As a nation - and its President - looked on, the two leading US women, Dominque Dawes and the 1992 silver medallist Shannon Miller, were reduced to desperate tears as mistakes in the floor exercise put them out of contention.
Instead, the gold went to Ukraine's 17-year-old world champion, Lilia Podkopayeva, third going into the last round, who produced a hugely assured performance on the square of blue into which the Americans had sunk.
The commercial value of her victory will now allow her to realise her ambition of moving her mother, siblings and grandparents out of the cramped apartment they share in Donetsk. A score of 9.887 established Podkopayeva in a lead which no one could challenge. China's Mo Huilin, who had gone into the last round as joint leader with Dina Kochetkova of Russia, dropped to fifth after stepping out of the floor area in landing a two-and-a-half punched front somersault - the same exercise which had done for Dawes.
Kocketkova, too, faltered on her final discipline, the vault, leaving all remaining medals to the Romanians, for whom Gina Gogean took silver and Simona Amanar and Lavinia Milosovici shared the bronze.
It looked at one stage as if the home country were about to have another night of celebration. Amid growing excitement, Dawes and Miller had reached the gold and silver position respectively after two of the four disciplines. But two messy landings from Miller, and a skid backwards that nearly put Dawes on her backside, reduced the crowd to dismayed silence. Both Americans slumped in turn on to their chairs, faces working desperately to stifle their grief at the realisation that four years of work had gone in a moment. Miller finished eighth, Dawes 17th; fatally floored.
The capacity crowd of 32,000, many of whom had been delayed by extra security measures surrounding President Clinton's arrival, acclaimed the three home competitors with the level of noise which had accompanied the team victory.
With Kerri Strug incapacitated by the ligament injury she had suffered in her final, dramatic vault on Tuesday night, Dominique Moceanu came in as the third choice. But, with her right shin strapped, she soon displayed some of the nerves which had caused her to land on her backside in both vaults during the team competition.
But Miller and Dawes appeared to be holding up. The former raised the decibel level with 9.862 on the balance beam. And when Dawes, established herself in the lead, the cries of "USA, USA" began to ring out but it was misplaced optimism.Reuse content