The first names begin to tell the story. Kim versus Svetlana. Short, compact, snappy versus long, graceful, svelte. The American innocent versus the dramatic Belarussian whose life has been tinged by tragedy. The 16-year-old world champion, at the peak of her skills, confronted by the imposing former champion who, at 19, is trying to turn back the clock. Two women, built like the sounds of their names, will meet in Barcelona to determine once and for all which one is the best all-around gymnast in the world.
One, Kim Zmeskal (opposite), the three-time U.S. champ from suburban Houston, is fast, low to the ground and 80 pounds of explosive power. Happy, uncomplicated and steel-nerved, Zmeskal in 1991 became the first American to win the all-around world championship. The other, Svetlana Boginskaya, the 19-year-old sphinx from Minsk, is tall, exotic, complex and choreographically elegant—a woman competing against adolescents. The 1989 all-around world champion and a controversial second to Zmeskal in '91, Boginskaya is bent on disproving the assertion made by Bela Karolyi, Zmeskal's outspoken coach, that she was "a beautiful champion, but her time is over."
Upon hearing that opinion, Boginskaya, a winner of two Olympic gold medals in 1988, said, "I don't think Kim Zmeskal is good enough to make my era come to an end."
Two women. Only one gold medal and a world of night and day stand between them.
July 21, 1992
The day that Lyubov Miromanova, Boginskaya's coach since she was six years old, returned to Minsk from the Seoul Summer Olympics, she hung herself. Svetlana was 15. She had performed brilliantly in the gymnastics competition in Seoul, winning two gold medals (team and vault), a silver (floor exercise) and a bronze (all-around). What should have been the happiest weeks of her young life were suddenly transformed into a nightmare. Miromanova had been more than her coach. She had been a friend, a surrogate mother, someone Svetlana could talk with about womanhood and life. If practice was going badly, Svetlana could plead with her, whine to her, reason that it might be a nice idea to work on something else for a while. Miromanova would listen, and before Svetlana knew it, the training session would be over. Now Miromanova was gone. She had taken her own life, and no one could explain why. It remains a mystery to this day.
"Only closest relatives of Miromanova may know why she did it," says Aleksandr Aleksandrov, head coach of the women's gymnastics team that will compete for the Unified Team in Barcelona. "There was never an explanation given. After it happened, Svetlana did not speak about the incident at all. I don't think anybody will be able to talk to her about it, ever. We just tried to help her through it. She has a tough character, as both a performer and a person. Svetlana is a very complex person, hard to get along with, very difficult to socialize with. We have had arguments. The older she gets, the more emotional she gets. Maybe for some reason she feels a little guilt. That is just my opinion."
Aleksandrov is speaking at the Round Lake gymnastics training center, 25 miles north of Moscow. It is an hour's drive from Red Square because of the condition of the roads, which are rutted and pitted with potholes. The training center, in the midst of farm country and woodlands, has the look and feel of a military facility. A metal gate guards the entrance. It is operated by a man who stands in a concrete hut. Just inside the gate, a crane towers over a partially dug foundation. This was going to be a hotel to house the swimmers and gymnasts who train at Round Lake, until funds ran out. No one has worked the crane for more than a year. Now it is only an eyesore.
But then, none of it is pretty. The buildings haven't seen a fresh coat of paint in years. Rust shows on the doors, window frames and railings. Construction materials are heaped into ungainly piles, and rain falls on mud instead of lawn. This has been Svetlana Boginskaya's home away from home since she was 10. Most of her childhood was spent in these dreary surroundings, with Miromanova as her coach. Two weeks at Round Lake, four days at home; two weeks at Round Lake, four days at home. Since she was 10. At first Svetlana missed her parents desperately, but she eventually got used to the routine and even stopped calling them. Her mother, at some point in each phone conversation, would blurt, "My darling daughter, come home. Why are you doing this? I miss you so much."
"She doesn't understand all this jumping around and standing on your head," Boginskaya says. "She finds it very scary. She's never seen me compete in person, and seldom on television. Would you call home if you were subjected to that?" So Round Lake became her home. Gymnastics was not a hobby, not a sport, but a way of life, the only one she had known since some sports official came into her kindergarten class when Svetlana was six years old and asked the teacher if anyone might like to try gymnastics. "Take this one," the teacher said, pointing to Svetlana. "She's a rabble-rouser."
Inside the athletes' dormitory, two middle-aged women sit in the entryway and watch the Russian equivalent of MTV. They are tired, indifferent. Perhaps it's the drabness of the building. The gymnasts sleep three to a room. Boginskaya rooms with Natalya Kalinina, 18, and Tatyana Lisenko, 17, both from Ukraine. Gymnastics posters cover the walls, literally floor to ceiling. Lisenko has been teaching Boginskaya and Kalinina to speak English, but Boginskaya is too uncertain to try it with her guests. She and the rest of the elite Unified Team gymnasts train here eight hours a day, six days a week, from 7 to 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Four times a week teachers come to tutor them, from 8 to 9:30 at night.
