European champions head off in good heart

Mike Rowbottom sees Olympic hopefuls hone their gymnastic routines in Birmingham
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The Independent Online
Leafing absorbedly through a copy of Gymnastic Stars, the snub- nosed teenager in the bright shell suit might have been mistaken for one of the many young spectators at the 21st women's European Gymnastic Championships here yesterday.

As it happened, the magazine's "Gym Tips" were not useful to this particular reader, as she was already world and - as of the previous day - European champion.

At 17, Lilia Podkopayeva looks younger than her years, as many leading gymnasts do. She says that when she walks through her native Donetsk no one recognises her, but at an inch or two under five feet tall, it is quite easy to miss her. It will not be easy to miss the impact this Ukrainian will make in Atlanta, however. After this victory against a field that included six of the world's top 10, she will go to the Olympics with justified confidence.

After rounding off the championships yesterday with joint golds in the apparatus finals on the asymmetric bars and floor exercises, she reflected upon how her preparations now stood. "This was a very important marker for me. Any mistakes that I have made I will know how to avoid in Atlanta."

For all that, she reared away from the question of how Olympic gold might change her life, her hand stabbing out in emphasis. "I don't want to think about it," she said. "I am training hard, but I don't like to say I'm going to do it."

Should she achieve that ambition, however, she will be assured of enough commercial success to realise another, deeper ambition. She wants to move her family from the small apartment she shares with her unemployed mother, her grandparents and younger brother away from the former Soviet Union. Life for Podkopayeva has been a struggle since her father left the family home. "He left when I was two. I don't know anything abut him now," she said yesterday.

A double champion she may be, but there will be plenty of strong opposition for her in Atlanta, including the 14-year-old US champion Dominique Moceanu - if she sounds Romanian, it's because her parents are - and the Chinese pair Mo Huilan and Kiu Uanuan. Other rivals were well in evidence here. Romania's Simona Amanar made up for the relative disappointment of fourth place overall on Saturday by winning yesterday's vault and taking joint first on the asymmetric bars.

Amanar's younger colleague Alexandra Marinescu also emphasised her potential by winning the overall junior title here, and Russia's Svetlana Chorkina, whose looks, regal bearing and - apparently - temperament have earned her the unofficial title of the sport's Princess Diana, recovered from a relatively disappointing sixth place overall by sharing the asymmetric gold with Podkopayeva and Amanar.

But Birmingham will probably be best remembered as Svetlana Boguinskaya's tournament. Although she finished outside the medals yesterday, the Belarus woman's performance in taking the overall silver at - in gymnastics terms - the grand old age of 23 was a startling one for the former world champion, who had retired after the 1992 Olympics.

Her grace in action, and her graciousness in accepting defeat after Podkopayeva's inspired late effort in the final floor exercises marked the competition in the way that Olga Korbut marked the 1972 Olympics. Boguinskaya looks set to make a similar impact upon the Games of 1996.

While interest in gymnastics in Britain does not approach that exhibited in the United States - the 30,000 tickets for the Olympic finals sold out almost immediately in Atlanta - the National Exhibition Centre was more than half full for the three championship days, with an estimated two and a half thousand average.

BBC coverage will have raised the pre-Olympic profile. And Britain's competitiors responded with their best results in this competition, with the team taking eighth place and Annika Reeder, who will compete in Atlanta along with fellow 16-year-old Sonia Lawrence, finishing 13th in the overall standings.

Reeder, who is taking a year off doing her GCSEs at Roding Valley school near Loughton, plans to prepare and acclimatise in Tallahassee, where she will work with her coach Rod Smith on integrating several new moves into her routines. She could challenge for an Olympic top 10 place, which would be another big step for British gymnastics.