Bela: A Helluva Fella

Bela Karolyi sounds like Bela Lugosi and looks a bit like Josef Stalin. He's a legendary former gymnastics coach whose students included such gold-medal legends as Nadia Comeneci, Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug. Nowadays, he's become something else: NBC's most entertaining Olympic commentator.

In his intermittent and all-too-infrequent appearances, Karolyi has been a wild man. He rants, he raves, he sneers, he whoops. But he certainly doesn't bore.

He also seems like the most honest man on the air. The Chinese "women's" gymnastics team? There's no question in Karolyi's mind that several of its members are younger than the minimum age of 16. He said so on NBC on Tuesday night during the women's team final (and he's said as much in interviews). He also said he couldn't prove the claim. Then again, he added, no one could because the Chinese government has phonied up the girls' documents. Karolyi may be off his rocker, but this is far more than gymnastics announcers Al Trautwig, Tim Daggett and Elfi Schlegel have dared to say about this controversy. But Karolyi upped the ante even further. So what if the girls are underage? he asked. Why have age limits at all? Bring 'em on -- all of 'em.

I'm not sure Karolyi's right -- the age limits are supposed to protect developing bodies from the rigors of international competition -- but I do like hearing what he has to say. And the way he says it.

Karolyi isn't some disconnected observer, of course. A Romanian immigrant, he was for many years the imperious and often controversial overseer (see Joan Ryan's great expose, "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes") of America's national girls team. His wife, Marta, now runs the show; she's the grandmotherly figure in the American corner, hugging our sour-pussed sweethearts after each routine. So Bela Karolyi is a homer for the American team. The thing is, unlike Trautwig and Daggett, who seem to be rooting for Our Side, Karolyi is utterly upfront about it. "Good girls! Go for it!" he enthused on Tuesday after the Americans had won a silver medal in the team competition. Several of Karolyi's exclamations were so effusive that Bob Costas, interviewing Karolyi, had to assure viewers that Karolyi "is like this all the time."

And unlike Trautwig and Daggett, Karolyi doesn't gin up false rivalries and contrived "story lines." The silver, he said, was about what the U.S. should have expected, given its injuries and its overall performance on Tuesday.

Maybe it's a question of contrasts. NBC's coverage has been so relentlessly cheerful and saccharine (indistinguishable in tone, really, from the commercials that surround it) that Karolyi's bluntness is refreshing. In any case, Trautwig and Daggett can be excruciating to listen to. While Trautwig remains overly dramatic (a Chinese competitor once again had "the weight of 1.3 billion Chinese on his shoulders"), Daggett is overly emphatic. During the all-around men's finals last night, he offered such penetrating analyses as: "He was beyond-belief great;" "He is just sick great;" "It's gonna be awesome;" "It would be beyond belief..."; and "He's crazy good." Another athlete was "staggeringly good" while something or other rated two "unbelieveables" and two "amazings" from over-the-top Tim. Poor Elfi Schlegel. She has an insight or two to offer, but neither Tim nor Al seem to be listening to a word she says.

As for Bela, I can't say I understand everything he says (that Dracula accent can be pretty thick, especially when he gets excited and starts talking fast, which seems to be often). But I do know this: I'd love to see and hear more of him before the gymnastics girls and the Games go away.

* * *

Has Mary Carillo lost her mind? Or is she just part of an NBC conspiracy to trivialize and infantilize China for American viewers? Two nights ago, she was asking an engineer at the Three Gorges Dam if "beavers" had anything to do with building the monumental structure (haha!). Last night, in another embarrassing travelogue, she surveyed some of the country's more exotic foods. Except that most of the stuff wasn't really all that exotic (what's so weird about tripe?). At a stop at a Chinese tea house, Carillo actually started singing, "I'm a little teapot, short and stout..." Carillo's done solid, even admirable work as a tennis and golf broadcaster,and as a correspondent for the HBO magazine show, "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." In Beijing, she's supposed to be doing the light-hearted features. Message to Mary: We said "light-hearted," not "empty-headed.

By Paul Farhi  |  August 14, 2008; 3:16 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I agree wholeheartedly with Bela Karolyi. I believe he is the only person with enough nerve to voice what the entire world knows to be true: at least half the members of the Chinese "women's" gymnastics team were under the legal age limit of 16.

