OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Zmeskal shows spirit: Gymnastics

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THE NOISE from the tiered ranks of American supporters for the gymnastics in the Palau Saint Jordi here last night was enormous; but not enough to alter the forces of history.

For all the looming economic hardships of the post-Communist regime, the women - that is girls - of the Unified Team maintained the record of their relatively pampered Soviet forebears, winning the team title for the 10th time since they entered the event in 1952 at Helsinki.

The only time they missed was 1984 - when the Soviet Union boycotted the Games - a state of affairs which gave the United States the opportunity to take the silver medal.

Last night's bronze behind the Unified Team and Romania matched the medal the US won in 1948, but this was surely a more significant achievement.

'USA bring home the gold' shouted the banner hung from the highest balcony in the hall. It was always likely to prove a false boast, although there were several golden moments from the US competitors, none of whom faced a more difficult evening than Kim Zmeskal, the world champion who had fallen so calamitously from the beam, her speciality, on the opening day.

The 16-year-old from Houston was the epitome of grace under pressure as she hauled herself back into the reckoning to become the third-placed American in the individual standings, thus ensuring she would not suffer the ignominy of failing to qualify for the individual final itself.

Zmeskal provided a bold performance on the apparatus that had previously proved her undoing, earning a score of 9.350, but her finest moment probably arrived with a superbly disciplined and exact performance in the floor exercise, even though it was done to an awful amalgam of 'Rock Around The Clock' and 'Johnny B Goode' which sounded like two street parties going on at the same time.

Zmeskal's domestic rival, Shannon Miller, saw her individual lead slip away, but it did not go to Zmeskal's old international rival, Svetlana Boguinskaya, who had started the day in second place.

There was barely a wobble from the Unified Team other than one stunning moment when Tatiana Goutsou, who had begun the day in fifth place, suffered the same fate on the beam as had Zmeskal, falling off during her opening manoeuvre and having to clamber back up and pretend it hadn't happened.

While Zmeskal had preserved a stoical front, it proved too much for the 15-year-old; her pale, frail face ghosted a memory of Korbut as it distorted with tears. But she ended the day as the leading individual, with a score of 59.498. Perhaps there was the spirit of Korbut within her.

(Photograph omitted)