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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Gymnastics : WOMEN'S

July 14, 1996|MIKE PENNER

In gymnastics, there is danger beneath all that glamour. Just ask Dominique Moceanu, below, of the United States, who will be trying to come back from a nasty stress fracture. Overall, the U.S. women's team should hang with the best. It's unclear, meanwhile, whether the American men will bring home even one medal. The favorite? China.

WHAT WE KNOW

Third in the '92 Olympics. Second in the '94 world championships. Third in the '95 worlds. The U.S. women are good enough to hang with the best, but breaking the Romania-Chinese stranglehold on the sport will be a task, even with the home-floor advantage in Atlanta.

Romania has won the last two world championships with ease, relying more on depth than individual brilliance. Lavinia Milosovici and Simona Amanar placed 3-4 in the all-around competition at the world championships and 14th-place Gina Gogean won individual medals in the floor exercise and vault. But the Romanian to watch is Alexandra Marinescu, who just turned 14, and is the latest to bear the Next Nadia mantle.

China placed second in the '95 world championships and would have won the individual all-around title if Mo Huilan hadn't fallen off the balance beam, usually her best event. Instead, Lilia Pokopayeva of the Ukraine won the all-around championship, a feat she repeated at the 1996 European championships.

In rhythmic gymnastics, Bulgaria, Spain and Belarus are the team medal favorites, with Maria Petrova (Bulgaria) and Ekaterina Serebrianskaya (Ukraine) the top individual contenders.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW

The most famous X-ray in these Olympics belongs to 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu, who was handpicked by Bela Karolyi to follow Nadia and Mary Lou down the path to gold-medal glory, all ready to go, before she suffered a nasty stress fracture in her right shin at the U.S. national championships in early June.

The X-ray shows a four-inch long fracture zig-zagging its way down the tibia--an image so frightening that Karolyi initially refused to show it to Moceanu. "It was bad," Karolyi says. "A full split. I didn't want her crying like a baby, so we decided it was something she shouldn't even see. I just explained it to her--'This is reality, you have to face it and deal with it.' "

Moceanu qualified for the Olympics by way of an injury-waiver petition. Before the injury, she was considered the best U.S. hope for gold medals in the all-around competition and on the beam. Now? All of America will be glued to their big screens, waiting to find out.

SOMEONE YOU SHOULD KNOW

On the tiny shoulders of "Little Mo" Huilan' rides the gold-medal hopes of a nation of 1.2 billion people.

China's silver medal at the 1995 world championship was largely the achievement of Huilan, who won individual medals on the beam (gold, 9.90) and uneven bars (silver, 9.837) and led the all-around field until she slipped on the beam--a misstep that dropped her from first to sixth.

Huilan is the first woman to perform a "Gaylord salto" on the uneven bars--a 1 1/2 flip over the bar before re-grasping, one of the most difficult maneuvers in the sport.

SOMETHING YOU SHOULD KNOW

American women have never won a team gymnastics gold medal in an Olympic or world championship competition. Their best showing in a non-boycott Olympics is bronze, which they achieved in both 1948 and 1992.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Smaller Gymnasts

As gymnasts age, their bodies change. This can effect their performance in several ways:

A taller body rotates more slowly around the bar and over the vault.

New center of gravity may affect balance, making the beam seem smaller.

Breasts and hips slow the spins and lower the leaps.

Olympic gold medalists

In 1956, the gold and silver winner were 35 and 21 years old.

1968:

Vera Caslavska

26 years old

5' 3", 121 lbs.

1972:

Olga Korbut

17 years old

4' 11", 85 lbs.

1976:

Nadia Comaneci

14 years old

5' 0", 85 lbs.

*

U.S. Olympic team averages

1976:

17 1/2 years old

5' 3 1/2", 106 lbs.

1996:

16 years old

4' 9" , 83 lbs.

Balance Beam

An acrobatic series with tumbling and dance moves, a 360-degree turn and jumps. Routines last 70 to 90 seconds.

Key move: A solid back handspring is key to tumbling passes.

1. With eyes focused on end of beam for balance, gymnast quickly flip-flops backward with straight legs, using a strong push off hands.

2. Lands with front leg bent, back leg straight, thighs squeezed tight to keep hips square.

Floor Exercise

An exciting and graceful blend of dance and acrobatics. Tumbling passes, dance moves and displays of strength, balance and flexibility should flow harmoniously. Routines last 70 to 90 seconds and cover entire floor.

1. Gymnast does a power start.

2. Hurdle step gathers energy for the roundoff.

3. As the gymnast turns into the roundoff, the legs whip over the body.

4. Legs trail body as it flips over in handspring.

5. As feet punch floor at completion of handspring, all energy created by the run, roundoff and handspring come together.

Key move: A roundoff, back handspring creates acceleration and tempo needed for a complicated tumbling pass.

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