Karolyi and the Rush to Citizenship

He's not Citizen Karolyi yet, but he's on his way.

Bela Karolyi, who would otherwise be prohibited from coaching on the floor of the 1988 Olympics because of his lack of U.S. citizenship, is finding powerful allies in the U.S. Senate these days.

In fact, Idaho Senator Jim McClure has recently introduced the Bela Karolyi Citizenship Act, which could make him eligible for U.S. papers in time for the 1988 Games.

Karolyi, who had won fame coaching Nadia Comaneci and the rest of the Romanian team in the '70s, had defected in 1981 over what he called "government interference."

He quickly established himself as a force in women's gymnastics with a club in Houston that eventually developed Mary Lou Retton, the 1984 Olympic gold medal winner. He now has Olympic prospects Kristie Phillips and Phoebe Mills, which would at least make him a candidate to coach the U.S. team.

But because of a mix-up in paper work, Karolyi's citizenship papers were not filed in time to complete the five-year waiting period U.S. laws require before immigrants can become U.S. citizens. As it is now, Karolyi would not be eligible until a month after the 1988 Olympics.

Olympic rules state that an official team coach must be a citizen of the country he represents to be on the floor with his athletes.

This was made widely known recently when the ABC-TV's "20/20" profiled Karolyi and Phillips. Sen. McClure quickly introduced the bill, co-authored by Illinois senator Alan Dixon, aiming to expedite his citizenship.

The senator points out in his bill that it is only a matter of time, anyway, until Karolyi becomes a citizen.

Certainly, there are few people who so wholeheartedly embrace the American system. Karolyi is known these days by his cowboy clothes--he chose Houston because the West seemed so wild in the movies he used to see--and his entrepreneurial ways. For a one-time Socialist, his rival coaches complain, Karolyi sure is a powerful capitalist.

"Geez," said one, "nobody charges more than Bela."

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