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BEIJING 2008 : HELENE ELLIOTT

The skills and grace that come with age

August 15, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

Beijing The difference in their scores was as narrow as the balance beam that Nastia Liukin so elegantly traversed, as slight as the breeze China's Yang Yilin created while performing a breathtakingly intricate uneven bars routine Friday.

Liukin, born in Russia but raised in Texas, and Yang, a daughter of the host-nation city of Guangdong, brought out the best in each other during the women's Olympic all-around finals, dispelling some of the ill will looming over the competition since questions were raised about the ages of the Chinese gymnasts.

The crowd at the National Indoor Stadium breathed with every twist and turn, roaring for Yang and teammate Jiang Yuyuan, while a vocal U.S. contingent cheered the lithe Liukin and Shawn Johnson, the 4-foot-9 dynamo from West Des Moines, Iowa.

Like any good drama, this came down to the last second, to the final event: floor exercise.

Yang, who was .150 behind Liukin after the first three events, blinked. She came up short at the end of a tumbling pass and committed some missteps, invisible to most observers but not to the judges.

Liukin, vibrant in a bubblegum-pink leotard, was sure and steady in making the floor exercise area her personal playground. "That was all I had to give," she said, "and I was hoping it would be enough at that point."

The only child of two champion Soviet gymnasts who migrated to the U.S., Liukin won the all-around gold medal with the kind of performance every athlete -- gymnast, swimmer, runner, canoeist or wrestler -- dreams of pulling off.

Towering over most of her rivals at 5 feet 3 and putting to great use her innate grace and style, Liukin finished with 63.325 points, just ahead of Johnson's 62.725 and Yang's 62.650.

"I didn't think whether I was going to make it or not but how I was going to make it," she said of her aggressive approach.

Liukin had to wait while Johnson performed a powerful floor exercise routine that could have knocked her out of the top spot, but Johnson's 15.525 left her second -- with no shame in that, though Johnson's tears as she left the floor hinted at her disappointment.

Nor was there shame in Yang's third-place performance, a lovely display that paled besides Liukin's finesse and control.

It's not farfetched to think that age -- a contentious issue that has dominated the women's competition here -- played a large part in the outcome.

Yang is listed as being 16, though she may be as much as two years younger than that. Liukin will be 19 at the end of October, a more seasoned performer whose nerves were steadier than the younger girl's today.

Asked whether she felt old, Liukin laughed. "Not today," she said. "Ask me on another day, or if I hadn't won."

Yang is one of three Chinese gymnasts whose age has been questioned because registration forms filed at competitions before she became a world-class athlete put her birth date as 1994, and subsequent forms stated she was born in 1992. The change meant she met the minimum age requirement of 16 for competing in the Olympics or world championships.

After losing the team competition to China earlier in the week, Martha Karolyi, coordinator of the U.S. women's national team, said theories that several Chinese gymnasts were underage "could possibly be true," and said one of the girls was missing a baby tooth and looked too young to be 16.

In response, Chinese gymnastics officials hinted that the Americans -- slender by Western standards but generally larger than the Chinese girls -- had used steroids to gain size and muscle.

Thankfully, the gymnasts themselves settled this with more class than their elders have shown.

The International Gymnastics Federation was exceedingly lucky that the all-around competition was so good.

At some point, the federation -- known as the FIG for the initials of its name as translated into French -- will have to decide whether it wants its sport to be a contest of skill and style or an acrobatics exhibition.

Whether it intends the Olympics to become a haven for children's tumbling, or a forum for the talents and grace that can make gymnastics enthralling.

Right now, the FIG seems to be straddling a balance beam.

Its Code of Points puts a strong emphasis on incredibly difficult elements that are best performed by small bodies that can twist and tumble more swiftly and compactly than the bodies of those older.

But by the FIG maintaining 16 as the minimum age, competitors are more likely to have gone through puberty, to have gained weight and changed shape in ways that make those skills exceedingly difficult to perform.

The FIG should lower the age minimum and call it girls' gymnastics or find a better balance between skills and execution so that grace and polish will count for more than they do now. Liukin showed that the latter choice is the best.

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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