BEIJING – Martha Karolyi kept staring over at these tiny Chinese opponents, their faces caked in makeup, and the disgust would rise within her.
"Little babies," she kept telling her team in the middle of the Olympic women's gymnastics team final. "Oh, look at the little babies."
The Americans would laugh about it, laugh at their coach bashing their opponents.
But for Martha, the U.S. national team coordinator, and her husband Bela, the NBC commentator, this was no joke. The Chinese had figured out how to upset their gymnastics dynasty, churning out these little athletic machines, perhaps so young they couldn't even sense the pressure of the moment.
The Karolyis couldn't handle the results on Wednesday, a precise Chinese team, powered by three girls under suspicion for being just 14 years old, blowing out a stumbling crew of Americans. Courtesy of a 188.9-186.525 score, China took gold to the Americans' silver.
What kills the Karolyis isn't that the Chinese would risk the health of their children by throwing them out here before their bones and muscles mature. It's that the Americans won't allow the Karolyis to do it, too.
This isn't a morality play here. In truth, no matter Martha and Bela's bleating, no one knows how old the Chinese girls were. This was a myopic focus of the Karolyis on someone outfoxing them.
Win or lose, they have to be the center of attention – from carrying Kerri Strug around for the cameras in Atlanta, to carrying on and on here in Beijing. It feeds their machine, increases their power in USA Gymnastics and convinces another generation of parents that they alone are best to make their tumbling daughter's dream come true.
"One little girl has (a) missing tooth," Martha sniffed with indignation at the Chinese, although she would offer no name and admit she "has no proof" of anything.
Later she'd claim, without any substance and lacking facts, that Olympic judges delayed Alicia Sacramone from starting her beam routine in an effort to shake her concentration.
"There was no reason for it," she said.
Martha had all sorts of conspiracies going, a bushel of sour grapes.
American media accounts have alleged, citing birthdates on old documents, that China was using gymnasts under the mandated age of 16. The Chinese produced passports that showed the girls were old enough, the International Olympic Committee accepted them and everyone says the issue is closed.
Not with the Karolyis it isn't. Earlier this week, Bela declared the Chinese were using "half people" and hammered them for cheating and arrogance. During the NBC broadcast of Wednesday's competition, at least three times he reasserted the charge.
Martha was no less diplomatic. Her team had crumbled under the pressure, made mistake after mistake after mistake and, to their credit, took the result with dignity.
"They had a great meet," Shawn Johnson said. "They deserve that medal."
Martha would have none of it. For whatever faint praise she would offer the Chinese, there were wild accusations of delay conspiracies and cheat birthdays to put smaller, more nimble girls in the competition.
For each acknowledgement of her team's own foibles, she stood in the middle of the media backstage swinging around, tossing out bombs, seeking more questions so she could offer more fuel to the fire.
"So much talk about this," she said.
Even in the unlikely event everything Martha could dream up was true, even if the Americans had just been on the wrong end of this historic cheating, it was neither the time nor the place for pouting. Not after all the falls and stumbles.
Yet she kept claiming it was "a close fight." It wasn't.
This was all a losers' lament, an embarrassment. The U.S. had no credibility left. The gymnasts understood that. They rightly accepted the blame for only winning silver with a team that is beyond reproach.
The Karolyis couldn't just lose with dignity. They couldn't accept their gymnasts' best. They look across the way and lust over a system that might allow them to trot out a 4-foot-6, 68-pounder who bends and flips with ease. Bela coached Nadia Comaneci to seven perfect 10s in the 1976 Olympics. She was 14.
With glory like that, who would remember all the other little girls who were injured? Who would care?
This was a nightmare for Martha. She had to watch Sacramone, a 20-year-old woman, crumble under the pressure and stumble off a beam. Meanwhile, the Chinese kept sticking their landings.
"Little babies," she barked.
It was too much to bear. The little babies had gotten her. The little babies were driving her and her husband nuts.
The little babies were winning gold.