The US butterfly factory: Women’s gymnastics steals page from Romania

At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Nadia Comaneci received seven perfect scores and three gold medals –  making history with her score of a perfect 10. She won in the uneven bars, the balance beam and the all-around.

At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Nadia Comaneci received seven perfect scores and three gold medals – making history with her score of a perfect 10. She won in the uneven bars, the balance beam and the all-around.

(Aug. 15) – The centralized system of bringing the best coaches and gymnasts together led to a cohesion lacking in the individualistic and chaotic U.S. system.

With Romanian defectors at its helm, U.S. women’s gymnastics has been moulded to replicate the Eastern European and Soviet sports system that had incredible success prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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The U.S. Olympic women’s team has depth and uniformity not found in the U.S. before the early 1980s, prior to Bela and Martha Karolyi defecting and joining the U.S. gymnastics scene.

The team lacked a competitive edge and any medal promise “Before the Karolyis,” as Dvora Meyers named the period in “The End of The Perfect 10.” The Soviet Union, Romania, East Germany and later China dominated the sport.

As with everything else, the Olympics have always been seen by U.S. imperialism as a political weapon, a chance to dominant yet another international stage.

At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Nadia Comaneci dazzled the world, making history with her score of a perfect 10. Arguably the best gymnast of all times, she was coached by the Karolyis in Romania. 

It can only be speculated that the Karolyis were courted by the U.S. in what finally ended in defection from Romania in 1981, a mere five years after Comaneci’s triumph.

With seed money from local businesses, the Karolyis set up a ranch outside of Houston and coached Mary Lou Retton to the all-around gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – the first gymnast to win the medal outside of Eastern Europe – albeit at an Olympics boycotted by both the Soviet Union and East Germany, among others.

While Bela Karolyi was initially given the cold shoulder by other U.S. coaches in the early 80s, by 1988 he was made head coach of the U.S. team, but when that status was jeopardized by the fact that he had not yet fulfilled the five-year residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen, two U.S. senators sponsored a bill to waive the waiting period and grant him early citizenship.

In 1999, he was made the U.S. National Team coordinator and was then replaced by Martha Karolyi in 2001, who has since led the team, announcing her retirement after the 2016 Rio Olympics.

As Meyers states in her book, “The Americans’ subsequent success in the 21st century has been credited in large part to the semi-centralized national team training camp system that was introduced in late 1999. This system was heralded as something new, a melting pot approach—combining the Eastern way of centralization with the American tradition of independent gyms. But this idea wasn’t American at all: It dated all the way back to the 1970s, if not earlier, and it came from the Eastern bloc.”

The centralized system of bringing the best coaches and gymnasts together throughout the year led to a cohesion and strength lacking in the individualistic and chaotic U.S. system that left everything to individual gyms and coaches.

But according to Meyers, “It’s not just the system organization that is imported from the former Eastern bloc gymnastics powers: The majority of the coaching talent has also been imported from abroad. In addition to the Karolyis, there is Valeri Liukin, a 1988 Olympic gold medalist for the USSR who … is in charge of the developmental programs in USA Gymnastics … Liang Chow, a former member of the Chinese national team, coached Shawn Johnson and Gabrielle Douglas to Olympic gold medals. Mihai and Silvia Brestyan emigrated from Romania and started a gym outside of Boston, where they coached Alicia Sacramone and Aly Raisman to world and Olympic titles.” 

So instead of the individual coaches having to figure out everything for their individual gymnast and worrying that another coach would steal their talent, as was common practice in the past, now coaches, under the adopted communist model, share ideas, information and training.

Meyers added, “This division of labor – with the national team staff in charge of management and strategy and the personal coaches responsible for developing athletes – is a boon to a coach like Boorman (reigning champion Simone Biles’ coach), who has to focus only on her athlete; she is not responsible for larger, strategic decisions.”

The system took the focus off of individual gymnasts with mediocre talent to building a powerhouse team.

“We always say that the most important thing is the team first,” Aly Raisman, who won the 2016 all-around silver medal, has said. “The priority is the team gold medal, and then we focus on the individual ones,” according to Susie Cagle in an article titled, “How American Gymnastics Rose to Power and Glory by Stealing Communist Ideas.”

After the fall of the state system in Romania in 1989, on the other hand, Romanian gymnastics has gone in the opposite direction. The centralized system has been dismantled and the team did not even qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, the first time in its history.

With very few training facilities and even fewer resources, Romania has had to resort to relying on a few top stars instead of nurturing up-and-coming talent and building a strong and cohesive team, as was the communist tradition.

Source: TeleSUR, slightly edited.

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