BARCELONA '92 OLYMPICS : Is Karolyi's Beam Starting to Become Unbalanced? : Gymnastics: This could be the final Olympics for former Romanian guru, who sounds as if he is growing tired of the controversy.


He is tired of being the bad guy, of seasons without end, of a job that offers more headaches than perks, more heartaches than triumphs.

Most of all, he is tired of the controversy that swirls around him each time one of his little tumblers takes center stage at the Summer Olympics.

Saturday, Bela Karolyi, the U.S. Olympic gymnastics coach, sounded and acted like a man preparing to back away from day-to-day coaching.

"I have no intention to abandon gymnastics and run away from the sport I love so much," Karolyi said. "But I'd like to dedicate my time and energy in another direction. I'd like to try to give something back for my experience."

But before he can leave the mat for good, he has another competition to direct, another pixie to turn into a champion. Karolyi's pupil, Kim Zmeskal of Houston, and Shannon Miller of Edmond, Okla., will lead the United States in the women's team compulsory competition today.

But as the tumblers aim for golds, a question hangs over the sport: Could this be Karolyi's final Olympics?

"I want to wait until the Games are over to decide," he said. "It is not a matter to decide now."

After 30 years of guiding careers, of producing Olympic all-around champions Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, Karolyi finds himself under attack from forces inside and outside the gymnastics establishment.

The past few months have been the most traumatic in Karolyi's career, since his defection from Romania to the United States 11 years ago. Stung by newspaper and magazine articles that questioned his training methods, criticized for his apparent attempts to refashion the U.S. team after the Olympic trials in June at Baltimore, Karolyi said he has been unfairly portrayed as a villain.

"Many times I have been asking, 'What have I done the past 11 years?' " Karolyi said. "I was pictured as Dracula. I have done everything that needed to be done to help gymnastics."

But the sport has been rocked by a controversial selection process. Kim Kelly of King of Prussia, Pa., sixth in the trials, was cut from the team during a pre-Olympic training camp. Betty Okino of Elmhurst, Ill., was added to the squad despite sitting out the trials because of stress fractures in her back, and alternate Wendy Bruce of North Lauderdale, Fla., was moved up to the six-woman team.

The final cut was made Saturday when Michele Campi of Sacramento, bothered by a hamstring injury, was named as alternate.

"It seems as if it has been years since the trials," Zmeskal said.

And there is still a week of tension remaining. The United States has not one, but two gold-medal candidates in Zmeskal and Miller. The Americans are also expected to push the Unified Team for the team gold.

"We've got three super powers, the U.S., the Unified Team and the Romanians," said Steve Nunno, who coaches Miller. "And we've got two of our kids, Kim and Shannon, in the top six individual spots. They could finish 1-2. Will the judges allow it? I don't know."

But already, there is controversy. In the July 27 edition of Newsweek, Aleksandr Aleksandrov, the Unified Team women's coach, said Zmeskal exhibited only "mid-level gymnastics," and that if she competed in Russia "nobody would notice her, I guarantee it."

"After all," he said, "a gymnast must be presented so that she will be beautiful."

Zmeskal heard the comments Saturday and said: "Everyone can have an opinion."

Karolyi was not so generous. He immediately turned the criticism back on the former Soviets, blasting their former world champion, Svetlana Boginskaya.

"I still believe that Boginskaya was a very nice and beautiful page in athletic history," Karolyi said. "She left her mark in the late 1980s. You have to accept the reality. You have to make room for other athletes just as hungry."

But will Karolyi be just as hungry to produce another champion four years from now at the 1996 Atlanta Games?

"I've had no vacations," he said. "I've had no traveling. It was not a burden on me. Always, I consider it a privilege. But I am tired."

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