Now, listen to the audio version of this post.
Here, at the sunset of Martha Karolyi’s career, NBC has bestowed a wondrous gift upon your disgusting peasant life. It’s the 51-minute, totally journalismy, investigative documentary you always wanted, answering every question you ever had about the Karolyis.
As long as those questions include “How awesome are the Karolyis?” and nothing else.
It’s an extraordinary addition to the canon, a valuable prequel to recent blockbuster The Ranch. All the big superhero franchises have prequels, and the Karolyis are no different. In this installment, we learn the history of how Bela, Martha, and Howard Stark joined forces to defeat Hydra. (Actually, that would have been a lot better.)
Please note that, contrary to what you may have read, this piece is not called Karolyi. It’s called KAROLYI. It must be shouted. Like the screams that wake Kristie Phillips every full moon. I’m pretty sure that’s also Bela’s signature. KAROLYI.
Why exactly are we starting with Bela and Martha taking a horse-drawn carriage ride through the snows of Transylvania while Martha is mummified in 198 layers and praying for the sweet release of death?
Because you needed a new lock screen image and this is preposterous? (JUST WHY)
No. Because this…is a love story.
But is it though?
Because I thought it was about gymnastics.
NOPE. This is the story of those two legendary star-crossed lovers, Bela and Martha, and how their love saved…scrunchies and capitalism? Or something?
Because when I think romance, I think Bela Karolyi.
Their life is basically You’ve Got Notting Love Actually.
In next summer’s spinoff, they’ll be portrayed by Kate Hudson and Colin Firth. Martha (Colin Firth) runs an antique postcards-of-old-fashioned-scissors store that’s about to be run out of business by a multinational postcards-of-old-fashioned-scissors conglomerate run by Bela (Kate Hudson), until they fall in love and Martha teaches Bela a thing or two about what’s truly important: wearing a cardigan on a spring morning while the credits roll.
Bela Karolyi and Martha Eross met at school. (WE HAVE THE MAIDEN NAME.) And what did they see in each other?
Martha: “Bela was good-looking and athletic.”
Welp, now I have to go wash my brain with lye.
Bela: “Martha was an opinionated stone.”
Like I said, Bela = romance.
Also, I think Bela just told a rosebush that it had beautiful hair. I can’t be sure, though. He also may have said, “Wisdom is a waterfall chair.” Because of Bellish.
It’s very comforting to me that Martha begins her housework instructions to Bela in the exact same tone of voice with which she begins national team workouts. “Alright, so today we working on the roses!” Bela absolutely has to finish every day with, “Thank you Martha, Martha, Martha, Martha, goodbye.” As he should.
“Because you always complain.” This whole thing really should have been 51 minutes of Bela and Martha old-couple bickering. My heaven.
Bela introduces us to his prized bulls: Steak, Super Dead, Wall Decoration, and Dominique.
Meanwhile, Martha spotted an opportunity to use that terrible Christmas present for the first time.
No, not Bela. I meant the coffee mug.
Boodly-doodly-doodly-doodly-doo. (That’s “traveling back to the past” music, in case it wasn’t clear.)
The Karolyis coached three (and only three) great champions. The first, a promising little girl they “stumbled upon” in Romania.
Awww, I got Nadia on my shoes again!
The second, an American icon.
The third, “an unlikely hero.”
The story of Nadia is framed by Bela’s obsession with traveling to coal-mining towns and stealing poor children like a wicked Dickensian magistrate.
Why is Bela only interested in coal-mining children? Does the black lung give them INTERNATIONAL LOOK? Do they have just the right combination of crushed spirits and lax child-labor regulations?
Oh Nadia. She knows how to play the game. In this feature, she tells the Bela-skiing story as “we loved skiing because we loved to fly” and “that was a clever way for us to have fun and do conditioning.”
Now cut to the ESPN piece from earlier this year where Nadia tells the exact same story, but as “Bela made skiing miserable and I never wanted to ski ever again until Bart told me that chairlifts exist.”
To the 1976 Olympics!
Next, we learn all about how Bela aggressively Toddlers and Tiaras-ed Nadia and her hair throughout the 1976 Olympics, which can only mean one thing: It’s time for the classic footage of Nadia’s “10,” complete with commentary straight from the “pins getting stuck between my fingers is my only analysis” school. Elfi owes her so much. Oh. Ohhhhhh. Oh. Ooooooh.
“A perfect tyin! The first time I’ve ever seen that in Olympic competition. A perfect tyin!”
At this point, Crazy-Eyes Comaneci finally comes out to play to tell us that she absolutely has not forgotten that only three of the judges gave her 10.0 for that routine and one gave her 9.9…
Cut to Nadia in her murder basement in front of a map covered in pushpins and string, drawing a black X over a picture of that judge. You can be 100% sure that judge disappeared under mysterious circumstances some months later. Has anyone checked the lake?
“I don’t know who that was…” Nadia says innocently.
