Last week's world gymnastics Championships in Indianapolis featured, in no particular order:
•A surprise coronation of two-time U.S. champion Kim Zmeskal, a 15-year-old Mary Lou Retton clone from Houston, as the finest female gymnast in the world. By taking the all-around title, the 4'7", 80-pound Zmeskal became the first U.S. woman ever to win a gold medal in that event at a world championships.
•The emergence of the U.S. women—if you can call these amazing 13-to 16-year-old sprites women—into a legitimate world power.
•A respectable fifth-place showing by the U.S. men.
September 22, 1991
•A 49th-birthday party for the Romanian-born U.S. coach, Bela Karolyi, whose gifts from his women were one gold, two silver and two bronze medals, plus appearances by Nadia Comaneci and Retton, his past Olympic champions.
•Proof positive that when it comes to judging, gymnastics is the least credible sport in the world, with ancient biases and personal grudges proudly carried forward from year to year like banners.
In the nine-day meet at the Hoosier Dome, a record-setting 52 nations competed, including South Africa, which was making its first appearance in a gymnastics world championships in 25 years, and Germany, which was competing under one flag at a worlds for the first time since 1954. Into this new world order of gymnastic frolic, Karolyi fired a salvo left over from the cold war. Asked about the judging after the women's compulsories on Sept. 9, he said, "It is a sad, sour taste watching the strong coalitions. The old blocs are still the same. The old coalition is very aggressive, very brutal. The countries work together—like Romania, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria. They create a big obstacle."
The odd thing about this pronouncement was that the U.S. women were in second place at the time, trailing only a clearly superior Soviet team. The inexperienced U.S. team—Zmeskal; Shannon Miller, 14; Betty Okino, 16; Kerri Strug, 13; Michelle Campi, 15; and Hilary Grivich, 14—was leading the vaunted Romanians and poised to do what no U.S. women's team had ever done: win a medal at the world championships.
Informed of Karolyi's criticisms, Yuri Titov, a Soviet who is president of the International Gymnastics Federation, responded, "Open your eyes. The competition here is favoring the Americans. I could prove some American girls have [been given] the wrong points." Nothing like standing behind the integrity and competence of your judges, Yuri.
On Sept. 11, during the optionals, the Soviet women, led by defending world all-around champion Svetlana Boginskaya, 18, pulled away from the rest of the held. Meanwhile the Romanians chipped away at the U.S. lead in the battle for the silver medal until the two teams were tied with one event left. "We'd been ahead the whole competition, so when they tied us, it made us a little nervous," said Zmeskal, who has been coached by Karolyi since she was six years old.
The Americans stuck one landing after another to the delight of the partisan crowd. The last competitor was Zmeskal, who scored a 9.962 on the first of her two vaults, clinching the silver for the U.S. team. It marked the first time the Americans had ever beaten the Romanians in world or Olympic competition. Still, Karolyi urged her to do better. So Zmeskal dashed down the runway for her second attempt at the full-twisting Yurchenko, a round-off entry vault with a back handspring onto the horse, and like a dart she stuck where she landed. The crowd erupted, and the judges awarded her a perfect 10, the first of the competition. "Bela's always trying to squeeze something more out of you," said Zmeskal, whose idol as a child was Retton, who had trained under Karolyi in the same gym.
Asked if she remembered the knee-high Zmeskal from Karolyi's gym in Houston, Retton said, "I sure do. She was built just like me when I was little. Powerful and muscular and short. Kim is so fierce inside. She's got a steel stomach and a steel heart."
Zmeskal displayed that steeliness last Friday night during the women's all-around, an event in which no American woman had ever finished higher than seventh at the worlds. Zmeskal picked up where she had left off, and her Yurchenko seemed an exact duplicate of her 10 of two nights before. She scored 9.962 in the vault—which Boginskaya later tied—then followed it with a solid 9.937 on the uneven bars and a 9.962 on the balance beam.
Boginskaya, meanwhile, made one slight error on the balance beam, receiving a 9.912 mark that gave Zmeskal a lead she wouldn't relinquish. Other than that, the native of Minsk was nearly flawless, her routines containing a higher degree of difficulty than those of the explosive Zmeskal. "The elements in Kim's routines were not difficult at all," a miffed Alexander Alexandrov, the Soviet coach, said afterward.
With one event to go, Boginskaya, who had won two gold medals at the 1988 Olympics, trailed Zmeskal by .037 of a point. Boginskaya was on uneven bars and, once more, performed an apparently flawless routine. But the judges gave her a tepid 9.912, paving the way for Zmeskal.
Zmeskal took to the mat for her floor exercise believing she needed the performance of her life. She may have given it, nailing every tumbling pass with verve. Four of the six judges gave her floor exercise 10's, and when the final score of 9.987 flashed on the board, 15,013 fans nearly blew the inflatable roof into the Hoosier sky. The gold was Zmeskal's.
To add red, white and blue frosting to the cake, the two other Americans in the women's competition also finished in the top six. Okino, from Elmhurst, Ill., was fourth (she would win a bronze in the balance beam on Sunday), and the 4'6", 69-pound Miller, of Edmond, Okla., who went on to win a silver in the uneven bars on Saturday night, was sixth.
The foreign competitors were none too pleased with what they perceived as shameful host-nation bias. The third-place finisher in the all-around, Cristina Bontas of Romania, didn't show up for the medalists' press conference. Boginskaya was there, but glum. "I am 100 percent sure I would have won if the championships were held in Europe," she said.
"Svetlana Boginskaya was a beautiful world champion," said Karolyi, "but her time is over. It's the new era. The championship went to the right person."
The cold war continued on Sunday following the women's individual floor exercise. Zmeskal, who had won the bronze in the exercise, offered her hand to Boginskaya, who had failed to medal. The Soviet, who felt she had been snubbed by Zmeskal after the individual vault finals the previous night, refused to shake and was roundly booed by the crowd.
"That's pretty primitive," said Karolyi. "The Soviets have a long way to go to be civilized."
So does the sport.