I also agree that Trautwig, Dagget, and Schlegel are painfully dull in their commentary. I resent the way they give American audiences false hope about U.S. athletes' chances in their respective competitions.

NBC may see Karolyi as a liability, but really, he's an asset. I just hope they have the savvy to keep Karolyi on board to commentate at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Posted by: Audrey | August 14, 2008 5:37 AM

I have always thought Mary Carillo to be a stiff and boring tennis announcer. How wrong I was! The NBC Olympic coverage has allowed us a glimpse of a side of Mary I did not know existed. She is intelligent, witty, entertaining,and having a good time. Not that many people have had tripe, the "Little Teapot" routine was gutsy, and the beaver reference to Three Gorges Dam was lighthearted. Loosen up! If she ever comes this way I'd like to buy her a drink and let her sample the pitiful foods of PA. Dutch Country. Given a choice I'd opt for the Chinese fare sampled by Mary.

Posted by: Tom | August 14, 2008 8:14 AM

Mary Carillo is the weirdest of the NBC Olympics commentators. What's with her voice? The only thing she has going for her is that she is not the insufferable Bob Costas. To paraphrase the well-known quip from Lloyd Bentsen, "We all loved the late Jim McKay and you Bob Costas are no Jim McKay."

Posted by: Jimbo | August 14, 2008 9:13 AM

Actually, Bob Costas is one of the better least he tried to challenge President Bush in his interview.

Posted by: Henry | August 14, 2008 9:25 AM

NBC needs to get rid of Mary Carillo. Her spot of Chinese food was embarrassing and stupid. It screams, "hey white people, look how weird the Chinese are!"

Posted by: Adam | August 14, 2008 9:37 AM

I hate to be the voice of correction here, but the woman's name is Elfi, not Elsie, Schlegel.

Posted by: kdial | August 14, 2008 10:15 AM

I cannot for the life of me understand what Bela is saying. His accent, I mean. Say what?!

Posted by: Lisa | August 14, 2008 2:08 PM

Apparently the $900 million NBC spent cut into the commentators budget, as they all tend to be lousy. Too much of the time, they talk like they already know the winner without giving any information on the sport itself. Face it, most of these sports are watched by American's every 4 years. Why is one balance beam routine have a 6.0 starting and one a 6.5, and not just "because it is harder!" Give some real-time information as to why these different routines get different scores, and repeat this info. NBC starts at 8:00 and runs till midnight or later, I doubt many people stay glued to their TV that whole time.

Posted by: Mark | August 14, 2008 3:40 PM

Since I did not hear much about the gymnastic technical analysis from Bela as I expected, I can only conclude that he is trying to become an entertainer. Nothing wrong with that, just do not pretend to be an age verification expert.

Posted by: Jim | August 14, 2008 6:36 PM

whining and insinuations with proff after losing just makes him look petty and jealous.

this article has definitly put a negative association with the washingtonpost in my mind.

Posted by: robert jones | August 14, 2008 8:21 PM

this is not the first time this "helluva fella" has made an ass of himself. having been publically accused by Kristie Phillips and Erica Stokes (former olympians), that he was verbally and psychologically abusive and contributed in the girls developing eating disorders

Posted by: robert jones | August 14, 2008 8:31 PM

I'm glad to see that Bob Costas splurged this year and bought himself a $20 wig.

Posted by: Sigmond | August 14, 2008 10:02 PM

Here's a novel thought: how about stopping the boring 'fluff' commentary and use the time to show more of the actual events?

Posted by: Katie | August 14, 2008 10:09 PM

You are so right about Mary Carillo. She HAS lost her mind. Beavers, contortionists and little teapots? Holy shnikes!

Posted by: JGG | August 15, 2008 12:52 AM

Eastern Europeans often have quite a bit of passion and expression when they speak. Bella is great. Those that are offended by his enthusiasm and love of the sport, to which he has dedicated his whole life, need to get the schtick out of their donkey and loosen up. Olympians are the elite athletes of the world. If parents allow their children to compete at that level, then they should expect the child to experience intense stress caused by the focus and concentration and courage demanded of an olympian. I believe Bella trained his athletes to be able to be physically and mentally able to handle anything thrown at them. (Except of course, chairs, tables, weights....) An ancient asian saying says that when the gods expect great things of a man, they subject him to great trials and tribulations, until like gold tested in fire, he can finally handle the destiny they have planned for him. Name one great all time great athlete and I am sure they had their share of grueling training, and intense mental and psychological training.