Well, Nadia, maybe it was a judge who actually watched your dismount. OOOOOOHHH, 40-YEAR OLD BURNNNNNN.
For some reason, we’re talking about vampires now.
GEZA POZAR IS THAT YOU????
“After 1976, Romania had vampires…and Nadia Comaneci.” The big two. Who’s starting a Kickstarter for the horror franchise Nadia Comaneci: Vampire Hunter?
After her Olympic success, Nadia built Deva using only her pigtails and everyone was happy, except not because of all the murders. Nadia definitely willingly gave a really genuine speech about the honor of representing that cuddly little sprite Nicolae Ceausescu.
Things began to deteriorate toward the 1980 Olympics, when Nadia had grown into a tall old disgusting hag of 18 with a serious case of Khorkina-2004 legs.
Going to beam, she needed 9.950 to defeat Davydova and win her second Olympic AA title, but her dismount was trash. A 28-minute judging delay ensued as the judges had to take an extended timeout to discuss the hot new fashion trends.
That means it’s time for another edition of FUN WITH NBC HISTORY. (“We can say whatever we want because you won’t know the difference!”)
Judging in 1980 was certainly corrupt as all hell for everyone, but this piece goes out of its way to imply that Nadia should have received 9.950 for that beam routine and that the competition was stopped by the evil Soviet judges who manipulated the score to ensure that Davydova would win and steal the competition from Heroic Nadia.
For some perspective, here’s the account of that competition as per Wallechinsky in CBOTO:
“With the arena in complete silence, Nadia went through an impressive routine with only two small errors, including a step back on landing. The US Olympic book described the routine as ‘good but not great.’ The real controversy, however, began when the scores were being tallied. The Romanian head judge, Maria Simionescu, a friend of Comaneci’s since 1969, refused to accept the final result and tried to get three other judges to increase their scores. The judges argued for 28 minutes before overruling Simionescu’s complaint. Even then she refused to punch the score into the computer. A representative of the Moscow Organizing Committee had to do it while Simionescu looked on in rage. Finally Nadia’s score flashed on the computer: 9.85. Davydova had won the gold medal.”
Meanwhile, NCAA gym is like, “There’s an idea…”
Obviously, Bela got all Bela about the result and threw a Bela all over the arena. This is the part I found the most interesting: Bela was praised in Romania for being all Bela because he was defending the country’s honor, but soon the tide turned as the Communist Party grew unhappy with what his outburst implied, that there was corruption and disorder at the heart of the First Communist Olympics (BUT WHO WOULD THINK THAT).
At this point, Bela gets mad at Martha for not telling the story dramatically enough and not making him seem heroic enough. I’m serious, their bickering should have been the whole show.
Let’s also discuss what happened to Nadia’s hair and her everything.
Hairstyles. The real victims of Communism.
Get back to the mines, little boy. This is no place for a little boy.
It was on a gymnastics tour to New York, and 99% because of the hairstyles, that the Karolyis decided to defect to the US, so they called Nadia into their room to say, “Wink, wink. Say no more. Nudge, nudge. The pelican flies on Easter. Wink.”
And so they disappeared into the night, at which point Bela realized, “Crap, defection is like…hard.”
I love that Martha’s reaction to concerns like “I don’t speak the language or have a job and we’ll probably starve and never see our daughter again” is just, “Wah wah wah, stop being a whiny baby and pick it up.”
The Karolyis enlisted the help of aggressively 1980s Texas representative Twangy McGoodOl’Boy (R) to get their daughter back from Romania. Rep. McGoodOl’Boy was still in office until 2001, explaining everything. They also started watching Sesame Street in order to learn English.
Watching Sesame Street with Martha. Bucket list just got longer.
Soon, they started coaching again in America, leading to the greatest story of my life. In Romania, Bela used to call the gymnasts “little puppies” (which isn’t great either…), but in trying to translate that to English, he started calling them “little bitches.” I basically haven’t stopped laughing about it.
I also theorize that this whole “lost in translation” story is just a ruse to cover up the fact that he was calling his gymnasts bitches. Yeah. Trouble with English. Sure. That’s what they all say.
Also, this leotard.
Fortunately, Bela soon heard about a wretched coal-mining urchin named Mary Lou Retton and said, “YOU HAD ME AT WRETCHED COAL-MINING URCHIN.”
Adding, “Golly, look at that little body.”
OK, but say things like that less often…
Because of STORY NARRATIVE, Mary Lou relates that the first time Bela saw her, he said, “You come to me and I make you Olympic champion.”
Weirdly, we don’t then cut to the 785 other people to whom he said that exact same thing to see where they are now…
“She had no flexibility or artistry,” Martha observes.
LEAVE KIM KELLY OUT OF THIS.
But after 30 seconds with the Karolyis, Mary Lou automatically became the Olympic champion! And a star! And got to do that commercial where she doesn’t know how to consume milk like a human person!
Wipe your mouth, you wretched coal-mining urchin.
