SYDNEY, Australia — They sat in a row, six rigid backs, six straight-faced women hoping and praying that some gymnasts from China and Russia would fall. Those gymnasts didn't, at least not often enough, not hard enough, not enough of them.
That's what the defending Olympic gold medalists had become, cheerleaders for something awful to happen.
Elise Ray, Kristen Maloney, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes, Tasha Schwikert and Jamie Dantzscher did make a better show of it Tuesday in the Olympic team finals.
Having shown all the spirit of a high school gym class Sunday and barely squeaking into the finals by qualifying sixth and last, the U.S. women's gymnastics team marched into the Sydney SuperDome on Tuesday waving little flags and smiling at the crowd.
Then the girls went out and performed adequately, handling their uneven bar and floor exercise routines with spirit and elegance, but looking more uncertain, clumsy and unpolished on the balance beam and vault.
The final result was a fourth-place finish. This was better than the sixth the U.S. had earned at the last two world championships, but it was the first time since 1988 that the Americans hadn't won a team Olympic medal.
Romania, led by 1996 star Simona Amanar, 1999 world champion all-arounder Maria Olaru and newest pixie Andreea Raducan, a pint-sized package of ponytailed iron will, won its second Olympic gold. The silver went to Russia and the bronze to China.
This was the first time Romania had beaten Russia in the Olympics. The Romanians had won their only Olympic gold in 1984, when the Soviet Union boycotted the Games.
"It's very nice to win," said Maria Bitang, the assistant Romanian coach. "The Russians had a lot of pressure, and they made many mistakes."
The biggest was by Svetlana Khorkina, a haughty 21-year-old who sat apart from her teammates and angrily pushed away a cameraman. She fell off the uneven bars in a routine in which she performs two moves that have been named after her.
As pouty as Khorkina was, though, it was nothing like the scene around the U.S. team afterward.
In every section of a corral-like area called the mixed zone, the place where Olympic athletes come to talk with reporters after their performances, U.S. coaches and competitors were sniping at team coordinator Bela Karolyi.
Karolyi, who had coached Olympic champions Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, had been coaxed out of retirement last winter.
In the last eight months, Karolyi demanded monthly trips to his ranch in Waverly, Texas; rigorous physical fitness training and a focus on weight and stamina that seemed to have been missing. Karolyi also had the biggest say in picking the Olympic team.
While Kelli Hill, the personal coach of Ray and Dawes, and Steve Rybacki, the West Covina coach of San Dimas gymnast Dantzscher, were head and assistant coaches respectively, this team belonged to Karolyi. He just couldn't coach it.
As he had Sunday during the preliminaries, Karolyi sat in the press seats. Olympic rules say each team may have two coaches on the floor. The U.S. policy is that, to be named a coach, a person must have an athlete on the team.
Karolyi hasn't coached since 1996, when he brought Kerri Strug and Dominique Moceanu to the Games. So he sat and watched and criticized.
All day Tuesday there were rumors that Karolyi was going to replace Rybacki and march out with the team, rules be damned. But Karolyi watched from the stands again. And he criticized again.
"This new generation," Karolyi said, referring to girls like the 18-year-old Ray and 19-year-old Maloney who have tried to fill the shoes of retired stars such as Shannon Miller and Moceanu, "does not have quite the fight or the will or the work ethic of the previous generation."
With the ordeal over and the pressure off, some gymnasts and their coaches dared to speak against Karolyi.
Hill said that, tired of hearing Karolyi say how hard it was to sit in the stands, she offered Karolyi her spot on the floor Tuesday.
"It's not my persona to be like Bela, to be so demonstrative," Hill said. "After I heard what he said, I asked him if he wanted to be out there. He said no. So there you are."
Dantzscher, who said she felt neglected and ignored by Karolyi after injuring an ankle in her first Sydney workout, blasted Karolyi.
"Bela Karolyi should not have as much control as he's had," she said. "He should not be getting so much credit. Our individual coaches know us best. They should have the control. . . .
"It just wasn't fair, everything I've done to get here and it didn't matter. Bela didn't know how to treat me as a person."
Karolyi had determined the lineup for Sunday's preliminaries, keeping Dantzscher off the balance beam and making it impossible for her to qualify for the all-around finals.
On Tuesday, Dantzscher performed well on the floor, scoring a 9.712. She had a 9.70 on the uneven bars and added a 9.424 on the vault. "I wanted to prove I should have been an all-around performer," Dantzscher said.