James Lawton: Khorkina the fallen tsarina loses to American princess

Svetlana Khorkina was born in a poor industrial town on the Ukraine border, but not in her mind. There, she inhabited the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, surrounded by fawning courtiers and Fabergé eggs. It showed here last night as the walls of her palace crumbled, surely for the last time in the Olympics she has now entranced on three visits without gaining the prize she craved, the women's all-round individual prize.

Svetlana Khorkina was born in a poor industrial town on the Ukraine border, but not in her mind. There, she inhabited the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, surrounded by fawning courtiers and Fabergé eggs. It showed here last night as the walls of her palace crumbled, surely for the last time in the Olympics she has now entranced on three visits without gaining the prize she craved, the women's all-round individual prize.

She smiled, as all the best Tsarinas must, in the ruins.

Certainly neither she nor the male half of the crowd who turned up like so many stage-door Johnnies could complain. The crowning glory of the 25-year-old from Belograd was turned into Sunset Boulevard not because of any collapse of grace - or the bumbling of officials which wrecked her in Sydney four years ago. This time American youth, brash and brilliant in the form of a 16-year-old from Baton Rouge, Carly Patterson, ambushed arguably the most alluring sportswoman of all time.

Again, Khorkina, who had to take the silver medal after faltering moments in the beauty and the poise of her work on the beam and the mat, cannot take offence at such an assessment.

The fact is that she has been a gymnast only in the way Liza Doolittle was a florist. What she did was hoard hearts as well as marks, an ambition that she announced frankly enough as a young girl when she declared: "What I want is to be noticed at a distance of half a mile."

Here last night among the gymnastic tots, the woman who has earned rave reviews on the Moscow stage - playing the teenage mistress of the writer Henry Miller - and posed nude for the Russian Playboy, seemed likely finally to land her ultimate prize - to add to 13 golds in Olympic, World and European competition - until the sheer vigour, and perfect discipline, of Patterson became irresistible.

But when Khorkina failed, she was the temptress of male hearts once again, saying: "I'll probably retire now, I love the sport but I have other things to do - and I'm not so young now. I want love and maybe I'll have children." She puffed out her cheeks and grinned. Plainly it was not an insoluble problem.

Khorkina was imperious in her favourite challenge, the uneven bars - which brought her specialist gold in Atlanta and Sydney - and scored a potentially devastating 9.725, the highest individual mark of the night until Patterson began her charge to victory with the same score on the beam where the Russian suddenly lost her momentum with the ghost of a stumble.

Another mistake came on the mat and then we knew it was probably over. Khorkina gulped and saw her career flash before her eyes. They moistened but they didn't yield tears and we were back in Sydney again, waiting outside the stage door with our flowers and our dreams.

She smiled gamely and we could only speculate on the plans that were hatching in her fertile and sometimes outrageous mind. In Sydney a Russian broadcaster stepped forward with a bunch of red roses. Here, a city, and no doubt a substantial section of the world, sighed. "Maybe I will be an actress," she was saying the other day. "I enjoyed it, I didn't find it so hard and the critics seemed to like me. Why not? It is another thing to do." Mother, actress, lover ... the paths stretch before her.

Whatever happens now, she will not go the tortured way of Olga Korbut, the first Russian gymnastic star to capture the world's affection. Korbut knew only pain and anguish after her schoolgirl triumph. She couldn't find her way in a new world. Khorkina sometimes needs persuading that she doesn't own it.

Despite her relative youth, Patterson's triumph was not the greatest shock. An admirer of the first American sweetheart of the gymnastic hall, Mary Lou Retton, Patterson won team gold and an individual all-round silver in the World Championships in Anaheim last year. While no gymnast has had more remarkable moves named after her than the woman she conquered last night, the girl from Louisiana has already imprinted herself on her sport.

As any aficionado will tell you, Patterson is the only gymnast in the world to complete a roundoff, back handspring, Arabian double front dismount on the beam. That is the kind of manoeuvre that can cause the uninitiated serious injury. In Patterson it is a natural expression of a fierce athleticism and daring.

For Britain's best hope, Beth Tweddle, it was a night of harsh reality. The girl from Liverpool had a disaster on the beam, scoring the lowest mark of the night, 7.800 - a jarring fall after progress at the European, World Championship and World Cup levels. Tweddle finished 19th of the 24 finalists, two in front of her compatriot Katy Lennon.

They had their pain, and no doubt it went deep into their competitive instincts. For Khorkina, defeat seemed a less destructive matter. The point was it wasn't really defeat, it was an impertinence inflicted by a world which doesn't always produce the proper rewards. Khorkina's palace may have fallen down, but she will build a new one tomorrow. It was something to warm you as you went into the night.

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