We Americans want the easy and fast food method. What ever happened to putting "blood, sweat, and tears" into whatever we do?

Go Bella. Thanks for reminding us to have some passion and zest for life.

Posted by: Greg | August 15, 2008 2:16 AM

Bela's comments have truly been the most insightful, enthusiastic and honest of the Games, thus far. He and Mary Lou Retton have a seemingly wonderful relationship. That should quell the negative comments that he is abusive to his gymnasts. The top levels of any sports competitions require mental toughness that belies definition. If you can't handle Bela, you likely should not be in the arena. Good job, Bela!

Posted by: Dee G | August 15, 2008 8:54 AM

Im glad to see a great man like bela in the olympics making every detail entertanining but also very insightful to the average person and even gymnastic fanatic and for that i thank you bela for making gymnastics return to its original glory...and adding that extra spice to keep us on the edge of our seats after every performance...

Posted by: Juan | August 15, 2008 2:36 PM

I love the commentary by Bela! It is refreshing and honest. Any athlete (especially the elite)has to devote their life to that sport and make many sacrifices. It seems to me that some of these athletes only become disgruntled when they do not reach their gosl. Always blaming the coach!

Greg said it best!

Posted by: Martha | August 16, 2008 12:38 PM

Chinese girls look underaged?

How about Bela sounds a Bulgarian Customs Inspector?


Posted by: Bela Blah | August 16, 2008 2:31 PM

I think Bela is extremely biased.Understandably there is controversy regarding the Chinese Gymnasts age, however they have been allowed to compete by the Olympic Committee and should not have to do so constantly put down by Bela. Do we really need to hear about the issue everytime he speaks. In tonight's recent broadcast when Alicia Sacramone lost by mere points, he immediately expresses his outrage, saying this should never have happened or has been like this in any other Olympics, what the heck does he mean. He said it was unfair that the bronze was taken from this poor girl (alicia) who deserved it, and that basically the China gymnast did not deserve the spot. Saying Alicia was robbed and China should not have won the bronze. It is always sad when a gymnast loses by fractions of a point, however does this mean the gymnast who won is any less deserving. Would he be making such a big fuss if Alicia did not lose to China? The judges obviously had a different opinion is he saying they were wrong or accusing them of favoring the host nation? I feel he is extremely biased in his comments and I am surprised the network lets him get away with these comments, not that they can prevent what he says however to be fair make they could say something to support a more unbiased analysis of the games.

Posted by: Bela is Biased | August 17, 2008 10:49 PM

Bela is an idiot and he just makes us look like a bunch of whiners. The Chinese won. They decimated the US team. He needs to look in the mirror when he calls others babies. He is the biggest baby I've seen in a long time and I'm hoping NBC gets rid of him.

Posted by: tim | August 17, 2008 10:57 PM

Bela is disgusting, very unprofessional and biased. He totally violated the olimpic spirits. Big shame on him.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 17, 2008 11:38 PM

Bela looks like a fool and is biased. He looks 10 years older than his age.

Posted by: alex | August 17, 2008 11:46 PM

Bela is the biggest sour loser. Only 2 results won't make him whine -- 1) US wins 2) Romania wins. He is so biased and has no olympic spirit at all.

He's also incredibally rude and politically incorrect. Can't believe NBC kept him on the show. It might be cold but I hope it's the end of Bela's career.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 18, 2008 12:28 AM

I agree that Bela Karolyi is an annoying old man who looks much older than his age. For the first time he was totally ok with the score when the Romanian won the gold medal for floor exercise. He is biased.

Posted by: mary | August 18, 2008 10:52 AM

Yeah, he is much under aged than he looks. NBC should let Bela provide on-site commentary so we can watch how he’ll make a bigger fool of himself.

