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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | TODAY'S CLOSEUP

Royal Treatment Has U.S. Women Thinking of Gold

July 23, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — They have been treated like little princesses, sequestered in comfort far from the madding crowds inside the Olympic village and whisked from living quarters to "top-secret" training center to the Georgia Dome via private, air-conditioned shuttle bus.

The rival Romanians furrow their brows as they sweat inside the bus that schleps them to practice and grumble, "Why the special treatment?"

The Americans simply glance at their new manicures and repeat after one another: It's good to have the home-court advantage.

Today, however, payback is due for the U.S. women's gymnastics team.

All the primping, all the pampering has had a purpose, which is to erase this nagging sentence from the history of American women's gymnastics: Never won a gold medal in a major international meet.

The U.S. women, as a team, are 0-for-Olympics and 0-for-World Championships. An uninterrupted streak of almosts and not-quites unaffected by even Mary Lou Retton and a Soviet boycott in 1984. That year, also on home turf, the American women finished second. Romania won the gold.

But the Americans have never been closer than they are today--in second place after compulsories, only .127 behind Russia and better than half a point ahead of third-place Romania.

The Russians, the U.S. team believes, are catchable; the United States edged Russia for the bronze at the 1995 World Championships. And Romania, if not in tatters, is in bandages and braces. Amamaria Bican tore knee ligaments just before the Olympics, Andrea Cacovean is sidelined because of a bad back and Gina Gogean, 1995 world champion in the floor exercise, underwent an appendectomy a month ago.

And China? Among the pre-meet favorites for the title, the Chinese all but imploded in Sunday's compulsories--a predicament epitomized by star Mo Huilan forlornly hanging on the top uneven bar for a prolonged, painful moment after failing to turn a simple roll over the bar. The Chinese finished the day fifth, nearly two points behind Russia.

As springboards go, for the Americans, it doesn't get better than this.

Steve Nunno, the rather excitable personal coach of Shannon Miller, enthused, "I've watched the Chinese and I've watched the Russians, and I think we've got the strongest team here.

"The Romanians are the world champions, and in the optionals they're going to get the benefit of doubt [from the judges]. But head to head, in our home gym, I think we've got a tremendous chance."

The United States begins the optional finals with four gymnasts individually ranked in the top 12--Miller (second place behind Lilia Podkopayeva of Ukraine), Dominique Moceanu (fifth), Kerri Strug (ninth) and Dominique Dawes (11th). Before Sunday, Miller and Moceanu hadn't competed for more than a month because of wrist and leg injuries, but both completed their compulsory routines with little apparent trouble.

"I know the possibility is there," U.S. Coach Martha Karolyi said, referring to the gold medal. "We must do our very best routines and do the best that we can. If we do, we will get the gold."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Team Competition / Women's Gymnastics

The teams: Twelve teams of six gymnasts compete in compulsory exercises along with individuals, and are then ranked before competing in optional exercises.

How team are scored: The best five of six athletes' scores in each event are counted. The team with highest total score from both the compulsory and optional exercises wins. Individuals start each routine with a less than perfect 9.40. In awarding the scores, judges take into consideration the degree of difficulty and aesthetic appeal of a gymnast's program.

Current leaders:

Russia: 193.796 Points

U.S.: 193.669 Points

Romania: 193.138 Points

Ukraine: 192.308

China: 191.933

*

Past Gold Medalists

1992: Unified Team

1988: Soviet Union

1984: Romania

1980: Soviet Union

1976: Soviet Union

1972: Soviet Union

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