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In Final Tally, Americans Are All Bark and No Bite

Gymnastics: Finger-pointing starts as U.S. teams head home with no medals for first time since 1972.

September 26, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

SYDNEY, Australia — Blaine Wilson said he didn't care that he and his U.S. gymnastics teammates hadn't won a medal. Elise Ray said her Olympic experience hadn't been at all what she expected.

On the last day of the 2000 Olympic gymnastics championships, while men's champion Alexei Nemov of Russia celebrated his sixth medal and second gold after winning the high bar and Svetlana Khorkina gracefully accepted the silver medal on the floor exercise because her Russian teammate, Elena Zamolodtchikova, had been a little better, the U.S team went home empty-handed for the first time since 1972.

No medals for the U.S. but lots of squabbling and bobbling.

Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics, sat in the coffee and tea room of the Sydney SuperDome and said he was happy that his organization had done all it could to give U.S. gymnasts the best chance to do well.

Ray, the 18-year-old U.S. all-around champion, had said an hour before that her Olympic experience "had not been what I expected," and mentioned internal bickering among coaches and gymnasts as having put a damper on her trip.

Four years after the drama of Atlanta, where the U.S. women won their first team gold, this women's team finished fourth. Personal coaches and athletes complained that team coordinator Bela Karolyi had disrupted their training.

Colarossi defended his decision to bring Karolyi aboard last winter. Colarossi put Karolyi in charge of the program after the women had finished sixth for the second time in a row at the World Championships.

And although the U.S. women moved up to fourth here, they never challenged for a medal and the team competed with a joyless attitude that was a carry-over, some said, from the tense atmosphere between personal coaches and Karolyi.

The men had talked big about their good chance to win a team medal and five-time U.S. champion Wilson's chance to win an all-around medal.

But the team finished fifth and Wilson went home with no medals. Quit talking about medals; they don't matter. That's what Wilson said after he had won none.

Nothing symbolized the futility of the U.S. program as much as the performances of Wilson and Ray on the last day of event finals.

Wilson made the finals of the vault apparatus competition but didn't have a second vault difficult enough to give him a chance to win a medal.

Ray made the finals of the balance beam competition, but she didn't have a routine with a start value as high as most of the other participants scored.

"I knew this was coming," Wilson said. "Vitaly [Marinitich, his coach] said so many times, 'Learn another 10.0 vault.' I said, 'Yeah, right.' "

Nice attitude.

Wilson said he wasn't particularly disappointed in leaving without a medal.

"Winning a medal doesn't make you a better person," he said. "At this point I don't really care."

Nice attitude.

Ray, who had been labeled by Karolyi as the leader of the U.S. women, left the SuperDome tired and discouraged.

"I'm disappointed that I didn't do better," she said. "Some of the stuff that went on the last couple weeks made it hard."

Kelli Hill, Ray's personal coach and the floor coach for the U.S. team at the Olympics, said, "You can't take kids coached by personal coaches and then turn them over to someone else the last six weeks before the Olympics."

While saying she would be happy to have Karolyi play some role with U.S. gymnasts, Hill said that bringing the top gymnasts to Karolyi's Houston-area ranch once a month for six months did not help.

"That was supposed to light a fire and get everybody to work harder, but we didn't need that," Hill said. "We could have had a few meetings and accomplished the same things."

Meetings won't fix things.

Only having Karolyi coaching girls will fix things. Everybody works harder when Karolyi has a Mary Lou Retton, a Kerri Strug or Dominique Moceanu in the gym.

Whether Karolyi, 59, wants to work that hard again, nobody knows.

But it helps no one to have Karolyi appear at the last minute. Colarossi said he wanted Karolyi "to teach the teachers." If the teachers don't want to be taught, then the system fails.

It failed this time.

Hard as it is to believe, the future for the men is brighter. Twin brothers Paul and Morgan Hamm started the Olympics as 17-year-olds and left as 18-year-olds who had created an Olympic buzz.

They caught the eye of international judges and want to improve.

"I know exactly what to work on now," said Paul, who finished 14th in the all-around competition.

Said Morgan, "If you watch guys like Nemov, you learn a lot."

Wilson had said that anybody could be as good as Nemov. The Hamms want to learn from Nemov. With that attitude the Hamms might be two-time Olympians who win medals. Wilson will retire as a two-time Olympian.

Colarossi said he was unaware of the criticism from several of the female athletes and coaches about how this last year had gone.

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