Now, can we please discuss this statue of Martha?
And how it’s clearly of a homeless teenage boy who looks nothing like her.
I keep expecting Tilda Swinton to pop out of that thing and be like, “It was me the whole time!”
I mean, it’s almost as bad as that Lucille Ball nightmare statue.
We’re back in Romania so that Bela can traipse into the 1850s to play that traditional game, Yay Yay The Bird Is Dead.
“Beautiful, beautiful cock.”
He said it. Those are the words Bela said. I am merely quoting him. And now, having heard Bela say the words “beautiful cock,” I’m just going to go hop into a forest fire.
Martha doesn’t care for the hunting part (why we get along). She just shows up later for the drinking part (actually why we get along).
Next up is an origin story about Bela’s love of guns. Yeah. Because that’s what we really wanted to see. He says John Wayne gave him “the idea of the Indians and the cowboys” (great), and that from the time he was young, he always wanted to be exactly like John Wayne.
That why THE RANCH. Blah blah blah vision, blah blah blah built it singlehandedly in 13 hours with one arm tied behind his back.
The best part of all this ranch fluff lately is how Martha’s facial expressions (and words) make it abundantly clear that she absolutely despises the ranch and wishes they didn’t live there.
Up next, Martha’s hair and shirt.
Which can only mean one thing: the Kerri Strug era has arrived.
Kerri legitimately can’t keep it together when explaining how she thought Bela seemed nice when she first saw him. The idea of “Bela” and “nice” in the same sentence makes her laugh harder than she did when she made more money than Shannon.
The subtext of both Kerri and Mary Lou’s comments about the Karolyis is pretty much, “You guys, they’re heinous. I mean, I have a gold medal, but also night terrors. I love them like parents, but also please call the police.”
Kerri brings the 1992 Olympic process to life by squeaking the term “at odds” approximately 251 times. Translation: Bela didn’t get his way 100% of the time and threw a fit about it on every occasion.
This brings us to the 1996 Olympics and a team that “would face…magnificent…expectations.” Ah ha ha where did you come up with that word?
I WONDER IF WE’RE GOING TO TALK ABOUT KERRI’S VAULT.
We are. The Americans went to vault “in the final round.” Rotation. We say rotation.
Helpfully, we’re now treated to the fun narrative spin that Moceanu and Strug would have been fine on vault if only Bela had been on the floor. Yep, Bela on the floor always makes things better.
“Moceanu and Strug were accustomed to Bela setting the apparatus.”
And they didn’t prepare for having Martha and MLT on the floor…?
And Martha wasn’t one of their coaches too…?
“All Bela could do was frantically shout instructions from the sideline.”
That doesn’t sound distracting…
“Neither athlete had time to warm up the vault they planned to do.”
I love that this is constructed as “if only Bela had been on the floor it would have been fine” rather than “if only Bela had actually trusted another coach once and just settled down, it would have been fine.”
Ah, but the Karolyi legend is a powerful force.
Also, Kerri thinks Bela only weighed 180 pounds at the time. She tried to think of a really, really heavy weight and was like, “Uh…180?”
So, yada yada yada, Kerri’s foot. Snip, snap, she did it on one leg. Blah blah blah, that cast. Blorp blorp, medal stand with no pants on.
“The Karolyis won team gold in 1996.”
Oh really? They won? Where are their medals then? They coached two of the seven gymnasts on that team, and Martha was named head coach. So it’s like saying, “Aimee Boorman won team gold in 2016.” Although, to be fair, I basically think that.
The beginning and end of Kerri Strug’s acting career:
And then there was also 2000.
Welp, nothing to see here. Let’s move on to the Martha era!
“Coaches definitely have a strong admiration for her, whereas sometimes Bela can be a little more controversial…” Kerri says winking 158 times. She winked so many times Nadia thought she was defecting.
After 2000, Bela “decided to reflect.” Yeah, he decided. He didn’t get fired at all…
At this point, the prequel catches up to the action from The Ranch, where Martha takes over and is amazing, and then Bela is also amazing, and then WE ARE THE FINAL FIVE or whatever.
Although, could we please end this by squeezing the complicated lives and careers of the Karolyis into an overly simplistic reinforcement of traditional gender norms?
“By strength of will, Bela built the ranch…but he needed Martha’s delicate touch to make it real.”
That delicate blossom, Martha Karolyi. A gentle woman’s touch.
But do you know what it really took to make US gymnastics success a reality?
Um…money? And organization? And a large population? And all the best coaches from around the world?
No. LOVE. Apparently. “This is, above all else, a love story.”
Because it is.
No it isn’t.
SHUT UP, ROMANCE, WOMEN WHO WATCH THE OLYMPICS LIKE THAT, THE KAROLYIS WON GYMNASTICS BECAUSE OF LOVE AND NOW EVERYTHING IS AWESOME AND MAGICAL, NO ONE GOT ABUSED, THE END.