Gymnastics: Khorkina in regal form

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The Independent Online
Following Shirley Bassey is no easy task, but Birmingham's National Indoor Arena, which hosted the cabaret singer's concert last Friday, has managed to line up Princess Diana this week, writes Mike Rowbottom.

Not quite the royal one, but Svetlana Khorkina of Russia, whose short blonde hair and regal poise have earned her the unofficial title as the Princess Diana of gymnastics.

At 5ft 4in, Khorkina is regarded as a veritable giant among the competitors who have gathered for the 21st European Championships for women, which start with junior competition today.

Her main area of excellence will be the asymmetric bars, on which she is the defending European and twice world champion. As overall silver medallist at last October's world championships in Sabae, Japan, Khorkina is also expected to be one of the main contenders in the individual all- round competition.

However, the quality of opposition, in what is the last major event before the Olympic Games, will be outstandingly high. Six of the current top 10 individuals in the world are from Europe, including the all-round world champion, Lilia Podkopayeva of the Ukraine, who will start as favourite for the individual title.

Podkopayeva, a powerful 17-year-old who trains at the national sports centre in Kiev, took gold on the vault and silver on the bar and beams in the World Championships, but her most startling activities take place in the floor exercises, where she has a unique trademark: a double front somersault with a half twist at the end. When it comes off it is spectacular; when it does not, it is spectacular.

Other leading contenders include Svetlana Boginskaya, the 23-year-old former world champion from Belarus, and Romania's 19-year-old Lavinia Milosovici, famous as the last recipient of a perfect 10 score, in the 1992 Olympic floor finals.