and dozens of background conversations — with current and former gymnasts including Dominique Moceanu, Kerri Strug and Simone Biles, coaches, administrators and parents. Their final trip, days before the coronavirus pandemic forced many to cancel work travel, was an early March visit to the Karolyi Ranch in Houston.
While not everyone agreed to be interviewed, Ford says the timing was right for a deep-dive into the Karolyis and their careers, because the Nassar story had prompted people in the gymnastics world to start “thinking about these issue, thinking about responsibility and accountability and how things can and should change going forward.”
The duo say that their interview subjects had a range of perspectives on the Karolyis. The question they wanted to answer, Ford says, was, “If they were really so cruel and abusive, why did so many athletes seem to perform so well under their tenure?”
Heavy Medals takes listeners back to the very beginning of the Karolyis’ story, to their work with Comaneci at the 1976 Olympics when she scored a perfect 10. It then charts their defection to the U.S., their work with Mary Lou Retton and how her performance at the 1984 Olympics helped usher in a wave of gymnastics fever across the country. From there, it looks at the U.S. women’s team’s disappointing showing at the Atlanta Games, Martha’s turn in the spotlight and, finally, the Nassar allegations that emerged in 2016 and how they impacted the legacy of the Karolyis.
The podcast doesn’t just tell the story of the Karolyis as a couple but also Bela and Martha as individuals. Roenigk notes that their reporting uncovered “the extent to which his origin story was mythology.” She continues, “Learning some of that early on in our reporting, we kept thinking, ‘if the foundation is cracked, it changes the way you look at the rest of their stories.’ We made a decision to uncover a lot of that early on [in the podcast].” Ford adds that Martha was much more of “a cipher” and that they devoted much of their reporting to “piecing together what made her tick.”
Ford and Roenigk made an effort to construct a podcast that would be informative and engaging for both knowledgeable gymnastics fans and people who tune in every four years during the Olympics. “There’s a lot that translates to youth sport in general, not just Olympic sport,” says Ford. “Anyone who has a child in their life who is a high achiever and [knows] what it takes to be excellent starting at a young age, any of those folks are going to be able to relate to some of the reporting here.”
As they think on the last few years in U.S. gymnastics, Ford and Roenigk say they hope Heavy Medals is part of a larger move toward accountability, particularly in making competitive sports like gymnastics healthier for young athletes. Ford notes that, with the Olympics on hold due to the pandemic, “One of the things I really hope comes in general from this pause that we’re in is a reboot and a rethink of how international sports work and how much of a voice and input athletes have in their own working conditions.”