The World Gymnastic Championships begin in Birmingham today and the shady looking characters posing like Mafia henchmen will not be pre-perestroika minders for the Eastern Bloc athletes but the judges. They will be wearing sunglasses, a tribute to the glare of the NEC's illumination. Television directors may appreciate it, but the brightness was such it was making it hard for the adjudicators to concentrate.
The glasses, 100 pairs obtained in a quickly hatched sponsorship deal, will run the rule over the biggest gymnastics event this country has hosted. Sixty-two nations attended last night's opening ceremony but no one will be under greater scrutiny than Vitaly Shcherbo.
The Belarussian was the outstanding figure at the last Olympics, where he won six gold medals. That was on behalf of the Unified Team, however, and he would have been an extremely unlikely participant this week if he had been forced to compete in that disunited amalgam. It is to vault and contort under the Belarus banner that has brought him here.
Since Barcelona Shcherbo has been living off his fame giving exhibitions in the United States. He says he is under-prepared and those who have been watching him train in Birmingham have tended to agree. 'Not even Vitaly knows what his routine is going to be,' one of his coaches said. 'It looks as if the good life has caught up with him,' observed another spectator. If it has his former Soviet team- mates, Grigory Misutin and Valery Belenky, should profit.
The women's medals are more likely to be spread around. China, Hungary, Romania and the Unified Team collected gold in Barcelona and most of the winners will be present. There is always the unknown quantity, however, as America's Shannon Miller testifies. 'Some of them are completely new to me,' the winner of the Olympic compulsory and optional exercises said.
As for home prospects, Neil Thomas was 20th in the all-round section and 29th in the floor exercises in Barcelona but a place in one or two finals is not beyond him here. A medal would be Britain's first since the Second World War.
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