NEW YORK, N.Y. – Former USA Gymnastics women’s national team co-ordinator Martha Karolyi and husband Bela tell NBC they were unaware of the abusive behaviour by a former national team doctor now serving decades in prison.
Martha Karolyi led the national team for 15 years before retiring after the 2016 Rio Olympics. She tells Savannah Guthrie in “no way” did she suspect Larry Nassar was sexually abusing athletes under the guise of treatment.
“The whole gymnastics community couldn’t recognize this,” Martha Karolyi said in an excerpt provided to The Associated Press on Friday by NBC. “Everybody said, ‘Larry Nassar is a good doctor. Larry Nassar is a good guy.'”
The Karolyis spoke as part of a Dateline NBC special entitled “Silent No More” scheduled to air Sunday. The one-hour special, the first prime-time event hosted by Guthrie, takes a look at the fallout from revelations about years of abuse by Nassar involving hundreds of former athletes, including several members of the U.S. Olympic team.
“The whole thing is just like an explosion, a bomb exploding,” Bela Karolyi said. “Boom.”
The Karolyis have been named as co-defendants in several civil lawsuits filed against Nassar and USA Gymnastics, including one by former national team member Mattie Larson.
Larson told The Associated Press she watched a portion of the Karolyi’s interview excerpted on Friday and shrugged. The Karolyis made similar statements in a deposition in Larson’s lawsuit.
“Who knows if they knew or not? I’m not in their heads,” Larson told the AP. “I feel like if they really didn’t know, it’s because they set up the system to show they don’t care what’s going on.”
Larson, a member of the 2010 World Championship team, pointed out the Karolyis allowed Nassar to treat them in his hotel room without supervision and that it wasn’t unusual for Nassar to treat athletes not on a training table, but his hotel bed.
“Honestly I just believe they did not care about us when we were not in the gym,” Larson said.
Several victims, including two-time Olympic medallist McKayla Maroney, say they were abused at the Karolyi’s Ranch near Houston. The ranch served as the training home for USA Gymnastics during most of Martha Karolyi’s highly successful tenure running the national team.
Several gymnasts and coaches previously interviewed by The Associated Press said the Karolyis institutionalized a win-at-all-costs culture that forced girls to train while injured. The toxic environment allowed Nassar to flourish in part because the athletes were afraid to challenge authority, according to witness statements in Nassar’s criminal case and one of the lawsuits.
Guthrie spent hours with the Karolyis at the ranch after the couple agreed to speak publicly for the first time since Martha Karolyi’s retirement following the 2016 Olympics.
“I think they felt like it was time for them to tell their side of the story,” Guthrie said. “I think they’ve watched and seen as their reputation has really taken a hit and people have asked a lot of questions about what they knew and just as importantly what they should have known.”
Guthrie said she was “surprised” the Karolyis came forward despite the potential legal fallout.
“They answered every question,” Guthrie said. “At no time did their lawyer jump in and say ‘You can’t answer that.'”
Nassar spent nearly three decades at USA Gymnastics before being fired in 2015 after complaints about his behaviour. He continued to work at Michigan State University through the fall of 2016 before being hit with federal charges. Nassar is now serving decades in prison for molesting women and girls and for possessing child pornography.
Nassar was already established in the program when Martha Karolyi took over. He would visit the ranch during national team training sessions and also accompany the team to events around the world. Maroney said she was abused “hundreds” of times by Nassar.
Martha Karolyi denied having any knowledge about Nassar’s pattern of abuse.
“I heard during the testimonies (at Nassar’s sentencing) that some of the parents were in the therapy room with their own child and Larry Nassar was performing this,” Martha Karolyi told Guthrie. “And the parent couldn’t see. How I could see?”