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HEAD OVER HEELS WHEN IT WAS OVER, THE WIDE-OPEN GYMNASTICS COMPETITION LANDED ON ITS FEET

HEAD OVER HEELS WHEN IT WAS OVER, THE WIDE-OPEN GYMNASTICS COMPETITION LANDED ON ITS FEET

In the end there was no need for regret, no wistful lament about
what might have been. Two-time U.S. Olympian Shannon Miller, on
the last chance of her career, ended three tear-soaked days of
individual gymnastics frustration with one of the best
performances of her life on the balance beam last night at the
Georgia Dome to seize her first individual gold medal. And
Russia's Alexei Nemov provided further assurance that he is,
indeed, the ascending star in men's gymnastics. Nemov finished
with six medals in these Games, and his relentless scavenging
for individual gold was finally rewarded when he nailed a 9.787
vault. Fittingly, that was the only event of his five apparatus
finals in which his sore left shoulder, which will need surgery
after these Games, never came into play.

This is an article from the July 30, 1996 issue

But once injured U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug had scratched an hour
before the start of last night's program, unable to go on
because of her severely sprained ankle, it was a safe bet that
nothing would surpass her climactic vault or the U.S. women's
team gold medal victory as the most memorable gymnastics moments
of the Games. Not Nemov's rebound--one gold, three bronze on the
individual apparatuses--after he missed the all-around title.
Not the bronze the U.S.'s Dominique Dawes won in the floor
exercises. Not Miller's 9.862 on the beam, a score that
withstood challenges from Ukraine's Lilia Podkopayeva (9.825)
and Romania's Gina Gogean (9.787).

From the first handspring to the last, the wide-open meet that
Atlanta hosted defied pat predictions and rewarded individual
brilliance without regard to tradition or homeland or marquee
name value. And it was enthralling to see.

Former Stanford gymnast Jair Lynch, a 24-year-old two-time
Olympian who has suffered through the dog days of American men's
gymnastics, turned in a stunning performance in his best event,
the parallel bars (9.825), to win the silver--the only medal won
by the U.S. men's team. Lynch and Dawes thus became the first
African-Americans to win individual gymnastics medals.

Oftentimes gymnasts have said it is the sheer import of the
occasion--the unadorned fact that the Olympic Games are their
showcase event--that lifted them to heights they hadn't reached
before. Strug said that was what propelled her down the runway
for her last vault in the team competition last Tuesday, though
she'd heard something snap in her right ankle just moments
before. After diminutive Ioannis Melissanidis held off a
star-studded field to win the individual floor exercises on
Sunday and give Greece its first gymnastics medal in 100 years,
Melissanidis spoke of how he had walked to his starting spot on
the mat telling himself, "I'm not in the U.S...I'm in Athens. I
am not Ioannis Melissanidis, I am Greece. I must be perfect. For
Greece."

For every underdog that bit back or grabbed a slice of history,
someone else was crowded off the summit. Fourteen-year-old
Dominique Moceanu of the U.S., the pre-Games cover girl who was
touted as the next Nadia, leaves Atlanta without an individual
medal. Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus, who won six gold medals at the
1992 Barcelona Games, departs with just four bronze medals.

Two nights after prohibitive favorite China slipped from a sure
gold to silver in the men's team competition, China's Li
Xiaoshuang--the smallest man in the competition, at 5'2"--won
the men's individual all-around title with a roof-scraping vault
and a competition-closing high bar routine that were as notable
for their recklessness as for the high scores they received.
Four years ago, Yuri Chechi of Italy thought his career was over
at 22 when he tore an Achilles tendon 20 days before the
Barcelona Games. But Sunday, competing in his first Olympics
since Seoul in 1988, Chechi won the gold with nary a sway or a
wobble in his routine on the rings, an event he mastered when
his right leg never fully recovered from his injury. "I don't
know why or how, but inside of me I found the power to go on,"
Chechi said.

In the end it was the promise of such moments--and the gymnasts'
eventually coming through on it--that enthralled the crowds.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Miller (opposite) was on the beam last night, and Nemov (left) came through with four individual apparatus medals over two nights, but some gymnasts, like Moceanu, struggled right up to the end. [Shannon Miller on balance beam]COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN [See caption above--Alexei Nemov on pommel horse]COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Dominique Moceanu on balance beam]