In the Loop

Bela Karolyi, shootin' from the hip

Posted at 11:17 AM on August 13, 2008 by Jeff Horwich (17 Comments)

I'll bet NBC is getting more than they bargained for when they enlisted former U.S. gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi as a commentator! Anybody else noticing this?

No surprise he's partisan -- his wife now runs the team. But it's almost jaw-dropping the way he's using this platform to millions of viewers to fling accusations around of cheating at the Games. It's adding some high drama to the usually-boring "analyst recap" stuff they use to fill time during the broadcast.

I am this many!
(Harry How/Getty Images Sport)
chinese gymnast
It made me do a double-take when I first heard him during the preliminaries earlier this week. His biggest beef is that the Chinese government doctored passports to allow girls younger than 16 to compete. He has brought it up again and again, including after the Chinese won their gold last night. It's the most provocative sports commentary I've ever seen -- especially pointed given NBC's obvious effort otherwise to flatter the Chinese hosts.

The other night he also, in passing, accused the Argentinian (I think) judge of cheating, inappropriately docking the Americans' scores. Um...OK.

What's straight-man Bob Costas supposed to do in this situation? Does he have some obligation to stop Bela, or pull in someone from the Chinese Politburo for equal time? In practice, he's not doing much except looking slightly uncomfortable in his chair.

It raises a question about the role these commentators play. Do they have any obligation to respect news standards?

But what if Karolyi's right? I'd think if anyone can spot a 14-year-old girl, it would be him. Damn right someone ought to be making noise.

For what it's worth, he's not the only one suspecting conspiracies. Floor commentator Tim Daggett (favorite and highly overused commentary for all developments, good and bad: "Wow.") last night suggested the judges deliberately delayed releasing scores for the Americans to mess with their heads before the next event.

It's interesting to see how politics have slipped into these games after all.

And is it just me, or does the outside air behind Costas in their Tiananmen Square studio look basically disgusting most of the time?

Comments (17)

I am personally glad that Bela Karolyi is on the commentary team. He is a breath of fresh air (pun intended!) at the Beijing Games. If he's right how can the Chinese win the gold if they doctored passports. That's like doping and it's scandalous!

Posted by allison herrera | August 13, 2008 12:01 PM

Allison, what's up? Glad you're still out there!

Posted by Jeff Horwich | August 13, 2008 12:10 PM

Frankly, I agree with Allison. What Bela's saying may not be PC, but that doesn't mean he's wrong. It's refreshing to hear someone being that frank. And he's not alone. Even the announcers noticed the scoring gap across the judges' bench. As I recall, one even remarked, "I don't know where they find these deductions." Of course, there's been partisan judging in gymnastics for years. Are we so quick to forget the cliché of "the Russian judge"? We're kidding ourselves if we think it's not political! Everything is political. It's sad, but it's The Way.

Posted by Cecilia Jefferson | August 13, 2008 12:42 PM

The Chinese gymnast is missing a tooth for crying out loud! I'm not a dentist, but could it possibly be a baby tooth!!?!? 16 my arse!

Posted by Steve | August 13, 2008 1:01 PM

Allison, that's not a pun.

Posted by No Pun In Ten Did | August 13, 2008 1:43 PM

Some people will cheat if they can- Bela Rocks!! Kudos to you Bela for speaking the "tooth". It's fairly easy to tell how old these little girls are! It's Really Quite Sad.

Posted by Connie DePiero | August 13, 2008 6:45 PM

Aw, come on - could the "missing tooth" be because of some accident in training - it happens, you know (elite gymnastics training can be rather violent - with the apparatus sometimes wanting to bash your head in)? Or could it be that dental practices in China aren't as thorough and preventative as they are in the U.S.?

I swear - media speculation and sensationalism is running rampant, yet again.

Posted by Kristina | August 13, 2008 9:58 PM

Bela is giving a bad impression for the US. His comments are unfair, unfounded, and xenophobic.

Posted by Anonymous | August 14, 2008 2:42 AM

Bela is voicing the same concerns which any observer might. Chinese language coverage of these events is partisan. So is the U.S. coverage. This is not xenophobia, nor unfair. And after the AP found evidence of the Chinese team recently reporting different ages for some team members, nor is it "unfounded".

Posted by Will The Real China Please Standup? | August 14, 2008 10:18 PM

I felt watching the gymnast scoring that it was unfair. They wer epushin g for the talented Chinese to win even with shkiness and not secure landings. Bela is right on!

Posted by Andra | August 15, 2008 8:10 PM

Is anyone else tired of the we are all one big happy world junk? Tell me again why the US news coverage of our countrymen (and women) isn't allowed to be biased? In EVERY other sporting event where the game/competition is being covered by the hometown station, are not the sportscasters cheering the home team? At the Olympics, NBC is the home "town" station covering our team, so why can't they cheer (and jeer) as needed?

As for Bela's comments being xenophobic, so what? Do you think that the Chinese government never bends the rules? I personally work for a US company that has uncovered multiple attempts (and unfortunately some successes) from China to infiltrate our computer network and phone home with data/files. This might be the Chinese government, or just some kid. Who knows? The point being, not everyone plays by the rules.

Posted by Anonymous | August 15, 2008 8:17 PM

Don't just listen to Bela and others. Take a look yourself. At least three of those girls are underage. But fielding one is cheating, so let's just consider He Kexin, the smallest. We're not talking about a girl who looks like she's 13 -- I'd give a gymnast like that the benefit of the doubt. She look ten. Even if appearances are wrong, even if she's actually four years older, she's still underage. The average girl begins puberty at 9-11; she is showing no signs whatsoever of womanhood at 16. I lived across Asia for 18 years; sorry, not even Asian girls look that petite at 16. And I can tell you guys it's a different culture there. Please don't think I'm bashing them; there's tons to admire in Chinese and Filipino culture (my main experience). But in athletics -- and this is a generality, not a rule -- it's shameful to be caught, not to cheat. Obviously American athletes cheat too, but never are such actions publicly sanctioned. What this means is that the cultural/ethical boundaries aren't necessarily in place in China to prevent the gymnastics team from doing something like this. But bottom line, a big congratulations to Nastia and Shawn for going gold-silver with a totally clean conscience. Watching the two of them up there on the stand for the US has been the highlight of the Olympics for me so far.

Posted by Ben Wiebracht | August 17, 2008 11:48 PM

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 a gold medal. He is biased.

Posted by bill | August 18, 2008 9:56 AM

Bela Karolyi talked trash. Shame on him.

Posted by Anonymous | August 18, 2008 2:27 PM

Bela called the Chinese gymnasts "half people." And his wife would laugh at "the little babies." How insulting. Why must they take stabs at these girls?

All the athletes, on both teams, work so hard to be at the Olympics, give them the credit they deserve.

Shame on Bela and shame on NBC for broadcasting his comments. Everytime I watch the gymnastic events on TV, I feel that the Olympic spirit just gets a little more defiled.

Posted by N | August 18, 2008 10:42 PM

totally agree with you, N.

Posted by neal | August 18, 2008 11:06 PM

I agree with N.

Protest if you want, but keep your insults aimed towards the government and regime. Not towards the little girls.

"Half-gymnast" insulting. Even the segregationist South allowed minorities to be 3/5's of a person. (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the US Constitution)

Posted by L | August 19, 2008 1:50 AM

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