Demonstration of waif power

Mike Rowbottom sees a Russian gymnastics revival in the junior women's European Cup semi-final
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The Guildford Spectrum leisure centre witnessed something special on Saturday night; the hundred or so people present registered appreciation by raising their level of applause from polite to warm. Eight months hence in the Atlanta Georgia Dome the response is likely to be tumultuous.

In the tiny, powerful figures of Elena Produnova and Eugenia Kuznetsova, Russia have two gymnasts capable of energising the Olympics in the way their compatriots Olga Korbut and Lyudmila Tourischeva did in 1972. At 15, both have appeared in the senior World Championships, and their outstanding performances in helping Russia win the semi-final of the European Cup for junior (12-15) women's teams strengthened their claims to Olympic places next year.

Kuznetsova, winner of the Youth Olympics in Bath last summer, is pale and impassive, her eyes watchful. Produnova is a darker, less girlish figure whose artistry and expression prompt the sport's purists to reminisce over the days when gymnastics events were won by women rather than waifs.

Some of the movements produced by the latter prompted intakes of breath even among experienced observers of the sport. "Produnova is spectacular," said Vera Atkinson, who as Vera Marinova competed in several rhythmic gymnastics World Championships for Bulgaria, and who has worked as a television commentator for 20 years.

The feelings of the British team, who finished third behind Russia and Germany, were summed up by Melisa Wilcox, a tiny 12-year-old from Bristol making her first major international appearance. "The Russians were... impressive," she said with a rueful grin.

There is little doubt in the mind of the Russian coach, Alexandre Kirjashov, that this pair will be among the six selected for the Atlanta team. "What gives them the best chance is their strong programme," he said. "They are good at all the disciplines."

There was a curious sense of informality to the proceedings, which took place in a small hall beside a main ice arena upon which hundreds of teenagers glided beneath disco lights. The gymnastics crowd numbered many friends and relatives of those taking part, a good proportion of whom were busying themselves with the sacred duty of recording the action on video.

Despite the intimacy of the event, however, there was no questioning that the gymnasts were keyed up. The slump of Kuznetsova's shoulders after she dismounted from a beam exercise which had been marred by a wobble, and the way her team-mates pattered up to comfort her, said everything about that. Like all their generation, Kuznetsova and Produnova have had to accommodate a climate of competition which lays huge store by technical virtuosity, towards which codes of marking have shifted steadily for the last 15 years.

Had the Korbut of 1972 been precipitated into Saturday's competition, Atkinson estimates, she would have had difficulty making the top 10.

The dominance of the waifs has raised inevitable suggestions that some competitors are having puberty delayed by illegal chemical means - allegations that are strongly denied.

What is certain is that the Russians carry out a gigantic scouting mission among their gigantic population, spotting potential champions in schools and kindergartens. Parents are assessed to help determine how the youngsters will turn out physically.

Once the likely candidates have been identified, however, there is no rush towards punishing routines. "For the first two years we don't push them to do difficult things," Kirjashov said. "The important thing is that they must love gymnastics for itself."

But this operation has taken place in recent years against a background of social and economic disruption. "It has been very difficult for us to maintain our standards," Kirjashov added. "For example, the economic problems in Russia have forced the closure of 800 gymnasiums. Now, though, I think we are on the point of rebuilding."

And Produnova and Kuznetsova, along with their elder compatriot Svetlana Chorkina, the world silver medallist, are the new cornerstones.

The discipline required to reach world level at this sport makes hugely adult demands upon competitors; and yet their necessarily blinkered lifestyle can have the effect of making them particularly naive. The furry toys and mascots ranged alongside the national kitbags at the side of the exercise area on Saturday said much about the dichotomy.

With such pressures involved, one might expect there to be a succession of "burn-outs" in the sport to match the departures from tennis of such as Andrea Jaeger and Jennifer Capriati.

But it seems that by the time the top level is reached in gymnastics any potential drop-outs have already dropped. "These girls," Atkinson said, gesturing to the whirling Russians, "follow their dream as far as they can."

All the way to Atlanta.