For four grueling days the world's two best male gymnasts—a Soviet and an American—had tried to outdo each other on the floor and in the air inside Fort Worth's Tarrant County Convention Center. The American had cut through the air like a knife, seemingly capable of carrying out any flight of fancy, no matter how outrageously dangerous. The Soviet, on the other hand, had appeared reluctant to flirt with disaster, but that had been largely an illusion. So great is his strength that he all but bent the apparatus to his will and made his genuinely difficult routines look almost too easy. Now that one of them had been declared the all-around champion at last week's World Gymnastics Championships, they were seated next to each other, telling tales.
Kurt Thomas, the American silver medalist, spoke first. "I was sixth in the all around at the World Championships in France a year ago, and my goal for this meet was to move up to third," he said. "Because I started the night in second place, I wanted to at least stay where I was. I didn't care that much about moving up."
Aleksandr Ditiatin, the Russian gold medalist, speaks reasonably good English, and he probably understood Thomas' remarks without the aid of his interpreter. If Thomas wanted to pretend that he wasn't disappointed by defeat, Ditiatin certainly wasn't going to admit to a tactic that had been crucial in helping him attain victory. Questioned once, and then again, as to whether he had purposely left a difficult maneuver out of his high-bar routine, Ditiatin replied, "As I have said, I did my routines exactly as I planned. I left out nothing."
Of course, Ditiatin had left out his flyaway-half somersault to minimize the chances of a costly fall, which would have opened the door for Thomas. But sneer as he might at Ditiatin's denials, Thomas had reason to draw some comfort from his rival's conservative strategy. "It means he decided not to go at me talent-against-talent," said Thomas later. "Being the top man on a team like Russia's gives him incredible clout with the judges. He knew he could count on a 9.9 on high bar even without his flyaway half. Whereas, if he tries it, misses and falls off the apparatus, I win. How bad did he beat me, .275 of a point after 18 events? I'd say that means if Ditiatin is No. 1 right now, I must be 1 A."
December 17, 1979
If it hadn't been for Thomas' brilliant performance in the all around—he averaged 9.825 per event through two nights of qualifying and one night of finals—the Soviet Union would have had a 1-2-3 sweep with Ditiatin, eventual bronze medalist Aleksandr Tkachev and fourth-place finisher Vladimir Markelov. To appreciate the magnitude of Thomas' achievement requires an understanding of how difficult it is to get good marks in a subjectively judged sport like gymnastics when your country has no proud moments in its past on which to build a reputation. Until Thomas finished first in the floor exercise at the 1978 championships, the U.S. hadn't won a gold medal in significant international competition in 42 years. Judges make a lot of noise about adhering to the Code de Pointage, but many come to meets with preconceived notions as to who the leading performers are and who therefore deserve top marks.
Ditiatin, who has been called "the Soviet pinup boy," was expected to take over the top spot in the world at some point. He has won the last two World Cups, and he finished third in the all around in Strasbourg last year at the age of 21. At Fort Worth there was no question that he was the hot gymnast in the eyes of the judges—and just about everyone else. Ditiatin did nothing to cool off his reputation, but by winning six medals Thomas did plenty to heat his up.
As the rivals—and the judges—prepare for the Moscow Olympics, there is a real question as to who's the hotter. Besides winning the silver in the all around, Thomas also led the U.S. to a third-place finish in the team competition, another first for the Americans, whose fourth last year in France was their previous best. Thomas scored four 9.9s in a row to win four more medals in the individual finals. He won a gold in the horizontal bar, shared the gold in the floor exercise with East Germany's Roland Bruckner, picked up a silver in pommel horse and shared a silver in parallel bars with Tkachev, plus a bronze for the U.S. team's third-place finish.
There were other elements that made this one of the most memorable meets in international gymnastics history. The U.S.S.R.'s victory over Japan in the men's team competition ended a 19-year reign during which the Japanese had won five consecutive Olympic titles and five World Championships. Ditiatin defeated fading teammate Nikolai Andrianov, 27, who had been king of the sport since the 1972 Olympics but failed to qualify for the all around in Fort Worth. Last week also marked the reappearance of the People's Republic of China.
