Thursday, April 8, 2010

Interview With Kathy Johnson Clarke


Back in the day, I interviewed Kathy Johnson Clarke and gave her the opportunity to speak about her Olympic experience and views on the sport. Less these get lost forever, here are some parts of the Q+A. Kathy was very chatty. I was hyped up on coffee and she spoke for four hours. There were all sorts of dilemmas happening with my bladder as the interview went on. I got sick back when I wrote my old blog and lost the motivation to keep going. Doing a more serious blog was much more work intensive, or at least overwhelming. Sadly, there are tapes of interviews and notebooks that sit in my closet waiting to be archived.

Note, this interview took place in August 2006.

Q: Gymnastics was a staple on ABC’s Wide World of Sports for decades. Why was gymnastics dropped from ABC Sports when the Wide World of Sports format changed?

KJC: The FIG made a big mistake when it came to renew their contract with ABC Sports. I really wish that they would’ve allowed me and Bart to enter the equation and help with negotiations. ABC Sports offered the FIG a deal that would air every FIG event, artistic, rhythmic, trampoline and tumbling, spread out over the ABC, ESPN, ESPN 2, Lifetime and ABC Family networks, but it didn’t offer them much money. The FIG looked at the deal that the International Figure Skating Union made with ABC Sports and wanted more money. Once the FIG asked for more money, ABC Sports retracted their offer.
The FIG made a mistake; they thought they were Figure Skating, especially after the success of the American team at the 1996 Olympics. Gymnastics is only Figure Skating once every four years; we just don’t have the same fan base to carry us during the in-between years.
The deal would’ve given Bart and me more work than we would’ve wanted or needed. Instead, I wound up retiring early. I do commentary for the NCAA meets on ESPN and Fox Sports Net, but I spend the rest of the time with my family.
I think it is very sad that gymnastics is not on television more. The United States has one of the strongest teams they have ever had on the women’s side and no one is exposed to them. Nastia [Liukin], Chellsie [Memmel] and Alicia [Sacramone] won world titles, but no one saw them. I didn’t even see the 2005 World Championships; I just don’t have time to sit in front of my computer and watch gymnastics.

Q: There are so many criticisms of gymnastics commentators on television, especially on NBC. Who are your favorite commentators?

KJC: I have always adored the work that Jim McCay did on Wide World of Sports. I prefer how ABC covered the Olympics, bringing the games to the people as they happened, as opposed to creating the drama, which NBC does.
I really enjoyed Gordon Maddox and Cathy Rigby in their earlier years. Elfi [Schlegel] is often criticized for her work on NBC, but she was excellent when she commentated for Canadian television.
I really prefer to watch the live world feed of the Olympics; I hate watching it through the prism of other people’s perception. I don’t like how NBC delays and post-produces the Olympics even when they don’t need to.
In other sports, I really enjoy Dick [Button] and Peggy [Fleming]. Who couldn’t love them? Peggy may not be the most brilliant women, but she is lovely and doesn’t get in the way. They are both just so glamorous themselves.
I don’t enjoy biting commentary. I really admire the athletes. I’ll point out falls and mistakes, but I hope I never cross the line to where I hurt someone’s feelings. There are some things that people can’t fix, especially in college.

Q: What was it like competing in the Olympic All Around Finals, the biggest night of the Olympics, after waiting for so long to get the opportunity?

KJC: The All Around was a tough competition for me. I started on the Uneven Bars, hit the best routine of my life, and scored a 9.9. I saw Mary Lou [Retton] score a 9.85 and I started to see results before they happened. I had entered the competition in sixth place and moved up to fourth after bars; I had my two best events ahead of me. I started to feel that I was going to get a 10 on beam, I just knew it.
I really went for the 10 on beam, instead of just doing my routine the way I usually did it. Sometimes I had a bent trail leg on my layout step-out and I made sure that I extended it. You don’t change your thought process mid-routine at the Olympic Games. I fell off the beam and scored a 9.4 with the fall.
After beam I knew that I wasn’t totally out of the competition, because people were falling. I went to floor and did the biggest, highest triple full and fell off of the floor exercise mat. That was a nightmare; I almost died inside. That was one of the lowest moments in my life.

Q: How did you recover emotionally in time for the event finals?

KJC: We had a team meeting after the all around finals; Mary Lou was ecstatic and everything was starting to take off for her. Julianne and I were an entirely different world. Don pulled me aside to tell me when training was. I looked at him and asked ‘Are you serious?” He went off on me and was cussing, because I was older and he knew I could take it. I have never seen him go off on anyone like that. After Don finished yelling, Roe Kreutzer came over to me and said ‘He’s as broken hearted as you are; he doesn’t know what he’s doing.’
I walked around like a shell for a day and half. I had a great workout the next day, but just wasn’t there emotionally. I kept telling myself that I was a quitter and that I needed to pull myself together to do it for myself and my family. I envisioned myself falling from the beam five times in event finals; I couldn’t envision doing well. I couldn’t believe that I had come this far and was giving it. I told myself, “How dare you! You brat!” I really had no idea what would happen the next day in event finals.

Q: Dianne Durham missed making the 1984 Olympic Team because of a technicality regarding petitioning onto the Olympic Team. Ironically, you were the athlete that benefited from this, by finishing in eighth place at the trials and earning the last spot on the training squad. Bela Karolyi has placed a lot of blame on Don Peters for Dianne Durham not making the squad. As Peters’ athlete and the athlete who earned the final spot, do you feel any residual guilt towards Dianne Durham?