At 19, Boginskaya is old by women's gymnastics standards, and at a womanly 5'4", 95 pounds, is disadvantaged competing against tiny things—70, 80 pounds, 4'7", 4'8"—who bound upon the balance beam as if it were as wide as a highway. Women's gymnastics, for better or worse, is an adolescent's sport. Carriage, grace, elegance and style seem to count for next to nothing with the judges. "Any appearance Svetlana makes beautifies gymnastics," says Aleksandrov. "She looks like a grown-up woman when she's performing. It would do a lot for gymnastics if people could look at a grown-up woman instead of these little girls. The girls today are like midgets. They're not developed. But this is a temporary phenomenon, I think, in our sport."
Karolyi, not surprisingly, disagrees. "I believe in the future we are going to see more and more powerhouses like Kim, younger gymnasts with a stockier and healthier type body," he says. "Suddenly, it's the stronger, explosive, aggressive gymnasts who are winning. On the vault, the beam and the floor, this body type has an advantage. Long and lean, very graceful athletes, because of centrifugal force, have an advantage on the bars. But that's three events against one."
So Boginskaya, long, lean and graceful, trains as she has never trained before, knowing that a victory in Barcelona would mean more than glory. It could lead to a better life after the Games are finished, perhaps to endorsements or even a coaching position in the West. "When I was younger," she says, "when something went wrong in training, I just gave up. Now I don't, because I know what I am striving for. The Olympics. I was 15 years old in Seoul and felt it was like a regular competition. Now I am 19. It will be the conclusive competition of my sporting career. Of course, it's going to be very embarrassing if things don't turn out well. But sport's a competition, and the strongest will win."
Six little girls, ages six to 16, are prancing around the mat doing warmup exercises at Karolyi's Gymnastics Camp, 60 miles north of Houston in a farm community called New Waverly. They are led by Zmeskal, who, at 4'7" and 80 pounds, is bigger than the six-year-olds and about the same size as the 14-year-olds, but chunkier, more muscular, the boss muffin of this tiny lot. It is Media Day at Karolyi's Camp. Some 30 members of the U.S. press have flown in from around the country to watch these girls work out, film them in action, probe their innermost thoughts and interview the mother of all promoters, Karolyi, the immigrant Romanian who doubles as the adoptive father of U.S. gymnastics. The whole thing has been set up by Karolyi's agent, Tim Heath of International Management Group, who also represents Zmeskal, the USGF's first bona fide star since Mary Lou Retton. A 10th-grader, Zmeskal is already approaching six figures in endorsement money.
Round Lake, this is not. Karolyi's Camp is on 53 beautifully groomed acres, complete with tennis and basketball courts, swimming pool, two gymnasiums and 15 cabins that sleep about 300 kids. There are pet deer and horses. Fishing ponds. Coke machines. Pretty close to kid heaven, if you don't mind the 90° heat.
This is a gymnastics camp. Zmeskal, some of her expenses paid by the USGF, works out here during the summer and occasionally on weekends the rest of the year. Like Boginskaya, Zmeskal started gymnastics when she was six years old, accompanying a friend to the Sundance Athletic Club, in Houston, which was six miles from her home. She was invited by the coach to join in, and Kim took to the sport as if born to it. Her father, David, a salesman of welding equipment, remembers Kim tumbling on the ottoman at their home and hanging upside down from the swing set when she was so young she could barely walk. "We never had to push her," he says. "In fact, she was the one pushing us. Kim's always been a very intense person. You play a game of checkers with her, she's all out to beat you."
Karolyi bought the Sundance gym shortly before Kim began training there, so she has been under the master's guidance from the start. As elite gymnasts go, or even prospective ones, Kim was one of the lucky ones. Many of the girls who train with Karolyi come from all over the country. Kim lived at home and had a relatively normal childhood. She has a sister, Melissa, 12, and a brother, Eric, 8, neither of whom is involved in gymnastics. Her mother, Clarice, works as a contract analyst for Mobil Oil. The Zmeskals are, in short, a well-grounded American family, and Kim neither is treated nor behaves like a superstar at home.
In the early years Kim went to gymnastics a couple of days a week, a schedule that gradually increased to four times a week, then to two sessions six times a week: an hour and a half before school and 3½ hours in the evening. The only personal sacrifice she acknowledges making was in 1989, when she left school halfway through seventh grade after being selected to be a Karolyi Kid—one of a half dozen elite gymnasts who are groomed for international competition. Now she keeps up with her classwork through correspondence courses and trains 7½ hours a day: from 7:30 to 11:30 in the morning and 5:00 to 8:30 at night. "All I've missed of my childhood is leaving school," she says. "I don't count that as too much of a sacrifice. I can still go back. I've had a pretty good life, knock wood."
