US patriots turn up volume

GYMNASTICS

Mike Rowbottom
Sunday 21 July 1996 23:02
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The US compulsory exercise in gymnastics - generating wild acclaim for American competitors - began in earnest here yesterday.

The US women's team, seeking to overtake the lead the Romanian world champions had established earlier in the day, received support of sufficient decibels to make the Georgia Dome sound like an aircraft hangar.

The US men's team had expressed some surprise the previous day that they had not received the backing they had been expecting during their compulsory competition. But any lingering doubts about the volubility of US patriotism were banished as soon as the women's team filed in behind the Olympic flag to a barrage of popping flashlights that temporarily rivalled the scene at the opening ceremony.

Gymnastics has created more demand for tickets in Atlanta than any other event apart from the opening ceremony. Thirty thousand turned up at the Dome last week just to watch the US women practising.

As the competition moved on, despite the occasional show of nerves from less experienced members, the US women responded to the crowd's rising exhilaration as America hoped they would.

After completing the third of the four set disciplines, the floor exercise, the scoreboard indicated the US had risen above the Romanian score at the same stage. Spectators gradually caught on to the news, then greeted the digital display to a standing ovation.

There they remained at the end of the session, as a series of inspired vaults which culminated in a 9.812 effort from Kerri Strug took them to 193.669 points, ahead of Romania's 193.138.

The home gymnasts exited the arena in triumph to the chant of "USA" that became so familiar during the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Tomorrow they will go into the second part of the team competition, the optional exercises, with everything to shout for - by the end of the day, only Russia had exceeded their total, scoring 193.796.

Ironically, the American challenge was led by a gymnast of Romanian parentage - Dominique Moceanu - who is coached by Bela Karolyi, the Romanian whose previous charges include the great double Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci. Moceanu, whose participation had been in doubt because of a stress fracture to her right leg, rose to the occasion with eerie composure.

So, too, did Shannon Miller, the all-round individual silver medallist at the last Olympics, who had missed the Olympic trials with a wrist injury.

Only once was the weight of expectation obvious, when Jaycie Phillips fell off the four-inch beam to a collective sigh that was like the tide going out. But with the top and bottom marks being discarded before the others are averaged up, one slip did not matter. And no one else erred.

The US display was not witnessed by Romania's coach, Octavian Belu, who had been unhappy about his team having to compete at 9.30 in the morning, given that high competition and high marks traditionally occur at the end of each gymnastic day.

"Why to come to see?" he said. "Because I have been in a lot of competitions. I'm sure the scores will be higher than this morning."

His forecast proved to be correct. But what will have annoyed Belu as much as anything is the high scoring the USA managed on the floor exercise, where he felt Lavinia Milosovici, who took gold in that event at Barcelona, had been unfairly marked down. He was informed by an official that there was no procedure possible for him to appeal.

"My team performed how they are able to at 9.30 in the morning," he said. "I think they must change the system in the future by seeding it."

The suggestion that the home team would be using whatever fortune and gamesmanship they could to gain an advantage had been raised by the Romanians the previous week, when they had objected to the fact that the US team had been training away from their rivals at a secret location.

Kathy Kelly, women's programme director for USA Gymnastics, had responded: "I think it makes the other countries nervous. Sorry about that."

But the Romanians, yesterday, were more resigned than nervous. Belu was only cautiously optimistic when asked if he thought his team could win. "I hope," he replied.

He likened his team's attitude to that of a "commando", adding: "We must survive. It's heat, humidity, scoring. We must fight to survive for the future. It is very important."

If any gymnasts are capable of withstanding partisanship, it is the Romanians.

The six-strong team in action yesterday, ranging in age from the 19-year- old Milosovici to the 15-year-old world junior champion Alexandra Marinescu, have lived and trained together at the national academy in Deva, devoting six hours a day to training and spending as little as two weeks a year at home.

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