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.
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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.
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