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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As for the Americans, a sixth-place team finish was followed by no higher than a 19th-place finish in the all-around. None of this came as much of a surprise, despite optimistic precompetition talk of a bronze medal. Most of the top U.S. male gymnasts are college students who abide by NCAA guidelines that restrict their training to 20 hours a week, roughly half the practice time of their main challengers. The American women, by contrast, are mostly still in high school and train in private gyms where no restrictions apply. Their discipline and dedication earned them a team bronze in a well-fought battle with the Unified Team and the Romanians -- the first such medal for the U.S. in a nonboycotted Olympics since 1948.

While excellence was evident on the U.S. women's team, a sense of unity was not. Certainly it didn't help that the six competitors and one alternate were thrown together only one month earlier. It helped even less that head coach Bela Karolyi and the other U.S. coaches bickered all the way to Barcelona. "The coaches hate each other," said someone close to the team. "Sometimes the girls feel as if they can't talk to each other because their coach will get upset." Word leaked out of the Olympic Village that the gymnasts were under strict regulations: no phone calls or leaving their rooms without permission, no unauthorized food. Small wonder that each gymnast performed her routine, looked anxiously to her personal coach for feedback, then turned inward to focus on the next event. In Olympics of old, the stony- faced Americans might have been mistaken for Soviets.

The Unified Team, meanwhile, displayed an uncharacteristic degree of emotionalism during their journey to a 10th gold in as many Olympics. While their camaraderie contrasted starkly with the Americans' standoffishness, the comparison is a bit unfair, since the team's members have lived and trained together for years. Perhaps because the six gymnasts from four republics will never again compete as one, they found it harder to keep their emotions in check. When Gutsu toppled from the balance beam, seemingly dashing her all- around hopes, the team surrounded her. The sight of Svetlana Boginskaya, 19, the team's long-reigning princess, wrapping her arms protectively around the shattered 15-year-old was enough to move even the unsentimental.

But two days later when Galieva miraculously came down with a "knee injury" -- thus clearing the way for Gutsu to compete -- it should have revived cold war cynicism. Instead, few rival coaches batted an eye. Indeed, just two weeks before the Olympics, a Pennsylvania gymnast named Kim Kelly, who had fulfilled the competitive requirements to make the U.S. team fair and square, was dropped from the squad by the American coaches to make room for another athlete they felt had greater potential. Kelly considered filing suit, then opted instead to show up in Barcelona, her presence a quiet rebuke of a selection process that even Karolyi denounces as "ugly."

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