Posted by: pam | August 18, 2008 1:10 PM

He is incredibly biased, I agree.
So many of his comments have no basis to them. It seems like he didn't even pay attention to how the judges arrived at the scores but just starts to rant. He puts down gymnasts outside of the US and Romania who work equally hard to do what they do.
He needs to get over the whole vault issue. He needs to learn the meaning of the words average and difficulty. Cheng Fei had so many points deducted from her 2nd vault, but the average from her 2 vaults was higher than Alicia's because of her high difficulty and her great 1st vault.
Stop complaining Bela! You're getting on my nerves!

Posted by: Get rid of Bela | August 18, 2008 2:20 PM

Are you kidding me? Bela and his wife are the most vindictive, petty, biased people i've seen in these olympics so far.

His wife was openly mocking and denigrating the chinese team during the competition. Bela, meanwhile, wants to rewrite history by making wild accusations he can't prove. And if he can't prove it, he shouldn't be spewing his hate on national tv. It is revealing that he was all sugar and spice when it was either the US or Romanians who won.

What ever happened to innocent until proven guilty. The INTERNATIONAL judges decided what they thought was the best. The IOC and Gym federation was satisfied with proof of chinese team age. Why does NBC allow these baffoons to denigrate competiting sportsman and women, opposite that of the olympic spirit.

And Shawn Johnson is shorter than half of the chinese team. She's obviously heavier, but do not blindly attribute the slimness of the smaller chinese athletes to underage-ness. They obviously don't eat a fat filled western diet with all the growth hormones and unnaturally high protein in their food. How many research papers have come out saying western girls are reaching puberty at a much earlier age?

And about the chinese news paper reporting that one chinese gymnast was listed as 14 at some time. Well, GASP! My my, could a newspaper have made a mistake? Never!

Phil Graham is right. America is mostly a bunch of whiners, and if we don't quit whining and actually doing, we're going to be eclipse by the workaholic chinese and indians very shortly in things with much more serious consequences than sports.

The the Karolyi's are a most disgusting symptom of what's wrong in America today.

Posted by: Bela is an idiot | August 18, 2008 4:21 PM

If Bela is so good, then he should be the head of US team, and scream the bloody hell out of the US Gymnasts to win the golds. Instead, he wants to be trashy reality show commentator to give away the little remaining respects that people had for his past successes (big ???, as what sorts of abusive words or techniques had been used for his past tinted glory?) Obviously, this big mouth does want to go down to history as an aging whiner instead of a decent couch. Then again, this may be his only way for him to milk out more retirement dollars. It certainly tinted the otherwise stellar NBC Olympics coverage. GO ZAP THROUGH HIS WASTEFUL COMMENTS IN TIVO/DVR !!!

Posted by: Anonymous | August 18, 2008 5:29 PM

i agree with some of the more recent comments. karoyli is completely biased, and his whining, finger-pointing attitude makes the American team look ungracious - when the gymnasts themselves are mature and focused.

Posted by: annoyed at bela's bias | August 18, 2008 11:34 PM

Trautwig's slanted commentary goes beyond homer-ism. His insidious comments that belittle the Chinese women's accomplishment in gymnastics is unethical and amounts to little more than veiled racism. NBC has to get rid of this guy.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 19, 2008 10:25 AM

Karolyi and Trautwig make us out to be sore losers. We lost, the same judges that judged the U.S. also judged the Chinese. Why would they be biased? There is no proof of an underage conspiracy. These accusations amount to libel. It's as if the judges are biased or incompetent when they can't recognize the supremacy of US gymnastics.

By spewing this kind of biased commentary and unfounded criticism, NBC is treating the audience as though we were imbecils.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 19, 2008 10:34 AM

NBC's coverage of the gymnastics made me laugh. How could they constantly repeat accusations they could not provide proof? Isn't the whole age thing a matter for the Olympic community to decide?

The host, the commentators, and the fella Bella, all seemed a bunch of sour loosers. The sounded like crying babies whenever a score is not in favor a US athlete. What a shame!

Posted by: Mike | August 19, 2008 11:51 AM

Karolyi, both of them are losers and whiners. If whining is a sports in Olympic, they will for sure to win it.

