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Outside the Lines

The Athlete of the 21st Century

Science to give the human body a makeover

Genetics: Finding the right stuff

Rehab: Knees made easy

Bionics: Calling Steve Austin

Next 100 years: The future is in your hands


Audio chat wrap: Princeton geneticist Lee Silver and Oakland A's strength coach Bob Alejo

This five-day online series is a companion to the ESPN Outside the Lines television special that originally aired Jan. 14.

Tuesday, June 3
Karolyi: I'm old-fashioned

Despite the need to identify elite gymnasts at an early age, legendary coach Bela Karolyi said he would not be interested in using genetic profiling to figure out which children have the best traits for his sport.

In a chat session with users, Karolyi addressed some of the issues raised in the Outside the Lines series on where science is taking sports in the next century.

If you missed the chat, here is an edited transcript:

Bela Karolyi
Bela Karolyi says he wouldn't use genetic testing.

Steve: Who was your favorite gymnastic person while growing up? Why?

Bela Karolyi: There are two favorites. By physical standards, the most attractive was Nadia Comaneci. Her willingness to improve was also superior. Her personality was sturdy, balanced, strong. That made her an excellent person to work with. She was very cooperative, too.

Physically, she had great balance. She was very strong, very explosive. She had natural endurance and excellent coordination. These are the abilities you need in this sport, and I recognized them early when she was a child.

She had such coordination, and you needed that to do the complicated tasks in gymnastics.

The other gymnast was Mary Lou Retton. Of course, she's known very well here, because she was the first all-around champion in the United States. Her personality was the best, and the most adorable. She was a totally open personality, and she had a great way of relating to her coaches and teammates. I never had anyone like that before.

Physically, Mary Lou was also remarkable. Her explosiveness and strength were natural -- and they came from her genes. This is a combination of coordination and explosiveness, which was very important in our sport, especially in events like vaulting. Everything happens in a fraction of a second and you need to bring it all together quickly.

Bela bio
Bela Karolyi, 58, is the most successful coach in the history of his sport. His innovative coaching efforts have produced 28 Olympians, nine Olympic champions, 15 world champions, 12 European medalists and six U.S. national champions in 30 years of coaching in both his native Romania and the United States.

Among his most accomplished gymnasts are Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Julianne McNamara, Phoebe Mills, Kim Zmeskal, Betty Okino, Kerri Strug and Dominique Moceanu.

Karolyi, who has coached U.S. Olympic teams since 1984, was recently named women's national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics. He and wife Martha own a 500-acre ranch outside of Houston that is used as a summer training camp. They have one daughter, Andrea.

Rick Jones: What gymnasts that you've coached have had the most unusual, "freakish" physical qualities?

Bela Karolyi: In my career, I had one athlete of Mary Lou's generation and her name was Lee Wisnezsky, and she had incredible explosiveness and strength -- more than anyone I've ever had. That made her an outstanding vaulter. Unfortunately, her preparation was not up to the standard necessary, and after a couple years she gave up her high-quality performance.

Susan: Do you ever visit Hungary, and if you do what can you tell about Hungarian gymnastics.

Bela Karolyi: Recently I did visit quite a few times, following up a movie project. That allowed me to watch the preparation.

I am very familiar with Hungary, because I grew up in Romania, which borders it. Unfortunately, today they are not experiencing the same type of standard that they were experiencing in the '60s and '70s.

Rick Jones: So, Bela, would you genetically test young gymnasts to figure out which ones have the most potential? What do you think other coaches in other parts of the world would do?

Bela Karolyi: I'm old-fashioned, so that's something I would not be interested in doing. I still love to find and develop the young athletes in traditional ways. I like to watch the physical and mental growth. That has always been very exciting.

Personally, I would never do genetic research.

Around the world, it's been proven that anything that is easier and more efficient will be tried and picked up by others. Who would do it? I would not point a finger. But there is a great rivalry among the nations in the world, even the third-world countries.

Perhaps China would probably be one of the first countries, and with their (huge) population from which to choose the best gymnasts, that would be frightening.

Tick: If you could build the best gymnast, what would they look like physically?

Bela Karolyi: You want a lean body with nice and aesthetic muscle definition -- not bulky muscles. Genetics is all about showcasing human beauty along with high-quality performance.

The ideal gymnast would be between 4 feet 7 and 5-2. I wouldn't be able to pinpoint an ideal height, however. It would be foolish to say that a gymnast above 5-2 could not be great.

Regarding weight, well, a 5-foot athlete should weigh over 100 pounds.

Of course, flexibility is very, very important. Flexibility is something you can work on, too, so it's not all genetic.

Greg: What is your favorite sport to watch other than gymnastics?

Bela Karolyi: It's one of those things that comes from my background, as a former athlete. I like track and field. I can see the pure athletic abilities. I like the hammer and shot put -- I was a hammer thrower.

Rick Jones: Do you think the Europeans would be more willing to use some of this science?

Bela Karolyi: Unfortunately, the precedent with East Germany and the communist systems generated an incredible desire to create super athletes. This was forcefully done, sometimes to the detriment of their physical health. The Bulgarian weightlifting teams used steroids, too.

But now most of the countries are going away from that non-democratic system. I don't think they would be as willing to use the quick-fix system of creating good athletes as they did before.

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