The last vault would tell the story. One final sprint down the runway, a head-over-heels tumble onto the springboard, then a pirouette-flip through the air—otherwise known as a full-twisting Yurchenko—to determine the gold medal in the women's all-around competition. The most prestigious medal in gymnastics hung in the balance as Tatyana Gutsu of the Unified Team readied herself.
This is an article from the Aug. 10, 1992 issue
Watching was her look-alike waif, 15-year-old Shannon Miller of Edmond, Okla. Just moments before, the 4'7", 71-pound Miller had taken the lead from Gutsu with a near-perfect vault of her own. Only near perfect? Not at first glance, when Miller lighted onto the mat without a wobble, like a bird onto a lawn. Not in slow-motion replay, which only enhanced the flawlessness of her full-twisting Yurchenko. Not in the minds of three of the judges, who awarded Miller perfect 10's. The three other judges saw it as a 9.95, which, throwing out the high and low marks, gave Miller an average score of 9.975. "Maybe the judges were waiting for a superhuman," said Steve Nunno, Miller's coach for the past seven years. "It should have been a 10. We had the gold medal in our hands." No American gymnast, other than Mary Lou Retton, had ever won the Olympic all-around, and Retton's gold had come in '84, when the powerful Soviets didn't compete.
Gutsu had scored 9.925 in her first vault; she needed a 9.950 in her second and final vault to regain the lead. Any hop on the landing, any flutter in flight, and the judges would have no choice but to place Gutsu behind Miller.
Down the runway Gutsu sprinted, her huge eyes focused on her takeoff spot, her blond ponytail bobbing behind her. Up she went in a whirling blur. Then, though her feet were slightly apart, Gutsu stuck her landing. The score came on the board: 9.950. Gutsu had passed Miller by .012. "It ate me alive," said Nunno.
There was one competitor left who had a chance to win the gold, albeit a slim one. Svetlana Boginskaya, 19, approached the balance beam, where she needed a score of 9.987 to win the gold. The grande dame of the competition—she won two golds, a silver and a bronze four years ago in Seoul—Boginskaya had quickly become a crowd favorite. Tall, womanly, elegant and poised, the 1989 world champion offered spectators an appealing alternative to the tiny 15-year-olds who dominate women's gymnastics. But that appeal was largely lost on the judges, who seemed to penalize Boginskaya because her routines were less difficult than those performed by the younger competitors.
Still, Boginskaya had a chance, which is all any true athlete seeks. She mounted the beam with a front flip off the springboard, landing surely, and went through her routine with characteristic flair. Twice she paused to steady herself, but it was a solid performance, and when she nailed yet another dismount—she had not missed one all night—the crowd erupted. Reigning world champion Kim Zmeskal of the U.S. kissed her on both checks, setting aside her own personal disappointment at having finished 10th in the all-around. But Boginskaya's eyes were on the scoreboard. When it flashed a 9.912, a storm of disapproving whistles came from the crowd, and tears filled Boginskaya's eyes. She finished fifth, .014 shy of the bronze, which went to Lavinia Milosovici of Romania, another 15-year-old.
Later, Boginskaya, having performed in her final all-around competition, left the Palau Sant Jordi alone. She declined to get on the athletes' bus, mingling instead with a cluster of Spanish fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures. "Honestly speaking, I feel good," she said. "Four years have passed, and the smaller girls, the younger ones, they can do more complicated elements. Sport is sport, and the strongest win."
Two days earlier it had been Boginskaya, not Gutsu, who had led the Unified Team to an emotional gold in the team competition. Emotional? The Unified Team?
It was true. This group really was unified, infinitely more so than the bickering bunch from the U.S. The athletes of the former Soviet Union, both the men—who were led by the great Vitaly Scherbo, whose six gold medals were more than any gymnast had ever won in an Olympics—and the women, approached this competition with a sense of sadness. They had come from various republics, trained together, lived together, made one another better. For them the centralized Soviet system had worked. "All the girls are upset the team will be broken up," said women's coach Aleksandr Aleksandrov, who cried after they won the team gold. "This is like breaking up a family."
At the center of the women was Boginskaya. In a departure from her past, stoic manner, she played the role of mother hen, urging on her younger teammates, smiling at their good routines and comforting them when they faltered. When Gutsu fell off the beam, it was Boginskaya's arms that surrounded her as she cried in disappointment. "Svetlana has set us all a fine example," Gutsu later said.
The U.S. women, by contrast, were about as unified as a bagful of cats. They seldom watched each other's routines, never mind applauded them. Zmeskal fell off the beam in the first 10 seconds of the compulsories, and Miller, who outscored all other gymnasts in the field that night, didn't exactly appear crushed by the news of her more celebrated teammate's tumble.
Head coach Bela Karolyi, for his part, was still steaming over the judging in the U.S. trials, held two months ago. Miller finished ahead of Zmeskal, Karolyi's pupil and the sport's reigning princess. In Barcelona, Karolyi went so far as to suggest that Zmeskal's placement behind Miller was at least partially responsible for Zmeskal's fall from the beam at the Olympics. "It worked to tear down the legendary confidence of this young athlete," Karolyi said.
Despite Zmeskal's fall, the U.S. was in second place after the compulsories, trailing the Unified Team by a half point and leading the Romanians by .025. With 50% of the scoring behind them, the U.S. was on track for silver. But the medal was just one item on a complicated agenda. To qualify for the all-around, Zmeskal had to pass two of her teammates—Kerri Strug and Dominique Dawes—in the individual standings. Those teammates surely didn't want to be passed, which explained why while Unified Team and Romanian gymnasts were hugging and cheering for one another, the U.S. women pretty much sat on their hands. Zmeskal did, in fact, pass Strug and Dawes. But the Romanians outscored the U.S. in three of the four optional rotations to take home the team silver. Not consoled by the team bronze, Strug was reduced to tears.
Karolyi, never one to pass up an opportunity to steal the spotlight, chose that night to announce that this would be his final Olympics. None too soon either. Karolyi deserves credit for raising women's gymnastics in the U.S. to a world-class level, but controversy—Bellicose should be his first name—follows him like the plague. At the root of it all is the suspicion, whispered in U.S. gymnastic circles, that he and his wife, Martha, have never rid themselves of the Eastern European mentality of treating athletes as disposable parts. "Why am I the one being hunted and chased?" he bemoaned.
All of which deflected attention from the surprising Miller. Even after the U.S. men finally got a lift on Sunday night, when unheralded Trent Dimas, 21, of Albuquerque won the gold in the horizontal bar—the first U.S. gold in that apparatus since 1932, and the only U.S. gold of these Olympics—it was Miller who remained the star of the U.S. team. In last Saturday's individual apparatus events she added three medals (another silver and two bronzes) for a total of five.
When she was nine, Miller trained for two weeks at a camp in the Soviet Union. Now among Miller's biggest fans were gymnasts from the Unified Team, who saw her as a reflection of themselves. "You want to see ballet and beauty, and Miller's got the classic style of the Soviet system," said Aleksandrov. "Her programs and aesthetics are the best on the U.S. team."
Peggy Liddick, Miller's choreographer and Nunno's assistant, acknowledges the Soviet influence in Miller's style. "But the personality Shannon has on the floor can't be taught," Liddick says. "She's a shy teenager in real life. But when she steps on the floor, she's an actress."
An actress who, in Barcelona, finally earned a leading role.