Moceanu, '96 golden girl, cites 'dark side' of gymnastics, report says

Updated: July 21, 2008, 8:17 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Dominique Moceanu, the youngest member of the "Magnificent Seven" team that won gold at the 1996 Olympics, is crying foul on USA Gymnastics.

The 26-year-old, who retired in 2000 with a knee injury, began a comeback in 2005 that ended when she failed to qualify for the 2006 national championships.

Two years later, in an interview with HBO Sports to air Tuesday, Moceanu says elite gymnastics has a "dark side" and that many close to the U.S. program, including current and former athletes, wish Bela Karolyi and his wife, Marta, were ousted from their leadership positions.

[+] EnlargeDominique Moceanu
Mike Powell/Getty ImagesDominique Moceanu, competing on the balance beam during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, says many current and former U.S. gymnasts want the Karolyis removed from their positions.
"People are hoping that there'll be change," Moceanu said, according to the Houston Chronicle.

"If it was up to the athletes, it would have happened a long time ago."

In the program, "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," set for 10 p.m. ET, Moceanu discusses diet restrictions imposed on her as a young gymnast. She also talks about leg, wrist and shoulder injuries she says were a result of undue physical stress, the newspaper reported.

"I think there's a better way to do it," Moceanu told HBO. "Bottom line, I've had several coaches after the Karolyis. And I know it can be done in a healthier way physically and emotionally."

Moceanu accused the Karolyis in the interview of limiting what she could eat and showing little compassion to her and other girls they trained.

But Kim Zmeskal Burdette, who trained with the Karolyis and is now a coach, defended the Karolyis and the current training system, saying she wouldn't be involved if it were unhealthy or unfair.

"I absolutely disagree," said Zmeskal Burdette, who was the first U.S. woman to win the world title and now coaches up-and-comer Chelsea Davis.

"Being part of this process -- especially just coming from the Olympic selection camp -- we trust in this system, and we feel like it's produced great gymnasts. These girls are tighter than they ever have been."

Moceanu, who lives in Cleveland with her husband, Dr. Michael Canales, and their infant daughter, Carmen, was forced to pull out of the 2006 qualifying event for nationals with an Achilles injury.

She then petitioned the USA Gymnastics athlete selection committee for eligibility. The petition was denied.

She appealed to the grievance panel, and the appeal was rejected, with regrets.

"Everyone wants to give an Olympic gold medalist a chance to come back if they can," the panel wrote in its decision.

In the HBO interview, Moceanu says Marta Karolyi, the women's national team coordinator, ignored her at that training camp.

Bela Karolyi, the former longtime coach who retired after the 1996 Olympics, currently operates the national training center.

"They should be ashamed of what they did to their Olympic champion," Moceanu said, according to the Chronicle report.

It was the Olympic team selection process that Moceanu was particularly critical of in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Monday. Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin earned spots after finishing 1-2 at last month's Olympic trials, but the remaining four members were named Saturday after a two-day selection camp at the Karolyi ranch.

"I think we need more fairness in the sport and a more transparent set of rules," Moceanu said. "I think [the selection process] takes away part of being an Olympian and what becoming an Olympian is. Getting there is important, and I think that should be rewarded in front of all the people cheering for you.

"Why make them run through another set of tests?"

Moceanu said she has long felt this way but raised the issue now after being approached by "Real Sports." Other gymnasts feel the same way, she said, but she declined to name them because she doesn't want to put anyone in a predicament.

But Zmeskal Burdette said gymnasts see the current process as more fair, believing they will be rewarded for good performances. Davis, for example, just 15, was one of the 10 gymnasts invited to the final selection camp.

"I was very happy with coaching at the recreational level and junior Olympic level. But I was very excited about returning to the elite program, especially knowing Martha has such an integral role," Zmeskal Burdette said. "Their experience is unbelievable as is their insight, making sure all the bases are covered and being able to pick out from the pack who's on their way up.

USA Gymnastics overhauled the women's program in 1999. Instead of gymnasts training with personal coaches and only coming together as a team in the weeks before an Olympics or world championships, the Americans now have regular training camps at the Karolyi ranch where they are evaluated and monitored by Karolyi and the national team staff.

This semi-centralized system has allowed up-and-coming gymnasts to stay at home, with the coach they've always trained with, rather than traveling the country in search of a powerhouse gym. It's also produced a lot of medals.

Since 2001, the Americans have won 13 gold medals at the world championships, including team titles in 2003 and 2007. The United States is the only country to win a medal at every world championships and Olympics in the last seven years.

USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny had not seen the HBO piece, but defended the Karolyis.

"The Karolyis have contributed a great deal to the success of our athletes over the years and continue to do so," he said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.