SAN JOSE, Calif. – Whenever Bela Karolyi watches Sarah Finnegan’s floor exercise, it’s all the godfather of U.S. women’s gymnastics can do to contain himself.
The way the 15-year-old glides to the music, her arms and legs a study in grace and fluidity, the man who coached Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to Olympic gold gets lost in the moment.
“So beautiful, so elegant, my heart is growing,” he says wistfully.
Then Finnegan’s score comes up, and Karolyi knows she’s “dead meat.”
It’s not that Finnegan lacks skills. The tumbling runs for the alternate on the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team are impressive for someone who didn’t get serious about her training until two years ago.
It’s just Karolyi believes the “artistic” in artistic gymnastics has gone the way of rope climbing, with the beautiful lines Comaneci rode to perfection traded for the “boom, boom, thud” of raw power. In a different era, Finnegan’s floor routine would be among the best in the world. Now it barely ranks in the top 10.
Karolyi knows who to blame.
When the International Gymnastics Federation adopted a new code in 2006 that moved away from the 10.0 scoring system to one that features two separate scores based on difficulty and execution, Karolyi believes the sport lost its soul in the process because he feels it devalues beauty.
“Where’s the artistry, the wonderful dancers on the floor?” Karolyi said. “They’re nowhere because you’re castrating their difficulty. You’re nobody without the tricks.”
Don’t mistake Karolyi’s anger for disrespect. There’s little doubt the five women who will compete for the U.S. in London later this month are better athletes than the team that won gold in Atlanta 16 years ago.