In Tatters and Tears

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The tears didn't come immediately, and not in public view. Svetlana Khorkina, Russia's best hope for an individual gold medal in gymnastics, had fallen. She slipped from the uneven bars an unbelievable second time in a week. She hadn't lost on that apparatus in seven years, and that streak included getting gold in Atlanta. Now, in Sydney, she walked off the mats, brushed past her coach — a man who had been with her since grammar school — and went to sit alone. She held back the tears as the sports paparazzi pressed in, waiting for her to crack.

And, of course, she did, eventually, and that embarrassed her more. It was difficult to watch, and it should be pointed out quickly that it wasn't just Khorkina in tatters and tears, it was the entire Russian team. Everything was upside down in the land Down Under: Americans were 0-3 in softball, and Russians were falling off gym equipment. Leonid Arkaev, the Russian head coach and maker of champions since 1968, was flabbergasted. "I don't know how to prepare for failure, it's never happened to me," he said before the competition started. Indeed, Russian gymnastic teams hadn't gone home without at least one championship in 40 years.

The Russian men's team, either as the Russian Federation or the Soviet Union, had not lost an Olympic title since 1976 until it got bronzed last week by the Chinese and the Ukrainians. Arkaev said the team was not in the best of health, but it might be assumed that when the Russians found themselves in fourth place and nearly two full points behind the Chinese after the fourth rotation, it would make anyone sick. The women got silver, a performance only slightly less humbling. When team leader Khorkina fell off the uneven bars for the first time in her disastrous week, the team dropped to second behind Romania. The Romanians have been winning World Championships of late, but they had never won a team gold in an unboycotted Olympics.

The Russians took it hard. This, succinctly, from the tight-lipped Arkaev: "We were expecting gold." But now he didn't have it — in the team competition, at least — and so he reset his sights on the individual all-around finals. Alexei Nemov, 24, the anchor of the Russian team, was the most decorated gymnast in Atlanta when he took home six medals. But he did not get the title of best male gymnast that year — it went China's Li Xiaoshuang. Like Khorkina, the glamorous Nemov was here for his final Olympics, but he almost didn't make it. He had dropped out of training for two years after Atlanta, gained weight, lost it again, went into training, fell back out. Only in the past year did he settle down and train seriously.

Friends attribute his new attitude to his wife of three months, Galya. She was a receptionist at the famed "Lake of the Circle" training camp outside Moscow. She is five years older than he, and when they fell in love she left her husband, took her eight-year-old son and moved in with her mother, who lives near the training camp. "It was Galya who awoke a new interest in gymnastics for him," says Russian journalist Oxsana Tonkatsheeva, who is writing a book on the Russian team. "She made him want to train again."

On Sept. 2 Galya gave Nemov another reason to win. While he was training in Adelaide, his son Alexei was born in Moscow. Nemov had not even seen a photo of the baby when he took the floor and whirled from apparatus to apparatus, holding his first place lead throughout and finally taking the gold by a whisper from China's Yang Wei. "A lot of things helped me, but what was important is that now I know I have a son," he said afterward.

Nemov's gold set Russians' expectations high for Svetlana Khorkina on the next night when the women were to compete for the all-around title. If they couldn't have the team golds, at least they had a crack at putting two Russians in the two top individual slots. But no. Svetlana shot over the vault and landed with a thump, shattering her mental preparation just before she went to the bars where, yet again, she wound up on the floor. She walked out of the gym and it seemed for moment that finding herself in 18th place, she had given up and would not even try to compete on the last apparatus. But the girl who had the nerve to pose nude in Russian Playboy came back in and got up on the beam, normally her weakest event.

Nostrils flaring, and gold dust sparkling at the dark roots of her trendy bleached hair, she cruised through her routine like an elegant and angry bird. As she moved, the crowd was reminded how big she is for gymnast. At 164 cm., she looks as almost as tall as the beam is long. After the beam, Svetlana deflated and turned back into a too-skinny girl whose leotard was too short in the arms. She sunk into a chair sulking from sidelines until she got word that there had been a problem with the vault. For the first half of the competition, the vault had been set 5 cm. too low. For a gymnast, especially a tall one, this is the equivalent of removing a step in a flight of stairs.

The unprecedented error threw the competition into turmoil. The Romanians were on their way to sweeping first second and third place. But now the girls who had taken the vault on the faulty apparatus were being given a scond chance. Five of them took it (not including Khorkina), though their scores did not change the position of the top three gymnasts. Nearly every one of the gymnasts over 153 cm had fallen or done badly. The Romanian gold medalist Andreea Raducan had sailed through the event, but she is only 148 cm. The impact of the miscalculation could not be overstated.

Questions arose. If Svetlana hadn't fallen on the vault, would she have made the error on the bars? "She was obviously handicapped on the vault," said U.S. team coordinator Bela Karolyi. "That's what started her downfall because when your confidence is shaken, you are open to another mistake." Added Russian team official Valeri Dianov: "She was emotionally depressed after that. We expected her to be Olympic champion. This is the worst performance the Russian team has ever had at the Olympics." Knowing she'd need an impossibly high score to take even a bronze medal, Svetlana chose not to redo her vault and leave the question of who was the best female gymnast in the world open to discussion. Earlier in the week, before disaster struck, she had said, "losing isn't the worst thing that can happen to you." Now she had more reason to take that advice to heart.