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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That nothing worked out in the all-around quite as predicted was, well, predictable. Gymnastics, after all, is a sport where athletes are in a race against not only one another but their own maturing bodies. Going in, the favorites included Boginskaya, Kim Zmeskal of the U.S. and Romania's Cristina Bontas. Each was kept off the medal podium by a younger teammate. Under the "new life" rules enacted in 1989, which allow the gymnasts to enter the all-around with a clean slate, Gutsu was able to set aside her earlier wobbles during the team contest. Competing under the Ukrainian flag, she performed some of the evening's most difficult routines.

The U.S.'s Shannon Miller hardly needed a fresh start after the team rounds. The graceful 15-year-old had performed solidly throughout that competition, and she continued without any major breaks in the individual all-around. If there had been a gold medal for consistency, Miller would have been without rival. As it was, she missed the gold by only 0.012 -- whatever that means. Miller and Milosovici were the only gymnasts who qualified for all four apparatus finals, and there Miller shone again, taking a silver on the beam and a bronze on both the bars and floor.

For Zmeskal, 16, it was an Olympics filled with tragic falls, heroic recoveries and disappointing finishes. A Karolyi protege who had been expected to take a run at the gold, the Texan got off to a shaky start with a spill from the beam during her first pass on her first piece of apparatus on her first day of competition. Showing her grit, she fought back and secured a legitimate place in the all-around. But come that night, she was again jittery on her first event, stepping out of bounds on her floor routine, losing an automatic 0.1 point. She finished 10th. In the apparatus finals, she crash- / landed on a vault, then fought back with a rousing floor routine -- only to be scorned again by the judges.

Surely Zmeskal's confidence was not boosted by Karolyi's announcement -- oddly timed after the team finals but before the all-around -- that he was retiring from elite gymnastic competition. Given Karolyi's fierce politicking, it was not unreasonable to wonder if he thought there might be some advantage in this announcement for Zmeskal and another of his gymnasts, Betty Okino. Perhaps he thought the judges would smile more benignly upon them, or that it might inspire one of them to cap his coaching career with a seventh gold medal. If so, it didn't work. And those who know him well, including Mary Lou Retton and Zmeskal, say they don't believe he's really quitting. "You must understand," says Yuri Titov, president of the International Gymnastics Federation, "it is just a form of theater."

Miller's coach, Steve Nunno, also did a bit of spotlight hogging. In vintage Karolyi style, he screamed and flailed his arms and offered photo-op bear hugs. When Miller got a 9.975 on her vault, enough to secure only the silver, Nunno complained that she had been robbed of the gold. "She was the winner, no doubt in my mind," he said. "I thought it was a 10." Never mind that the women's judges awarded no 10s that day, and awarded only two during the entire competition. Never mind that others far younger who also felt robbed handled it with considerably more grace.

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