"To start with the balance beam, that is like a ditch, a hell," U.S. women's gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi said last Friday after his team drew the beam to begin the Goodwill Games team competition. Early jitters can be magnified into disasters by the demanding length of elevated, slippery wood. If the U.S. gymnasts were to have a prayer of upsetting the Soviet team, they had to begin well.

In almost four decades only Romania has beaten a U.S.S.R. women's team in major international competition. The U.S. never has. "You've got to realize they're not statues," Karolyi told his four girls. "They are not perfect."

Whereupon Svetlana Boginskaya immediately made his case. The elegant Olympic and world champion, 17, the most balletic of Soviet stars, mounted the uneven bars and swung into a Takachev, in which she released the high bar, flew above it with legs widespread, then reached to regrasp it. Her hands came away with only chalk, and Boginskaya dropped to a saddened stance on the mat at the Tacoma (Wash.) Dome. The fall called for an automatic half-point deduction, and her eventual score was 9.275.

The lowest of each team's four scores on each apparatus is thrown out, so the Soviets, whose other three scores were solid, weren't mortally wounded. Yet the door, if not opened, was unlocked.

Against it pushed the U.S. national champion, 14-year-old Kim Zmeskal, 4'5" and 72 pounds of Retton-like power. Willing away tendinitis pain in her left wrist, Zmeskal scored 9.90 on the beam.

Then up stepped slender Elizabeth Okino, 15, a product of spectacularly exotic parentage. Her Ugandan father met her Romanian mother while studying veterinary medicine in Bucharest. Elizabeth was born in Idi Amin's Uganda and spent her infancy in Nicolae Ceau?escu's Romania, finally escaping with her family to the Chicago suburbs.

Okino has risen like a shot this year. She was only 20th in the junior nationals in 1989, and the Goodwill Games were her first international experience. Executing a dangerously dizzying standing triple pirouette that may soon be named for her, Okino too was given 9.90 on the beam. Amy Scherr's 9.725 put the U.S. into the overall lead after the first rotation, albeit by less than a tenth of a point.

"To start on beam and lead," said Karolyi, "that is tremendous." Thus began a team struggle nearly as compelling to the 16,603 in the Tacoma Dome as the sheer mystery of women's gymnastics.

The mayfly brevity of gymnasts' careers, the perplexity one feels as tots in bright leotards writhe to the music of adult love, death and loss—such surreal scenes flow from one hard fact: Whippy-quick, superconditioned girl children, caught in the year or two before adolescence erodes their skills, are our species' best at firing themselves through the triple back flips that win big meets.

There should be, says 1972 Olympic champion Olga Korbut, a women's division. But there is not, and as long as the athletes are children, coaches and officials will loom large in the sport.

The largest, Karolyi, is lordly in his omnipresence, even rushing to the bars or beam and theatrically spotting his athletes at dangerous moments. He both protects them and lets the judges know that his girls are prepared to risk everything for their performances. Thus are precious hundredths gathered.

And hundredths can decide a title. The U.S.'s lead after two rotations was 59.186 to 59.161 as Sandy Woolsey of Tempe, Ariz., the U.S. team's veteran at 17, made up for a bad balance beam with a stellar floor exercise routine, which included a triple twist with a double back flip. Zmeskal and Okino nailed their tumbling runs with relaxed confidence.

Meanwhile, Oksana Chusovitina slipped off the beam as if falling off a dock. A galvanized Boginskaya took up the slack with a 9.937 on the beam, then added a floor exercise rich in adult themes provocatively, not to say brazenly, expressed. Flamenco guitars were in there, and horses and whips. They drew 9.925 for the cause.

Then Okino got some mixed signals. Her first vault was marred by a single step on the landing. It was worth 9.80. Poised for her second, she awaited the green light that permits an athlete to begin. In Karolyi's telling, a Bulgarian judge raised her hand ordering Okino to go. She did, executing a splendid vault, and all hell broke loose. After four minutes of wrangling, during which the U.S. team grew cold, Okino's vault was ruled to be illegal. The U.S.S.R. edged ahead, 88.848 to 88.735.

The U.S. was on the bars for the last round. Zmeskal (9.912) was gorgeous, Okino (9.937) was clean and high, and Woolsey (9.90) was flawless save for a wobble on landing. The Soviets, on the vault, had to average 9.878 to tie, and they knew it.

All four were better than 9.9. Chusovitina's clinching handspring to a back-pike somersault with a half twist attained a 9.987, the highest mark of the evening.

The final score was the U.S.S.R. 118.759, the U.S. 118.484. "I never doubted," said the Soviet coach, Alexander Alexandrov, perspiring.

Karolyi was moved. "This was the best performance we've ever had against the Soviets," he said. "This was my happiest moment since 1984 with Mary Lou."

Zmeskal scored highest during the team competition, but no points are carried over to the individual all-around.

Starting fresh the next night, Zmeskal, in a moment of fearful symmetry, pulled a Boginskaya, falling from the same cursed uneven bars. Although she would recover splendidly on the other apparatus, Zmeskal finished sixth. Okino had a chance for third until she hit the lower bar with her heel. She would settle for a notice-serving fourth.

Thus the 5'3" Boginskaya duked it out with 4'8", 68-pound, pink-clad teammate Natalia Kalinina, 16, for the title. Together they formed a bittersweet image of how growing into real beauty means growing away from dominance in gymnastics. Boginskaya, whose choreography has been influenced by the Bolshoi Ballet, exudes the seriousness of the artist. By contrast, Kalinina dismounting the bars is less a human form than an ecstatic egret alighting on a lily pad.

This is not mere appearance. Boginskaya has known wrenching loss. Days after she won the vault and placed third in the all-around at the 1988 Olympics, she was shocked by the suicide of her discoverer and coach, Lyubov Miromanova. "When I lost her," says Boginskaya, "I lost the thing most dear to me in my life. I stopped training. I couldn't make myself go to the gym."

She fought through her abandonment, though one imagines her forever wondering why she was not reason enough for her coach to live. In 1989 Boginskaya returned to win the all-around at the world championships.

In Tacoma the quality of her movement on the beam and floor was at once more fluid and precise than any gymnast's in memory. It wasn't enough. Solid in every discipline, Kalinina hit all three of her tumbling runs on the floor and was rewarded with the competition's only perfect score of 10.00, her first.

So it was over before Boginskaya vaulted, but she turned in a towering effort (9.987) anyway. "I'm happy with my performances," she said, not at all happily. "It's the judges who decide everything."

Kalinina seemed less exultant than wiped out. "I didn't expect a 10," she said. "I feel great, great happiness, but I can find no words."

In a few years she will have the words. But by then the feeling, and several generations of gymnasts, will be gone.

PHOTOMANNY MILLANZmeskal, who finished sixth in the all-around, got back on the beam after a high-bar fall. PHOTOMANNY MILLANKalinina won the all-around title after scoring her first perfect 10, in the floor exercise. ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)