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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | Gymnastics

They Can Take This Show on Road

July 26, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — For years, we've been saying Mary Lou Retton won the women's gymnastics all-around title in the 1984 Summer Olympics, but . . .

The Soviets weren't there.

Twelve years later, let's hear it for Retton one more time. No matter who the competition is or is not, we were reminded Thursday at the Georgia Dome how difficult it is for athletes to perform on four apparatuses within two hours before a capacity crowd and a worldwide television audience numbering in the billions and be near perfect on all of them.

That is all that is asked of the women's all-around gold medalist. None of the three Americans could do it, not two-time world champion Shannon Miller, not the precocious Dominique Moceanu, not the often spectacular Dominique Dawes.

After two rotations, Dawes and Miller were first and tied for second, respectively, and had 32,200 spectators, including the Clinton family of Pennsylvania Avenue, rocking the Dome. After the third, the floor exercise, both were hopelessly out of medal contention. Miller was 10th, Dawes 20th.

NBC executives heard the groans from the crowd when Miller and Dawes slipped on the floor. The next thing they heard, one joked later, were tens of millions of channels changing.

Maybe not. Just as Clinton gave the U.S. women a presidential pardon when he met with them afterward, no doubt feeling their pain, it's likely that the television audience was equally forgiving.

The women's team competition won by the United States on Tuesday night drew about 99 million viewers in this country, the largest non-Tonya and Nancy audience in Olympic history. Here's guessing that at least that many people tuned in for the start of the all-around, and even if some switched to the Oprah Winfrey movie after the Americans disappeared from the screen, it still will be the second-most watched event from here.

Gymnastics might not be the franchise for a U.S. network in the Summer Olympics, but it is closer to it than any other sport. That is the reason NBC loaded up with gymnastics during the first week of these Games, then asked the sport's international federation to take off today and Saturday so that there will be three more nights--the men's and women's individual apparatus finals and an exhibition--to televise next week.

This has been called "The Year of the Woman Athlete" in the Olympics. NBC executives are betting their $456-million rights fee that this also will be "The Year of the Woman Couch Potato." Their numbers tell them that women are as enthralled with gymnastics in the Summer Olympics as they are with figure skating in the Winter Olympics.

They are not the only ones making that comparison. So are the gymnasts, who are seeking ways to remain in the public eye in non-Olympic years like their skating counterparts. They would also like to become rich like the skaters.

Even before the Games, several U.S. women committed to a 30-city U.S. exhibition tour to begin in September promoted by Michael Berg, best known for inventing the made-for-television "Ice Wars" after the 1994 Winter Olympics. He would like nothing better than to duplicate the success of figure skating's annual tour of Olympic and world champions, soon to be playing 100 cities.

Before the U.S. women won the team championship, Berg thought it might take a few years. Now, he is thinking it might take a few weeks, already making plans to double the size of the tour to 60 cities.

Crucial to those plans is Kerri Strug, who, even though she is 4 feet 9, has quicker than you can say "Kazaam" become her sport's Shaquille O'Neal.

As headliners for his tour, Berg would like to have all the members of the U.S. women's team and bill them as "The Magnificent Seven." He cannot do that without the most magnificent of all.

Until her clutch performance Tuesday night, Strug, 18, planned to enroll at UCLA after the Olympics and compete in college gymnastics.

Appearing at a Thursday news conference on crutches to take the weight off her sprained left ankle, she said that she has not done anything to jeopardize her eligibility. Yet.

'Everybody's calling me the next Mary Lou," she said. "It's kind of weird. It's something I never even imagined.

"For so long, I thought I had everything all set. Now I'm getting a little pressure from everyone, including my teammates, to go on the tour. There are so many offers, it's unbelievable. It's something I want to think about.

"I never thought my Olympic experience would be like this, to be a hero like everybody says I am. It's very strange."

She might not have determined her long-term future, but she knows what she will be doing for the next two days. Besides undergoing physical therapy so that she might take her well-earned place in the vault and floor exercise finals, she will be looking for an agent.

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