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China, U.S. Headed Opposite Ways

Men's gymnastics: Fifth-place Americans can only hope for better days, while Chinese finally fulfill their potential with first team gold.


SYDNEY, Australia — Peter Kormann promised the country a medal and all the country got was another lousy fifth place.

Blaine Wilson promised John Roethlisberger a medal but all Roethlisberger got was another lousy fifth place.

As the Chinese gymnasts celebrated exuberantly, running up and down the sideline with their flag and mugging for a coach and his video camera, Paul Hamm and Wilson were dropping off the high bar and landing, clunk, clunk, clunk.

For the first time the always promising, mostly disappointing Chinese men won an Olympic team gymnastics gold medal Monday night. Ukraine was the surprising silver medalist, with the defending world champion Russians winning bronze.

The U.S. was fifth, 1,036 points farther from a bronze medal than four years ago. This is progress?

"Yes," said Kormann, who also announced he was retiring as national team coach Oct. 1. "Men's gymnastics in the U.S. is healthy as hell. Look at the other countries here. They've got a lot of real old gymnasts. We've got a great future. We've got some guys in this meet who will be future Olympic medalists."

Kormann was referring to Paul and Morgan Hamm, the 17-year-old twins. Missing from this team were 20-year-old Jason Gatson, who had been leading the 1999 U.S. national all-around competition before blowing out his knee, and 20-year-old Yewki Tomita, who had been a part of the 1999 U.S. world championship team before sitting out most of this year with injuries.

Potential, though, has been the theme of U.S. men's gymnastics for the last four years. Improvement has been hard to notice.

Peter Vidmar, an NBC commentator who was a member of the only U.S. men's team to win gold (in 1984), agreed that, "Yes, at some point you've got to stop talking about potential. But the future is promising."

The Chinese team understands about unfulfilled potential. Some 19 years ago, the Chinese won a team bronze at the world championships. A year later they won the world championships. Every year since the Chinese have been among the best but never had they won the Olympic gold.

Until Monday night.

Even before the U.S. men had finished falling off the high bar, the Chinese were racing from corner to corner of the Super Dome, where pockets of vocal and teary-eyed supporters waved small flags of their own. The gymnasts were high-fiving one another. They were wagging fingers indicating "We're No. 1." It was a demonstration of American proportions. There was no straight-faced stoicism. This was a very big deal.

"Ever since China had gymnastics," Coach Huang Yubin said, "we have worked hard. We have worked hard for several generations. We have fought for this for 40 years so we were under some pressure. We think we should taste the fruits of the champagne."

Over in another corner the Americans sat, heads down and eyes covered.

Kormann had been bold and vocal in asking for more attention to the men and less to the women. Wilson said he was tired of seeing women gymnasts get all the publicity. Why, Wilson wondered, didn't America want to watch the men? After all, Wilson said, wasn't it much more exciting to watch the men take dramatic falls off the high bar than to see dainty women dance across the floor?

Now's the time to make that comparison.

After his team finished fourth in the preliminary competition on a day when Wilson, a five-time national all-around champion, had two bad routines, Kormann had been optimistic that the U.S. team could find enough tenths of points to at least get the bronze.

But the Americans started out poorly and ended up worse.

On the floor exercise Wilson, leadoff man Sean Townsend and Steve McCain stepped off the mat and Morgan Hamm, who had done so well in preliminaries that he qualified for the floor exercise final, fell on a relatively simple strength maneuver.

And on the high bar the team's two best individual performers, Paul Hamm and Wilson, took inexplicable tumbles. Hamm, who led off, fell twice during his routine to score an 8.462, the lowest American score of the night.

With the pressure on, with a slim hope that four consecutive spectacular routines might pull the team up enough to get a medal, Wilson dropped.

Roethlisberger, the 30-year-old three-time Olympian from Minnesota who had provided emotional leadership for this team, buried his head in his hands. When Roethlisberger, the last man to compete, finished his career with a stuck landing and a good 9.737 score, he waved to the crowd.

But the crowd wasn't watching.

The crowd was celebrating with the rowdy Chinese.

Roethlisberger led his teammates off the floor and back into oblivion.

"America loves winners," Roethlisberger said, "no doubt about it. If you don't win, America turns its back on you. I hope America embraces us for what this was. We were about team spirit and competing hard for your country."

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