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The Inside Track | SUNDAY SCENE

It Might Be Unusual, but Selection Method Is Fair

August 20, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

BOSTON — When the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team is announced tonight, five minutes after the Olympic trials end, one of the competitors, somebody who has finished third or fourth or fifth or sixth, will be huddled in a corner crying her heart out.

She will be an also-ran, left off the team in favor of someone else, maybe one of the 1996 Olympians, Shannon Miller or Dominique Dawes or Amy Chow.

This girl will be devastated and it won't make sense. Not immediately.

How is it that this competitor who, after four rounds of competition at two events--the U.S. Nationals and the Olympic trials--has been scored as fourth or fifth or sixth and not be part of a six-woman team?

This will seem very wrong. For we've seen the track and field trials and we've seen the swimming trials. First one to the finish line, Olympian. Second one to the finish line, Olympian.

That's how we see our sports. We want a winner and a loser. If we keep score, then the score matters. Period.

But that's not how this particular Olympic team will be picked. It will be chosen by a committee of four. There are three people and there is Bela Karolyi.

This will be Karolyi's team.

Ever since the 1999 world championships, when the U.S. women finished a particularly dispirited sixth, Karolyi has been in charge.

Karolyi has invited girls each month since January to his Houston-area ranch and put them through the wringer for a week. There were test competitions and rope-climbing drills. There were tests for body fat and tests for mental toughness.

Whether you were in high school or college, you did not turn down this invitation. And your coach came along too, leaving family and business behind and letting his student be tutored by Karolyi.

It was Karolyi who decided which girls competed in which events and it has been Karolyi pushing, prodding, cajoling, coddling, cuddling, yelling, frowning and all the time judging the 14 girls who remain in these trials.

USA Gymnastics has given Karolyi all the power. If this seems like the Communist way of doing things, appointing a dictator and letting him rule, it's not. There is no one better than Karolyi to choose a team. It might seem as if he is merely pointing--you, you, you, you--but Karolyi understands which "kiddos," as he calls them, are tough, are strong, are going to be appreciated by international judges.

We will all feel sad for whoever scores in the top six but doesn't go to Australia. It will not be a surprise if, the moment that girl is not chosen, her mother or father is on the phone to a lawyer asking to file a protest.

That's how it has been this Olympic season. Softball players, tennis players, wrestlers, cyclists, they've all filed protests about selection procedures.

All of the competitors and most of their coaches have talked bravely this week of understanding that the selection of this team might be messy.

"Whatever team they pick, it will be because Bela thinks it's the best team," said Jamie Dantzscher of San Dimas. Dantzscher, third after the nationals and fourth after the first night of the trials, could be left off in favor of, say, seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller. Miller competed in only one event at the nationals, the preliminaries on the uneven bars.

Dantzscher, 18, had a career crisis late last year. She twice left her coaches, Steve Rybacki and Beth Kline-Rybacki, and even went to one of Karolyi's camps without a coach. Dantzscher's focus is back, though, and she didn't miss a routine over two days of competition at the nationals.

But Dantzscher might have been too consistent.

For Olympic team scoring, only four scores per apparatus will count. Five girls will compete on each event. In other words, it might not hurt to have Miller, who is strong on the uneven bars, or Amy Chow, who is beautiful on the balance beam, replace a competent all-arounder.

And that is what Karolyi does.

It is Karolyi who coached the first U.S. Olympic all-around champion--Mary Lou Retton--and Karolyi who persuaded the injured Kerri Strug into performing one last vault to help the U.S. team win its first team gold medal in 1996.

So why shouldn't Karolyi pick this team?

He does not have a vested interest in any particular gymnast anymore. Karolyi had retired from coaching after 1996, content, he said, to hunt and fish and relax on his ranch.

But as U.S. results plummeted, Karolyi was persuaded to return. He has, in eight months, instilled confidence and fostered fitness.

The girls who have trudged off to Houston every month all say that it was a great experience. "By seeing how everybody else was doing," said Elise Ray, who won the all-around national championship, "you kind of found out where you stood. I think everybody pushed themselves harder because you didn't want to fall behind the next month."

Karolyi got his camp and Karolyi is going to get his team. If Karolyi gets this team a medal it will be a major accomplishment. Another gold seems impossible, especially against the strong, confident Russians, the elegant, acrobatic Chinese and the rapidly improving Australians who will have the hometown push that helped the U.S. win in Atlanta.

But Bela wants a medal. And Bela usually gets what he wants.

Which won't be much consolation to the sobbing girl in the corner tonight, but which is the right thing right now.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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