Zmeskal was never cited as a child prodigy, as the future world gymnastics champion in waiting. She was one of a crowd of talented, pint-sized Karolyi Kids. She remembers being thrilled when she finished sixth among her group. Karolyi suspects that Zmeskal's not having been the best of her age group early on helped her learn to compete. "It gave her an understanding of how you're supposed to perform in a championship," he says. "Fighting to the end, not giving up. Sometimes jokingly I say that her computer is turned on and she just goes according to what she's feeding it. It's nerves of steel. It's good capability to forget what's not important, like your standing in the competition. Kim is organized in her head."
Zmeskal's victory in the all-around at the worlds last year in Indianapolis was not without controversy. Karolyi offended the gymnasts and coaches of Romania and the former Soviet Union by accusing the East European judges of working together to form a coalition that was "very aggressive, very brutal." They, in turn, slighted the accomplishments of Zmeskal, attributing her success to the home-floor advantage of competing before a rabidly pro-American crowd. After all, no U.S. gymnast before Zmeskal had ever finished higher than seventh at the worlds in the all-around. "It is 100 percent certain I would have won if the championships had been held in Europe," Boginskaya said at the time. The unsportsmanlike behavior spilled over to the medal ceremony following the competition, when Boginskaya, feeling she had been snubbed by Zmeskal the night before, refused to shake Zmeskal's hand and was loudly booed by the crowd.
Zmeskal listened to the criticisms—that her routines and dismounts lacked a high degree of difficulty—and quietly determined to prove her detractors wrong. She increased the technical difficulty of her tumbling, and the next time she faced Boginskaya, in the World Individual Apparatus championships in Paris in April, she proved that her win in Indianapolis had been no fluke. She took home gold medals in the balance beam and the floor exercise, the only competitor to win two events. The best Boginskaya could do was win a silver in the vault. "The die was cast in Indianapolis," says Karolyi. "This is something that's eternal. Slowly but surely they all get ground up by the wheel of time, just like all the big ones before them. Nadia, Mary Lou. And now Svetlana. You feel sorry about that. We don't want change to come. But it's natural." Zmeskal's performance in Paris establishes her as the consensus favorite in Barcelona. Asked if that worries her, she says matter-of-factly, "I usually do better when I'm under pressure. I'm lucky to have pressure on me."
Half a world away, Boginskaya climbs into a taxi with three foreign journalists to spend an unsupervised day in Moscow. A year ago this would have been unthinkable. But a year ago the food at the Round Lake training complex was better and more varied than it is today, the gymnasts' monthly government allotment of 2,500 rubles arrived on time, and Boginskaya and her teammates were competing for the Soviet Union. "I am now a Belarussian," she says, "but I feel myself a Soviet. Or even a Russian." Round Lake, after all, is in Russia, and it has been four months since she has been home to Minsk.
But it is Sunday, her day off, and to get into Moscow is a treat. It's difficult and expensive to get transportation out of Round Lake, so it has been weeks since Boginskaya has gone to the Russian capital. Posing for photographs in Red Square, she goes unrecognized by her compatriots. Gymnastics is not a sport that is popularly followed by ordinary Russians, who, in any event, have more important things on their minds than Olympic athletes.
Boginskaya has no endorsements, no job offers and very few prospects within her own country beyond the $3,000 bonus from the Russian Olympic Committee that a gold medal from Barcelona would be worth. But if Boginskaya's gymnastic prowess goes unrecognized in Red Square, her beauty does not. Two Russian youths call to her as she passes. "Hey, sweetie, what's your phone number? You're my dream girl."
"Be serious," she answers, flattered, and keeps walking. This is a Moscow she has never seen, gypsy children begging in the streets, thousands upon thousands of Muscovites lining the sidewalks, selling whatever they've managed to get their hands on—running shoes, vodka, caviar, perfume, blouses—the pitiful beginnings of a fragile market economy. "It's very interesting to walk the streets of Moscow these days," Boginskaya notes. "I like it."
She passes the Bolshoi Theater, remarks that she has never been inside and pines for the opportunity. Spotting a bunch of balloons in the lobby of the Hotel Metropol, she asks if it might be possible to have one. She is given two, red and pink, and totes them along for the rest of the day. Given the opportunity to select any gift she wants from a fancy department store that caters primarily to tourists, she chooses a bright-yellow duckling for her collection of stuffed animals. Part girl, part woman, Boginskaya hopes for one more shining competitive moment that might change her life forever. Yet at lunch, offered a champagne toast to her success in Barcelona, she demurs. "Why should we toast to my success?" she asks. "No." Thinking a moment, she offers these Olympian thoughts instead. "I would like to drink a toast to the flourishing future of all countries," she says.
Two women. Two flourishing futures. May each be the toast of Spain. And may the best one win.