KJC: Diane should really feel that it was Bela’s fault that she didn’t make the team. The account of the event that he tells in his autobiography is inaccurate.
There are USOC approved selection procedures for the Olympic Trials; the USAG can’t just determine the procedure. In 1984, there was a very detailed procedure written by Don Peters and Cheryl Grace to select the best team and protect everybody. There was no question going into the Olympic Trials that the only way an athlete could petition onto the team was if they finished in the top eight in the world in either the all around or the event finals at the 1983 World Championships. Julianne and I were the only people eligible to petition onto the team, not even Mary Lou could have petitioned, because she didn’t compete at the worlds, nor did Dianne.
I could have stopped and petitioned after I missed a handstand on bars, but I didn’t. I knew from training with Dianne at her time at SCATS that she was struggling with getting through her optional bar routine; she just wasn’t in great shape for optionals. After Dianne tweaked her ankle on vault, Bela said that he was going to scratch her. Don went over to Bela and told him to tell her to just get through her bar routine. Don was screaming at Bela, telling him that she couldn’t petition. Bela thought he could pull a “Bela” and get her onto the team, but this isn’t a communist country like Romania. By law, Diane couldn’t petition.
Don wanted Dianne Durham in the mix; he bleeds red, white and blue. He would’ve sat any of us if we weren’t prepared to compete. I feel badly for Dianne; she has neither a World Championships nor an Olympic Games in her memory. For all that she accomplished, it is sad that she never was able to compete at a big event.

Q: Have you ever received complaints from coaches or athletes regarding your commentary?

KJC: Chelle Stack told me recently that she had been upset after hearing me criticize her bent legs on beam during the 1988 International Mixed Pairs Competition. She later when to SCATS and learned about the importance of form and extension and said that she really appreciated that I pointed her errors.
I also received a strongly worded from Mary Lou Retton’s agent regarding a story I told about her at an American Cup during the 1980s. I said on the air that I thought it was phenomenal that she stuck her vault perfectly when she needed to at the 1984 Olympics, because I can’t ever remember her sticking a vault before then. I said that it was historical and the most phenomenal moment of the 1984 Olympics. Her agent wrote to me: ‘I think that a National and Olympic Champion would’ve stuck more than one vault in her career.’ I called her agent and realized that it was her agent, not Mary Lou Retton, who was upset. Her agent felt that she needed to be bigger than life. He also said that he wished the rest of the 1984 Olympic Team could be closer to Mary Lou.
I competed at four world championships; my greatest claim to fame is not that I know Mary Lou Retton. Had the Olympics happened a year earlier and had I done what I did at the World Championships, I could’ve been the one of the Wheaties Box. I don’t blame Mary Lou Retton for getting caught up in fame. Everyone’s experience is unique to themselves. I think she felt that things were hard for her because she was required to have knee surgery shortly before the Olympics. She was young and never competed at a World Championships and never saw what she was missing out on by the Eastern Block boycotting the Olympics. She beat two soviets at the 1983 Chunichi Cup when they weren’t at their best, and I think she honestly thought she was the best gymnast in the world at that time.

Q: In 1988, the US team lost the bronze medal due to a neutral deduction being taken for Rhonda Faehn being present on the podium during team optionals. As a venerable international gymnast and member of USA gymnastics, how did the coaches miss this and enable it to occur? Was it fair?

KJC: One must realize that Bela Karolyi doesn’t give a [second thought] about rules. Some of the rules are stupid and arbitrary, such as always having a flag on a leotard, but every gymnast follows them. The US Team had to scramble for flags in France at the 1978 Worlds because we were unaware of the rules.
Don Peters, the National Team Coach during the 1980s, knew the rules and looked out for the team. In 1984, the moment Bela jumped over the boards when Mary Lou [Retton] won the All Around, he had violated a rule. Ellen Berger walked around the arena set to take the deduction. Ellen is a stickler for rules, it is how she is. Bela continually put things in her face. Don was yelling at Bela to get back behind the boards, but Bela wouldn’t listen. Bela has claimed that Don was trying to steal his thunder. For Don, it was not about stealing the show; it was about not getting the deduction.
Don intercepted Ellen and convinced her that it was a horrible idea to take the deduction against Mary Lou at an event being held in the USA. For Ellen and those in the gymnastics community, it was clear that Szabo was the best gymnast at the time; it would’ve been a whole different story if she hadn’t fallen on her bar dismount during team finals. This entire situation left Berger fuming. It set up the 1988 Olympics. [Bela] better follow the rules there.
In 1988, Bela was so concerned with being the Olympic Team Coach, but he didn’t know anything about the duties and responsibilities that went along with it. Bela never dealt with rules or paperwork, Martha took care of it. After Bela’s huge fuss in ’88, Don removed himself and Bela was named Head Coach and Donna Strauss was named his assistant. They were head coach wannabes. Bela doesn’t know or care about the rules. During the team finals, Rhonda, the alternate, was told to move the board when the team Rhonda asked Donna ‘Do I stay or jump off?’ Donna said to ask Bela because she didn’t know. Bela told her to just stay on the podium and duck.
I knew this rule; we practiced this rule in my day. The moment [Rhonda] did that, I went ‘oh [no]’. Ellen Berger wasn’t going to let him get away with his antics again. The worst part is that Bela let Rhonda take the fall. He said nothing to the world about the situation and just told her it was a stupid rule and that Ellen Berger was out to get us. The entire situation was avoidable.

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