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There's Olympic Edge to World Competition

With event at Anaheim serving as a qualifier for the 2004 Games, peak performances are expected.

August 16, 2003|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

With the Athens Olympics only a year away, the World Gymnastics Championships at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim might seem to be little more than a pale prelude.

Not so, according to coaching guru Bela Karoyli. He says the competition, which begins tonight with team preliminaries and ends Aug. 24 with men's and women's individual event finals, will pack a big emotional punch of its own.

"The last World Championships before the Olympics, because this is the qualifier for countries to get into the Olympics, the countries are putting up a much fiercer fight than at the Olympics," said Karolyi, honorary co-chair of the competition.

"This fight you see at the World Championships, this is disappearing in the Olympic Games because the Olympic Games is a celebration. It's, 'I'm an Olympian, I'm here already to hug people,' and the spirit is mellowing down from the fighting edge. People are coming viciously into this competition because they know if they fail here, they're out. Their dreams are over. They'll never see the Olympic Games. I have seen this many times over the years.

"That's why you have so many surprises during the Olympic Games. Teams that are so fired up and edgy at the World Championships are smiling at the Olympics and they do big mistakes. They've mellowed down their routines because they're celebrating their presence in the Olympic Games."

Team, all-around and individual event titles will be at stake during the nine-day championships. The top eight finishers in the men's and women's team competitions will advance to the team finals, and the top 12 men's and women's finishers will qualify for the 2004 Athens Games.

In addition, two gymnasts from each of the federations that finish 13th through 18th will get Olympic berths, as will one gymnast from each of the teams that finishes 19th through 28th. Three wild cards from the World Championships will be invited and one nominee will be submitted by the International Olympic Committee.

Gymnasts must be 15 years old in this calendar year to compete at the World Championships. The age minimum for the Olympics is 16.

This is the 100th anniversary of the first World Gymnastics Championships, held at Antwerp, Belgium, but it's the 37th competition overall. There were no competitions during World Wars I and II, and the interval between competitions has varied. Anaheim is the third U.S. city to play host to the competition, following Fort Worth in 1979 and Indianapolis in 1991.

The U.S. has done well in its previous turns as host. The U.S. men earned eight medals at Fort Worth, five by Kurt Thomas, and the women won five at Indianapolis, highlighted by Kim Zmeskal's all-around gold. For the U.S. to match or surpass those feats here will be difficult but not impossible.

Romania has won the last five women's team titles, but the U.S., China, Russia and possibly Ukraine will be in contention. The Chinese, in particular, have dazzled observers with their sophisticated workouts on uneven bars and balance beam this week. Karolyi also likes Brazil, which has great flair on floor exercise, and Spain.

"Also, I would say I could see North Korea coming in," he said, "even though the age of the kids is really suspicious. They barely have their milk [baby] teeth."

He also said he sees "only the greatest things to happen here" for the U.S. women, whose program is headed by his wife, Martha.

However, 2002 world balance beam champion Ashley Postell withdrew Friday because of a high fever and stomach flu. She was replaced by alternate Chellsie Memmel of West Allis, Wis., who was 10th in the all-around at the U.S. championships but won the all-around gold medal at the Pan Am Games last week in the Dominican Republic.

She's a strong vaulter who has a 10.0 start value, but she isn't as experienced as Postell. Courtney Kupets, gold medalist on the uneven bars at last year's World Championships, is recovering from a milder case of flu and might not be at full strength for the women's team preliminaries Sunday. The rest of the team, including Annia Hatch -- who won a bronze medal on the vault for her native Cuba in 1996 -- has avoided illness.

"They're strong and extremely well prepared and their confidence level is probably higher than ever," Bela Karolyi said.

He considers the men's team competition tougher to call. He listed Japan, China, the U.S. and Romania as the strongest contenders, with several countries close behind.

"Only small mistakes can separate them," he said.

Home-gym advantage might prove valuable for the U.S. men, who won silver at the last world team competition, in 2001.

"I had the opportunity to compete at home in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and this is awesome," U.S. veteran Blaine Wilson said. "When we walked out in Atlanta and people were chanting, 'USA! USA!' it kind of lifts you up."

But without high skill levels, all the cheers in the world won't matter. And the U.S. is especially strong on parallel bars and floor exercise.

"We've had a lot of heart in the past, and I think this team has the heart and talent to get it done," Wilson said.

Even China's coach agreed.

"I would mention the USA on the first place because they have a good team and because they will compete on a home ground," Huang Yubin said through a translator. "This is a great advantage for them and I am sure they will not miss the chance.

"I also expect Russia, Romania and Belarus to fight for team medals."

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