The locale may have served to mitigate the disdain with which U.S. gymnasts had long been regarded by international judges and as a result the Americans found themselves getting the scores they had always dreamed of.
While the U.S. and East Germany would battle to the wire for the team bronze, the question of whether the Soviets could defeat the Japanese was settled almost immediately. After the opening-day compulsory exercises, the U.S.S.R. left the floor with a lead of 293.0 to 290.6 over Japan, a commanding margin, considering the U.S.S.R.'s perennial superiority in the optional exercises to follow. With a score of 289.850, the U.S. was third coming out of the compulsories.
As expected the Soviets ran away with the optionals, their drive to victory paced by a 9.95 routine from Ditiatin on the high bar that included his flyaway half. Japan also had second place locked up early, so the crowd turned its attention to the Chinese and the Americans.
The Chinese were well aware that their status outside the orbits of the dominant gymnastic nations would garner them few breaks from the judges. But Chinese officials agreed with the premeet assessment of Thomas, who said in effect, "They came to Texas with one purpose in mind. When people leave the arena they want them to be saying, 'Sure, the Russians won and the Americans are coming on. But did you see these Chinese?' "
The crowd's favorite was Li Yuejui, a daring acrobat not five feet tall, with tremendously muscular thighs and a squatty little body. Li did a perfect triple somersault off the high bar during team optionals, and the crowd roared. The judges said 9.8, and the crowd booed. Li bounced back onto the floor for a final bow and turned the boos back into cheers.
Despite the aura of mystery that surrounded the reemergence of the Chinese, the biggest surprise of the week was nevertheless the performance of the Americans—in addition to Thomas' heroics, Bart Conner finished in fifth place and Jim Hartung tied for ninth. Conner also won a gold medal in the parallel bars and a bronze for the vault in Sunday's individual events. As for the rest of the team, Thomas told a newspaperman that Nebraska's Larry Gerard was "either terrible or just great," that he wondered whether Minnesota's Tim LeFleur was "capable of scoring more than 9.6 in an event like this," and that UCLA's Peter Vidmar was a mere freshman and might be in over his head. None of the three relished Thomas' biting references to them in print, but all three responded to his barks with the best performances of their lives.
And even they might agree that Thomas is entitled to his opinions, because he is men's gymnastics right now in the U.S. A writer for The New York Times recently stated that Thomas is both the "Baryshnikov and Balanchine of men's gymnastics." What she forgot to add is that he is also its Bert Parks, its Billy Graham and its Bob Barker. Since August, when he and his wife moved to Arizona, Thomas has traveled to the Bahamas, New York City, Dayton, Fort Collins, Colo., Portland, Seattle, Edmonton, Vancouver, Honolulu, Las Vegas and finally Fort Worth to compete in and promote gymnastics. And no matter how many interviews he gives or photo sessions he endures, he doesn't seem to lose his competitive edge.
In the all-around finals, for example, he cut Ditiatin's margin to a scant .125 at one point before running into four Eastern bloc judges—one each from Hungary, East Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union—for his performance on the rings. The first score they gave him, 9.75, was later raised to 9.8, thanks to a formal protest lodged by U.S. men's Coach Roger Counsil. But with Ditiatin destined to get two 9.9s and a 9.85 in his remaining three events, there was no way for Thomas to catch him.
"I still can't help but be optimistic about the Olympics, even though they're in Moscow," said Thomas. "Now that I know I'm as good or better than anything the Russians have to offer, there's no fear factor or doubt to deal with. I can concentrate completely on my routines." Thomas also recalled a conversation he had had with Japan's 31-year-old Eizo Kenmotsu earlier in the week, when he was trying to cheer him up after Japan had come off the floor following the team competition:
"Japan ichiban [No. 1]?" said Thomas.
"No. 2, I think," said Kenmotsu.
"Then next year your turn."
"Oh, very, very hard," Kenmotsu said, putting his face in his hands. "Everyone will be yelling Russia, Russia, Russia!"
"I didn't say anything to Kenmotsu at the time," said Thomas. "But it started me thinking that, yeah, maybe this time it will be up to me."