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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | GYMNASTICS

All-Around, Nemov Simply the Best

Gymnastics: Russian elegantly wins the gold in men's final after it barely eluded him in '96 Games.

September 21, 2000|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — This is Olympic gymnastics competition at its best: the men's all-around final.

It is a six-ring circus, men swinging, somersaulting, leaping, falling--on the unforgiving floor and the devilish parallel bars; on the swinging, swaying rings where their veins nearly burst from their arms because so much strength is demanded; on the immovable horse and the sturdy vault and most especially on the scary high bar.

Six events, 36 men and yet it was impossible not to keep watching one.

On every apparatus the eye was drawn to Alexei Nemov--to the way his legs never parted and how his toes were always pointed, to how his arms were always straight when others were crooked, to the way his landings sounded, the soft, solid single thud that wasn't followed by a hop.

Nemov, a 24-year-old from Russia who became a first-time father Sept. 2, won his first Olympic gold medal Wednesday in the all-around. In Atlanta, Nemov had won silver and also won the crowd. He earned the nickname "Sexy Alexei" for the way he would wink at a woman in the stands or wiggle to finish a routine.

In his biography Nemov says his hobbies are "Cars, girls, going to the disco, and girls." But now Nemov is a married man, a father and a gold medalist.

"Nemov has the best feel for the aesthetics of the sport," said 1984 silver medalist Peter Vidmar, who is the last U.S. man to medal in the all-around. "He understands you don't just do a skill, you make it look gorgeous."

Taking the silver medal was 20-year-old Yang Wei of the gold-medal China team. Bronze went to 22-year-old Oleksandr Beresh of Ukraine.

Five-time national champion Blaine Wilson of Columbus, Ohio, who had finished fourth at last year's worlds, only a thousandth of a point from third, was sixth and 17-year-old Paul Hamm of Waukesha, Wis., ended up 14th with a bullet. Hamm, whose twin, Morgan, will compete in the floor exercise final, fell off his first apparatus, the high bar, then moved from 34th to 14th by the end of the night.

"Give Paul Hamm a couple of years," Wilson, 26, said, "and he'll beat Nemov. Paul's got the style to beat the Russian. It was fun to watch the kid tonight. He was excited.

"Shoot, my first Olympics I didn't know what to do. But Paul has the kind of a presence you need to walk out on the floor."

Nemov has the presence.

There is not a wasted motion. Nemov does the hardest tricks. On the high bar Nemov lets go four times. Four times the crowd gasped.

Hamm had the luck--good or bad, it was hard to tell--of following right behind Nemov on five of the apparatuses. Hamm said it was a joy to watch the champion.

"He's so good," the high school senior said. "He's got great form. What the judges love about him is how elegant he is. He's not as powerful as some guys, but he has that grace. He is very classy."

Nemov had only one mistake, a botched landing on his vault, but by the last rotation, Yang would have needed a 9.63 on the horse to tie Nemov. The highest score of the night had been Nemov's 9.775. Even Yang knew he wouldn't win.

Wilson's last event was also the horse, and he needed a 9.863 to tie Beresh for a bronze medal.

"That wasn't happening," Wilson said. "I've never gotten a 9.8 on horse in my life."

On his handspring double front he scored a 9.80, the highest score of the night.

But he struggled on his high bar routine, for a 9.525. After that score, his fourth, Wilson dropped from third to seventh and couldn't move up much more.

After Wilson had performed not much better than average during the team competition, where the U.S. failed to medal after bold predictions of something better, he refused to join his teammates in media interviews.

Wilson said he left the SuperDome in silence because he had nothing to say or to answer for.

"When I walked onto the floor, I've done more for U.S. gymnastics than any other gymnast out there," Wilson said.

He added that Nemov was nothing special and that "anyone can do what he does."

And just so everyone knew what a good sport Wilson was, he gestured toward the platform while Nemov, Yang and Beresh were receiving their medals.

"Those medals," Wilson said, "don't make anyone more of a man. All it gets you is more money, and money doesn't buy happiness. I'm happy enough already."

This did not sound like a happy man. Wilson does have one more chance to win an Olympic medal. He competes Monday in the vault final.

From the way Nemov jumped up and pumped his fist after Yang finished, from the way Nemov hugged his coach in a corner of the arena, from the way he seemed to brush away a tear and from the way he struck a bodybuilder's pose for the world's cameramen, it was clear how much the medal meant.

Nemov hasn't seen his son yet. The Russians were already at a training camp in Adelaide, Australia, when his wife gave birth.

"I wanted to do my best for Russia," said Nemov, who had finished 0.049 points behind China's Li Xiaoshuang in Atlanta, "and for my family and for my loved one."

Now Nemov has a sparkling new gift for little Alexei. It's gold.

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