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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

China's Leading Man Takes His Bows in Last Act

Gymnastics: Li wins gold, Nemov silver, Scherbo bronze. U.S. men improve but not enough.

July 25, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — It might have seemed like a dramatic moment, a crowd of 31,190 inside the Georgia Dome waiting for the scoreboard to flash scores from the last of six events for the only two gymnasts who still had a chance Wednesday to win the Olympic men's all-around gold medal.

But Russia's Alexei Nemov was not even tempted to look. He knew that he soon would be wearing the silver around his neck.

That reality hit him midway through his floor exercise when he rotated awkwardly out of a triple somersault and found himself in no position to add a crucial full twist. He ad-libbed, finding a place later in his routine for the missed element. But that so exhausted him that he took an extra step on his final landing. In Nemov's mind, he had given away the gold medal.

But as much as that might have satisfied his Russian yearning for a tragic ending, nothing could be further from the truth. Nemov competed admirably, particularly considering that he will undergo surgery on his left shoulder immediately after the Olympics. But when the gold medal was there to be won or lost, his principal rival, China's Li Xiaoshuang, competed brilliantly.

While Nemov was leaving the stage to be consoled by his coach, Li was completing his masterful routine on the horizontal bar. It was no surprise when the judges quickly rewarded him with a score of 9.787, his second-highest on any apparatus. To maintain the slight lead he held after five rotations and win the gold medal, Nemov's score on the floor would have to be 9.75. Moments later, the scoreboard told the story: 9.70.

In a spontaneous show of emotion, Li's coaches and teammates lofted him on their shoulders and carried him around the floor of the Georgia Dome. It was a moment to celebrate. He was China's first gymnastics all-around champion in the Olympics. More significantly, he was only the fourth gymnast from outside what is now known as the former Soviet Union to win in a non-boycotted Olympics, the first since 1972.

It wouldn't seem logical to say that the judges favored Li because 11 of them are former Soviets. But defending champion Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus, who finished third, said it anyway.

"I was disappointed not with how the judges judged me but how judges judged the other gymnasts, all my main competitors," Scherbo said, implying that their marks were too high. He amended that later, saying that he was referring specifically to Li.

They have a history. After winning the all-around title in the 1995 World Championships, Li said he did not consider Scherbo a threat in Atlanta. Li said the man who won an unprecedented six gymnastics gold medals four years ago in Barcelona was not proficient enough on the still rings.

Li must have possessed a particularly prescient fortune cookie. On Wednesday, Scherbo had by far his lowest score--9.587--on the rings. For the rest of the day, he was fighting to hold onto the bronze medal. Li, however, did not gloat, which Scherbo appreciated.

"He got a little bit more culture so he's more modest now," Scherbo said. "Maybe his father and mother taught him how to act after the World Championships. Or maybe his coach."

If Li has the most improved people skills since last year, then the Americans have the most improved gymnastics skills. At the World Championships in Sabae, Japan, the three U.S. men in the all-around finals, Blaine Wilson, John Roethlisberger and Jair Lynch, finished 25th, 30th and 31st, respectively.

On Wednesday, Roethlisberger finished seventh and Wilson 10th. The other finalist, John Macready, was 29th.

Except for the 1984 Olympics, which the Soviet Bloc boycotted, no American had come within a double layout of a top-10 finish since Wayne Young's 12th in 1976.

"I don't think anyone would have predicted us having two guys in the top 10," Roethlisberger said. "I've learned from this year. You don't have to be Superman to compete with these guys."

Roethlisberger was one of two U.S. gymnasts who fell off the pommel horse in Monday's team competition, perhaps costing the Americans a chance for a medal. They finished fifth.

Everyone knows what you do when you fall off a horse. Roethlisberger got back on and scored a 9.662 Wednesday.

"I got the last laugh on the pommel horse," said Roethlisberger, who pointed menacingly at the apparatus after his dismount. "There was no way in hell I was going to let the horse win today."

Except for the Americans, the biggest cheers from the crowd were reserved for Scherbo. Besides having won more Olympic and World Championship medals than any other gymnast in history, he has a heartwarming story.

Around last Christmas, his wife, Irina, was involved in a nearly fatal automobile accident near their home in State College, Pa., where he coaches and trains. He announced his retirement so that he could remain by her bedside. When it was apparent that she would recover, she implored him to return to the sport. He did, dedicating these Olympics to her.

"Of course, she was waiting for a gold medal," he said. "In my family, we don't know medals of another color."

He has four more chances, having advanced to next week's apparatus finals in the floor exercise, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bar. Only Nemov is involved in more finals, five.

Because he must face the judges again, Scherbo said he did not want to elaborate on his criticism.

"Guys, I have finals in a couple of days, and I don't want to talk about judges right now," he pleaded in the face of persistent questions from reporters. "But you will hear about judges after the finals. I promise you."

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