Gymnastics Ode to Joylessness

The women seemed tense and strained. This time it was the men who were fun to watch.

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Somewhere in the Olympic Village as the partying picks up pace, it is not hard to imagine a 14-year-old girl crying. Her name is Roza Galieva. She is the gymnast from the gold-winning Unified Team who successfully fought her way to the coveted all-around competition, only to be robbed of her chance. Her coaches, in their unified wisdom, decided that one of Galieva's teammates, Tatiana Gutsu, was more likely to bank gold even though she had flubbed during the earlier team competition. So they exaggerated a knee injury to bench Galieva, made a quick substitution and, lo, Gutsu was in. Sure enough, she won the gold. Now Gutsu's triumph, impressive as it was, will always carry a caveat -- "Remember? She didn't even qualify for the all-around." And Galieva will have to digest the bitter lesson that fairness and feelings count for nothing in gymnastics; all that matters is winning.

And that, in a nutshell, may explain the curious lack of joy last Thursday evening in the Palau Sant Jordi. The women's all-around should have been an energizing high for rapt spectators. The field of competitors was so deep with talent that on any given day, the gold medal could have hung deservedly on any one of eight necks from four countries. There was enough grace to satisfy balletomanes and enough difficulty to suggest that the laws of gravity ought to be rewritten. Yet there was little of the heartwarming drama that in Olympics past enabled audiences to lose their hearts to a charismatic Olga, a mysterious Nadia or an exuberant Mary Lou. The gymnasts often seemed more like automatons than human beings. Even on the medal stand, Gutsu and her fellow medalists -- Shannon Miller of the U.S. and Romania's Lavinia Milosovici -- conveyed little joy. They seemed to have not so much won as survived.

The men's competition had a different feel entirely. Early in the week, the Unified Team waged a spectacular last hurrah. Its gymnasts occupied four of the top five spots, and its sixth gymnast beat the best performer from the U.S. team. In a sport where differences are measured in thousandths of a point, the Unified Team twisted and spun to gold with more than five full points to spare over China and Japan. Coming a night after the women's tense team competition, the exuberance of the men's unified effort was a welcome relief. Teammates cheered and hugged and seemed to revel in the triumph of Vitali Scherbo, 20, who took top marks in three of the six events.

The night of the men's all-around, members of the Unified Team were again the ones to watch, but now they were rivals, even competing under different flags. Save for the challenge of Germany's Andreas Wecker, there was little doubt that the ex-Soviets would sweep the medals. The only question was, In what order? The suspense continued right to the end of the last event, when Scherbo of Belarus took the top mark on the rings, a 9.9, which secured him the gold. Ukraine's Grigory Misutin, 21, took silver, while the bronze went to Valeri Belenky, 22, of Azerbaijan.

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