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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | GYMNASTICS

Gymnastics Returns to Olympic Roots With Melissanidis

Men: Greek wins gold in individual floor exercise, Switzerland's Donghua Li on pommel horse and Italy's Yuri Chechi on still rings.

July 29, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — The Greeks might have invented the discipline of gymnastics, but like the English with tennis, they haven't been the masters of their domain for decades.

Ten decades, if you're scoring at home along with the Greeks.

But Sunday night, Ioannis Melissanidis turned the men's individual floor exercise finals into his personal centennial celebration, winning the gold to give Greece its first gymnastics medal in a modern Olympics since the first.

And in that one, held in Athens in 1896, the Greeks milked home-court advantage for all it was worth. Greece won five medals in the 1896 gymnastics competition--two of them in rope-climbing.

Greece apparently lost its grip once rope-climbing was eliminated from the Olympics, wandering fruitlessly for a full century. But Melissanidis brought Greece out of the darkness with a 9.85 performance on the floor, edging defending Olympic champion Li Xiaoshuang of China by 0.13 and sending Greek journalists springing from their seats with roaring approval.

Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus, the reigning world champion in the event, opened the door by stumbling badly while trying to land a back-flip mid-routine and drawing a score of 9.275, good only for seventh.

Moments later, Melissanidis stepped up and through with a high-difficulty exercise more technically precise than spectacular, but impressive enough to the panel of judges, especially the Armenian judge, who gave the routine a mark of 9.9.

Melissanidis said that before he stepped onto the carpet and saluted the judges, "I say to myself, 'I'm not in the U.S., I'm not in Atlanta, I'm in Athens.' The people were so friendly, so kind, I felt like I was in Greece.

"I had to be perfect for Greece. I was not Ioannis Melissanidis; I was Greece."

Other gold medals in men's events went to Switzerland's Donghua Li on pommel horse and Italy's Yuri Chechi on still rings.

Li, born in China before emigrating to Switzerland in 1989, scored 9.875 on the horse and defeated Romania's Marius Urzica, 9.825, and Russia's Alexei Nemov, 9.787. Nemov also won the bronze in the floor exercise with a score of 9.8.

Chechi, unbeaten since 1992 in rings finals, kept that streak intact with a 9.887 performance, beating Hungary's Szilveszter Csollany and Romania' Dan Burinca, who tied for the silver medal with identical marks of 9.812.

Blaine Wilson, the lone American entered in Sunday's three finals, finished in a seventh-place tie in rings with Germany's Marius Toba with a score of 9.737.

Li, 29, was the oldest gymnast competing in Atlanta. Born in Chengdu, China, he was the Chinese pommel horse champion in 1987. In 1988, he married a Swiss gymnast, Esperanza Friedli, and moved to Switzerland a year later, receiving his Swiss citizenship in March 1994.

"I am 29 years old and I've had many injuries, so this wasn't easy for me," he said. "But, I never gave up, despite all my injuries. This is an incredible accomplishment for me. My wife is expecting a child, so this medal is for my wife and my child."

Chechi, renowned in Italy for his near-fluorescent red hair as much as for his rings prowess, missed the Barcelona Olympics because of an Achilles' tendon injury he suffered three weeks before the Games. This, then, was an opportunity he could not afford to bobble, and he kept his four-year winning streak intact with the highest men's score of the night.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MEDALISTS

Men's Gymnastics

FLOOR EXERCISE

Gold: Ioannis Melissanidis, Greece

Silver: Li Xiaoshuang, China

Bronze: Alexei Nemov, Russia

POMMEL HORSE

Gold: Donghua Li, Switzerland

Silver: Marius Urzica, Romania

Bronze: Alexei Nemov, Russia

RINGS

Gold: Yuri Chechi, Italy

Silver: Dan Burinca, Romania

Bronze: Szilveszter Csollany, Hungary

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