Bela Karolyi has taken his campaign to unseat Don Peters as 1988 Olympic coach to the nation's press with vigor the past few weeks, but Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, says it's time for unity, and there's not going to be a coaching change.
"No, there isn't," said Jacki. "It would be very inappropriate."At this time, we absolutely have to have everybody in a combined effort. It is time for everybody to push their own personal agendas to the side and say this isn't in the best interest of gymnastics in the United States, isn't in the best interest of these kids.
"It is not the time to say, `If I don't get my way, I won't be involved,"' said Jacki, who wants Karolyi in the '88 Olympics, thinks his flamboyance is good for the sport and supports Karolyi's contention that Olympic coaching duties ought to be based on performance rather than popular vote.
But, says Jacki, acknowledging that Peters might also be coach if the selection process were based on performance, the time for change is after this Olympics, not now, with the U.S. Olympic trials in the Salt Palace only about a week away.
Rhythmic trials begin July 29; artistic trials are Aug. 3-6.
"If they think it ought to be changed," said Jacki in a telephone interview from USGF offices in Indianapolis, "they ought to bite the bullet and say, `Maybe next time, but this time, I've got to do my job and get my athletes ready.' "That really is the issue."
The Seoul Olympics begin in mid-September.
Much of the problem is that gymnasts train at private clubs that benefit financially when a member becomes famous. A national team coach decides which gymnasts to put in the advantageous last position in each event; those that go last are considered the top athletes by all, including judges, who hoard their highest scores for final performances. Thus, the coach can manipulate scoring to give his own club member the best chance at medals.
"I have no problem defending the selection," says Peters, 40, by phone from his Los Angeles-based SCATS gym. "I think I was an excellent choice." Peters coached the U.S. to 1984 Olympic silver and was the national coach from 1981-85. He embraces the "democratic process" of coach picking and says the vote was 6-2 by a committee that included himself and Karolyi, 46.
"Of course it makes me mad," Peters said of Karolyi's effort to replace him. "It's very devisive and can turn the gymnasts against each other. It can tear the team to shreds."
Karolyi, coach of Olympic gold medalists Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton and five of the 21 girls who will come to Salt Lake City for the trials (Peters has three), began his crusade to be named coach last summer when he boycotted the Pan American Games, then the World Championships. University of Utah's Greg Marsden coached the U.S. team at the time.
Karolyi originally supported Marsden but seemed to expect to be named assistant coach in return. When Marsden didn't choose Karolyi as assistant - a move coaches of other top athletes would have disapproved - Karolyi criticized Marsden and boycotted the year's two most important meets. Athletes from Karolyi's gym in Houston did poorly at both meets; he said it was because he couldn't be on the floor with them.
In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Karolyi complained he couldn't be on the floor to coach Retton. When she made her 10.0 vault to win the Olympic all-around title, he leaped a baricade on international television to give her his famous bear hug. Peters says, and Jacki confirms, that Karolyi's "spontaneous" action could have cost Retton .3 deduction and the medal, that he was warned about it beforehand and that he practiced jumping the baricade the day before.
Marsden resigned in December and Peters was elected in January and approved in March. "It's been a done deal for a long time," Peters says.
At the Championships of the USA two weeks ago in Houston, the qualifying meet for the Olympic trials, Karolyi lobbied publicly to be named U.S. coach, then resigned as head of the U.S. delegation to Seoul and said he wouldn't go. Later, he charged American gymnastics is a "good old boy system" that excludes him, a defector from Romania with wife Marta in 1981.
Jacki says he doesn't know whether Karolyi will attend the Olympics. "I'm going to do my best to get him to be part of the team, because he needs to be part of the team, but he's got to make that determination.
"And he's got to make it on terms that are in the best interest of the program, of the effort in Seoul, not in his best interest - just like all the coaches. They've got to say, `It's time to put me on the shelf and do what's best for these six kids,"' Jacki says.
"If an adult stood by and said he's not willing to participate, to help, I just have a variety of words for that . . . it's just not fair," said Jacki.
"If a coach doesn't like another coach (Karolyi once sued Peters, and Olympic hopeful Kristie Phillips went from Karolyi's gym to Peters' and back again in the past six months), fine," says Jacki. "They can close the door and scream and yell at each other and spit and kick dirt on each other, anything.
"But when they come out, they better be arm in arm with `USA' across their chests. And if the coaches can't do that, they shouldn't be coaching children," Jacki said.