Posted by: Jet | August 19, 2008 3:23 PM

I sincerely hope that NBC does not hire Bela as a commentator ever again. It's one thing to be patriotic and to want your country to win; it's another thing altogether to blame your country's losses on scandals and judging problems. Bela is a disgrace to the ideals of grace and professionalism.

Posted by: Annoyed at the Bela | August 19, 2008 6:07 PM

I can't believe all the poor comments that Karolyi is receiving. I enjoy his passion and he brings a lot to the commentary of gymnastics.

Posted by: John | August 20, 2008 3:42 AM

Bela is a clown. NBC is mostly entertaining and professional in its presentation, and its a shame they brought on Bela... who really belongs on either Jerry Springer, or as the 3rd voice on Monday Night Football (ala Dennis Miller). That's not really fair, Dennis Miller was actually intelligent and insightful...

Posted by: Jack | August 20, 2008 2:45 PM

They need to get rid of the useless commentators. How could they not know how there was a tiebreaker system before having to "look it up in the rulebook". WHAT A JOKE. They were hired to provide expert commentary. Instead all they did was belittle the gold medalist's accomplishment by them calling the tiebreaker "arbitrary" and "something the computer spits out". Hmm, and I certainly didn't hear the same hysterics when it happened in one of the men's events, maybe because no American medal was at stake there? Zero credibility.

Posted by: hand | August 20, 2008 3:53 PM

Interesting comments on how biased American announcers are becoming. While this is true, it is because of the audience they are trying to keep... American.

However, listen to the Chinese announcers and you will discover the same thing... Or the Swiss....Or German.... well maybe not German lol. NBC's audience is the USA. Bela is not a neutral observer since he headed up the US team for years. So what? The Chinese are now being investigated for cheating by using underage girls. These girls are fantastic gymnists, there is no doubt. But even Bela acknowledged that they were great but just underaged. The USA has several gymnists that are younger than 16 that would have beat out several girls on our team... but it was against the rules. It is not whining to point this out. In fact, it is the Chinese girls who are underage who lose out because the medals may be taken away. It is also the Chinese girls who were over 16 who didn't make the team who lose out because they will probably be too old to compete in the next Olympics.

As for judging, are any of you old enough to remember Soviet Block countries that consistently scored the US athletes too low and Eastern European athletes a little to generously. Usually, those Eastern european athletes would still have won if scored fairly, but in a cold war propoganda was important. This still happens today among countries. Both for and against the USA. The Chinese government wants Gold medals to show how great they are and how much better than Americans that the chinese perform. Why, because they are fighting to become a greater superpower than America and the Olympics for better or worse has become a place to show that they are "better" than the USA or the USA is "better" than China. Sooooo, breaking the rules for the motherland's glory and propoganda campaign only hurts the athletes, for which the games were meant to enrich.

Posted by: Greg | August 22, 2008 1:29 PM

To Greg: Save your breath for the American petitioned so called "age investigation". China has submitted enough paperwork to satisfy both FIG and IOC before the game. There is nothing further that they need to provide other than resubmitting the same paperwork. It's not fair or proper to ask for different additional age paperwork than other countries including US provided. If you can not shake off the fact that US team did not win all the gold medals in women’s gymnasts, then get use to it. USA simply is not, and will not dominating the Olympics sports, world economy, international politics, and military war fares like last 20 years. Case in point, Russia may seem to be bullying a small country like Georgia, then again who had a great idea to point US missiles to Russia from Poland, and other Russian neighbors even before this invasion? Now, Russia responded forcefully, but wrongfully. What can US do about it? NOTHING. So get real, people have to recognize the still formidable Russia superpower, and emerging China superpower. You are right about not mixing sports and politics, but your very assumption that American sponsored "age investigation" should expose underage issues in Chinese team proved your implicit US imperialism. If this is a big issue, then I do not see other major nations file petitions to IOC. Save your world police attitude, the sooner we realize to share world stage with other great powers, the better we will be. Otherwise, we will be ended up like former imperial power, Britain, in the history book. We do not see that British barking much these days. As far as Bella, and his wife, they should be shut up judging from all the negative comments from everywhere. After all, they have contributed close to zero as far as the recent US woman’s gymnastic successes. Let us see who trained Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, our beloved gold medalists. Not some Romanian have-been couches.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 22, 2008 2:51 PM

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