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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

For Americans, an Unhappy Ride Into Sunset

Gymnastics: Men falter and finish fifth, failing to win first team medal in non-boycott Olympics since 1932.

July 23, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Halfway through the Olympic men's gymnastics optional team finals Monday, the bronze medal was still there for the United States' taking. There, the pommel horse stood, ready to be hitched up and ridden off into the sunset so that everybody in red, white and blue might live happily ever after.

But this is gymnastics, where nothing ever happens the way it does in cowboy movies. Instead of riding to the rescue, the good old American way, John Roethlisberger and Mihai Bagiu saddled up, prepared to make a late charge and then--cue cavalry bugle bleat--fell off the horse.

The white hats wound up in the dust, and the United States limped away in fifth place, one notch better than its showing in Barcelona in 1992, but still a good distance shy of its first men's team medal in a non-boycott Olympics since 1932.

"Blame me," said U.S. Coach Peter Kormann, who instructed his gymnasts to "push the envelope" on the pommel horse, realizing the Americans needed some last-gasp derring-do if they were going to catch Ukraine for third. Roethlisberger and Bagiu obliged, but their attempts to pump up their degree-of-difficulty marks ended with their stocking feet on the mat--not good when the idea is to complete the ride without interruption.

"If those two guys went with more conservative routines, they'd have had higher scores and we might have done better," Kormann said. "So blame me. Whatever. Call it a coaching mistake."

Or, blame Mikhail Gorbachev. Three former Soviet republics finished ahead of the United States--gold medalist Russia (576.778), bronze medalist Ukraine (571.541) and fourth place Belarus (571.381). China (575.539) placed second. Had the Soviet Union never broken up, the 1-2-3 finish would have read: USSR, China, USA.

Converting to capitalism always comes at a price to someone.

So, the United States (570.618) had to try to console itself with fifth place. Post-meet, the Americans made a gallant attempt.

"I told the guys to be proud of themselves," said Kormann, a bronze medalist in the floor exercise in the 1976 Olympics. "This is the most improved team in the world. They were ninth in '94 and '95, and today they moved up to fifth."

Echoed U.S. gymnast Kip Simons: "We moved up four spots in the world. To me, that's awesome."

It might have been more, but the Americans fell five times in 36 exercises Monday. John Macready led off the day by banging his thigh against the right parallel bar on the Americans' first routine--resulting in a less-than-auspicious 8.85 ice-breaker.

"We stopped the bleeding after that," U.S. gymnast Jair Lynch said, but the tourniquet lasted only until floor exercise. There, Blaine Wilson finished a dynamic routine by one-hopping his landing and stumbling backward out of bounds. Automatic half-point deduction--and a 9.7 exercise gets graded down to 9.2.

Bagiu and Roethlisberger, the Americans' best on the pommel horse, followed with back-to-back slips, killing off any plausible rally with scores of 9.0 and 9.1. And finally, during the last rotation of the meet, Macready landed his vault on the seat of his tights for an over-and-out grade of 9.15.

"They weren't absolutely perfect," Kormann said, "but we made enormous improvement. Everyone wants to have a perfect team. We had some rough spots, but they fought hard. We were in the hunt the whole way. One year ago, no one would have thought we would be in the hunt for a medal."

The U.S. team salvaged something from the afternoon by placing three gymnasts among the top 36, thus qualifying them for Wednesday's all-around competition. Roethlisberger finished fifth, Wilson 12th and Macready 33rd to qualify for the all-arounds.

Two Americans also qualified for the individual apparatus finals--Wilson on rings and Lynch on parallel bars.

Russia had two of the top three individual qualifiers, first place Alexei Nemov and third place Alexei Voropaev. Defending Olympic all-around champion Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus is in second after joining Roethlisberger and Bagiu in tumbles off the pommel horse.

China's Li Xiaoshuang, the 1995 world champion, is sixth, hit hard by an 8.35 score in his compulsory rings exercise.

Four years ago, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine competed together at the Olympics under the Unified Team banner. That team won the gold medal and swept the all-around medals, with Scherbo taking the gold.

Now, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are independent states and Olympic rivals. They compete in peculiar colors, as well--the Russians in black and white, Belarus in beige, Ukrainians in purple. No visible remnants of the old Big Red Machine anywhere.

Only the individual scores look familiar.

"We have not been victimized by the collapse of the Soviet Union," Russian Coach Leonid Arkaev said. "The only difference is now, we compete as the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

"One year prior to these games, the Russian federation spent $470,000 on new equipment as that it would be similar to what we are using here.

"We have had ups and downs in the past four years, but everything has stabilized. And, it will be better in the future."

Arkaev was asked how the Russians planned to celebrate this gold medal, won on American soil.

He held up a half-empty can of a sports drink manufactured by the Coca-Cola Co.

"That is what we have been doing," Arkaev announced with a broad grin. He playfully took another swig. Not vodka, but in a pinch, it seemed to suffice just fine.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Medalists / Men's Gymnastics

MEN'S TEAM FINAL

Gold: Russia

Silver: China

Bronze: Ukraine

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