Gymnastics: Golden Miller ushers in new world order: America's graceful advance in the World Championships sees the balance of power tilt conclusively to the West

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IT is a statistic beloved by those with a vested interest but a startling one nevertheless. The most watched sport on television in the United States at last year's Olympics was not athletics or even basketball but gymnastics.

Perhaps it is wish fulfilment - a recent survey showed that more than 60 per cent of adult Americans are overweight - but Carl Lewis and Magic Johnson had to take a back seat in couch-potato terms to the bodies twisting and turning at the bars and beams. That level of interest, coupled with a vast upsurge in participation, implies the United States will fill the vacuum left by the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The World Gymnastics Championships which finished at the National Exhibition Centre yesterday have been a watershed. Three of the five women's titles went to the Americans - or rather Shannon Miller - all but one of seven golds in the men's competition were awarded to gymnasts nurtured by the Soviet system. The former result is a more reliable barometer of gymnastic health.

Puberty is a wall in the sport. Before it, a male will not have the strength; after it a girl's muscle- weight ratio becomes less favourable. The results at the NEC showed that it will take longer for the lack of money and organisation to show in the men's events.

'Gymnasts like Vitaly Shcherbo or Valeri Belenky are grown men,' Sarah Baldwin, the editor of Gym Stars magazine, said. 'They know how to train, they need no guidance. The women are little girls, they rely very heavily on their coaches.'

It is the exodus of Eastern bloc coaches that is undermining the former communist monoply. The British team are being coached by a Romanian, Adrian Stan, the Chinese gymnasts, like their swimmers, are soaring up the rankings because they have imported east European expertise.

'We believe the US will be the dominant country soon,' Luan Peszek, the director of public relations for the American team in Birmingham, said. In how long? Ten years? 'Oh much sooner than that,' she replied. 'We are trying to keep the momentum going, keep the interest in the sport high. Shannon Miller's success here is very important.'

The importance of the coach's role was underlined during Miller's win in the all-round competition. Going into the vault she was third and her coach Steve Nunno, had to decide where to pitch the degree of difficulty. 'It was like blackjack where you have 13 and the dealer has 13. You have to choose whether to go for another card and risk going too high or let the dealer take the risk.' Nunno stuck and Miller won by seven-thousandths of a point.

The American collected her third gold yesterday with a majestic floor exercise and might have added another but for a traumatic performance on the beam. The apparatus is four inches wide, about the diameter of a golf hole, and anyone who has tried to put a ball into the latter will appreciate the difficulty of doing somersaults with so little margin for error.

Miller normally performs a mini ballet on this tightrope but yesterday missed her target with her foot and gave herself a fearful whack on the leg while falling off. That, a further stall and a less than perfect dismount gave her a mark of 7.85, the sort of score she would not envisage even in her most feverish nightmares. Lavinia Milosovici took the gold with 9.850.

Miller's slip allowed Vitaly Shcherbo to claim the final day. The Belarussian won the vault and the parallel bars to take his run on gold to four. The only event he failed to secure yesterday was the high bar, won by Russia's Sergei Charkov where he finished fourth. After his six golds in Barcelona, these championships have almost represented a failure.

(Photograph omitted)

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