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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | DIVING

Russia's Sautin Wipes American Divers Off Books

Men's platform: He wins gold to end U.S. dominance. Germany's Hempel wins silver, China's Xiao bronze.

August 03, 1996|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Not only could you see the official end of American diving dominance in the Olympics--you could feel it and hear it Friday at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center.

See it? The scores flashing on the board showed another non-medal finish for the Americans, as Dmitry Sautin won the first Russian gold medal in the men's 10-meter platform event. Germany's Jan Hempel took the silver, and China's Xiao Hailiang placed third.

Feel it? The fast-finishing Hempel put considerable pressure on Sautin and turned the final two rounds into a tense finish. Hempel's final two dives were marvelous and drew scores of 93.84 and 92.88 and forced Sautin to nail his last dive, which earned a 10 score from the Australian judge. The dive, a back 1 1/2 somersault with 3 1/2 twists and a 3.2 degree of difficulty, earned the only 10 of the night.

Hear it? By the time the Russian national anthem was played for the beaming Sautin, record books were being dusted off and it marked the first time Americans have failed to win a diving gold medal at the Olympics since 1912.

The two best hopes for the United States had been veteran Patrick Jeffrey, 31, and Olympic newcomer David Pichler, 27. Pichler was consistent but simply could not move up in the midst of the brilliance by the Russian and Chinese divers, and Hempel. Pichler finished sixth and Jeffrey took ninth, up three spots from his 12th-place finish at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

It was suggested that Pichler and Jeffrey were simply outclassed by a quality field.

"I'd hate to hear it," Jeffrey said. "I believe in all my heart, on a good day, one of us could have won."

Sautin's victory stopped a sweep of the diving gold medals by the Chinese, who won the two women's events and the men's three-meter springboard. The Americans were able to collect only two bronze medals, by Mary Ellen Clark in the 10-meter platform and Mark Lenzi in the springboard.

The two Americans diving on Friday did not think much of the 1912 statistic.

"It's not my concern," Pichler said. "It's a big world of diving. Everybody is catching up. We're still competitive. Patrick and I, on a good day, could be right up there at the top. It just wasn't a good day for us."

Said Jeffrey, "I don't think it's the Americans that have changed. I think it's the rest of the world. That needs to be the focal point. I don't think the burden is on the team's shoulders. I just feel the rest of the world has really developed in diving.

"We'll look at ourselves and try to figure out the program. Traditionally, we got better by competing against each other. Now we have to find a way to come together and compete against the world. All our coaches have to work together and the governing body of U.S. Diving has to make some changes."

But Sautin, who is 22, and the two Chinese teenagers Xiao and Tian Liang, who was fourth, don't plan to retire any time soon.

Sautin, who is considered the greatest Russian male diver, announced he will keep on diving through the next Olympics. And after a disappointing fifth-place finish in the springboard, Sautin will have the goal of a double gold in Sydney to motivate himself.

"I was certain I just had to get the gold from the platform, that was my mind-set," Sautin said. "The task was daunting, but I trusted myself."

The other divers openly admire Sautin and his victory was a popular one. After he emerged from the pool from his final dive, several of the divers embraced him on the deck.

"Dmitry is an incredible diver, incredibly talented," Jeffrey said. "Strong. He jumps high, he has a great entry, and has got a real level head, as a person and a diver. I'm real proud of him."

Sautin had to overcome personal adversity. In 1991, he got into an argument with the son of a Soviet Communist Party official and was stabbed six times in the stomach and thigh, almost bleeding to death. The scars are still visible on his thigh. Sautin spent two months in the hospital.

Grace off the board is not his style. Other divers call him "the Man," and he is often compared to a linebacker, rather than a ballet dancer.

"You should not teach the way Dmitry dives," said former Russian Olympic Coach Sam Slobanov.

Teach? Maybe not. But on Friday it was good enough for a piece of Russian diving history.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MEDALISTS / Diving

Men's Platform

GOLD: Dmitry Sautin, Russia

SILVER: Jan Hempel, Germany

BRONZE: Xiao Hailiang, China

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