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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

United They Stand. . . : Divided They Fall

Gymnastics: Americans simply get floored this time as Miller is eighth, Moceanu is ninth and Dawes is 17th.

July 26, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton attended the Olympic women's gymnastics all-around finals at the Georgia Dome Thursday night, and a diving competition broke out.

Oh, say, can you see how those individual American rankings cannonballed all over the floor exercise mat?

Dominique Dawes plunged from first place to 20th with one spectacular pratfall at the end of her second tumbling pass across the carpet, nearly landing in the seldom-advised take-a-seat position. Dawes stayed up, barely, but in her leg-churning struggle to do so, both feet kicked out of bounds for crucial deductions. Dawes was tagged with a score of 9.0, eventually finishing the meet tied for 17th.

Shannon Miller, the defending silver medalist, was tied for second when she too stepped onto the floor exercise area and ventured out of bounds. Tenth-of-a-point deduction, 10th place after three rotations, on her way to a eighth-place finish.

Dominique Moceanu, the injury replacement for Kerri Strug, also strayed far and wide and into trouble, as 14-year-olds are sometimes apt to do. Moceanu's outer-limits landing gave the Americans a perfect score for the event--three floor exercises, three yellow flags--and left the author of "Dominique Moceanu: An American Champion" in ninth place in Atlanta.

The Americans' floored routine cleared a path to the medals podium for Ukrainian Lilia Podkopayeva and every leotarded Romanian in the building.

Podkopayeva won the gold with an overall score of 39.255 to become the first defending world all-around champion to win the Olympic title since the Soviet Union's Lyudmila Tourischeva in 1972. Romanians took the other medals, with Gina Gogean placing second at 39.075 and Simona Amanar and Lavinia Milosovici tying for third at 39.067.

The American trio finished well off the pace--Miller at 38.811, nearly a full point below her performance in Barcelona, Moceanu at 38.755 and Dawes at 38.318.

It was a leaden anticlimax to the crescendo of Tuesday night's team gold-medal triumph, full of tears and sobbing gymnasts burying their heads into the chest of the nearest U.S. coach.

The Clintons posed for pictures with the U.S. team afterward and, according to Moceanu's coach, Bela Karolyi, the president tried to lighten the mood by musing, "This is just like winning the election one night and going through another election the next night."

Karolyi appreciated the analogy.

"The president had a good idea," Karolyi said. "Not always, but this one was good. . . .

"It was almost impossible for these girls to have the same emotion as they did two nights ago when they win the [team] gold medal. Just getting up the nerves to get up that high again, it's almost impossible. These girls were not as intense, as aggressive as they were two nights ago."

Karolyi's former star pupil, Nadia Comaneci, was not nearly as generous in her assessment of Miller, Dawes and Moceanu.

"They didn't lose because they weren't good enough," Comaneci said. "They gave it away."

Truth is, the second-class citizens of USA gymnastics, the maligned American men, outdid the women by at least having one all-around competitor break into the top seven. John Roethlisberger finished seventh, one notch higher than Miller, and Blaine Wilson took 10th, one slot behind Moceanu.

If post-gold medal syndrome was the root of Thursday's collapse, the condition apparently is a time-release reaction. Dawes and Miller were functioning just fine for the first half of the meet. After two rotations, Dawes and Miller were 1-2 on the leaders board, Miller sharing second place with Dina Kochetkova of Russia.

Competing in the same rotation group, Dawes and Miller then moved to the floor exercise. Miller went first, pulling up short on her first landing but working through the rest of the routine with no serious problem.

Until the landing.

Miller's right foot hit just inside the corner of the legal area but her momentum took her left foot back and out. The usually stoic Miller knew exactly what that meant. She barely paused to wave half-heartedly at the crowd before sprinting off the mat in tears.

Judges gave Miller a score of 9.475 for the routine, squelching her chances again for the gold medal after being denied by only .012 in 1992.

Moments later, Dawes followed Miller onto the 40-foot-by-40-foot exercise area, and then outside of it. Dawes had the Georgia Dome crowd of 32,200 roaring after her first sequence, which featured a towering, explosive backflip, before launching into a second pass then sent her skidding out of the blue and onto the outer white perimeter.

Similar miscues helped cost Dawes gold medals at the 1993 and 1994 World Championships, a topic that was broached in the post-meet interview session.

"It's a little hard to take," Dawes said. "The same thing happened at two World Championships. I dealt with it then, so I guess I can . . ."

Dawes' voice began to crack and she gulped back another round of tears.

". . . deal with it now."

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