Gymnasts are the world's worst improvisers. They practice their
routines with mind-numbing repetitiveness, for hours and days,
weeks and years, so that each spinning, twisting landing off the
high bar becomes an act of muscle memory. Trust your body, they
tell themselves. And they do, or how could one possibly land a
backward flip onto a four-inch-wide beam?
Which is why the gaffe during last Thursday's women's all-around
competition, the crown jewel of the gymnastics schedule, will go
down as one of the alltime blunders in sport. Someone set the
height of the vault at 120 centimeters instead of the stipulated
125; that two-inch difference probably cost Russia's Svetlana
Khorkina, the favorite, a medal, perhaps the gold. "In 30 years
of coaching I've never seen that, never," said Donna Strauss, who
coaches Kristin Maloney of the U.S.
Gymnasts were lucky that the improperly positioned vault, which
is also called a horse, didn't cause a serious injury instead of
merely shattering dreams. Elise Ray, who had led the U.S. to a
fourth-place finish in the team competition earlier in the week,
nearly missed the horse in her warmup vault and landed on her
back. "It really scared me," said Ray. She then fell on both her
competition vaults to score a 7.618. She could hardly have
scored lower if she'd run into the apparatus headfirst. "I'm
disappointed, but I'm also angry, and I'm sure the other
competitors feel the same way."
Certainly Khorkina did. The exotic 21-year-old had her mind set
on becoming the star of these Games. After winning a gold medal
on the uneven bars in Atlanta, Khorkina said, "When I get home, I
expect there will be a parade, and I expect lots of kisses and
lots of flowers." Just imagine the booty she'd get for winning
the all-around. Instead, Khorkina, who was leading after the
first rotation, landed on her knees after doing a difficult 1 1/2
twist forward with a half turn off the horse. The resulting 9.343
killed any hope she had for the title.
Nicknamed the Queen of Bars because of her proficiency in that
event, Khorkina then moved to her favorite apparatus. She
faltered again, falling to her knees on her first release move.
Only then, halfway through the competition, did officials
discover that the vault was too low. The competitors who'd
already done their vaults were offered another chance, but even
had Khorkina done so, it was too late for her. "That's
bulls---," she fumed to her coach in excellent English. She
chose to communicate to the press in Russian, storming past with
a wave of dismissal and a guttural snarl. Translation, please,
the press attache was asked. His tactful summary: "Get lost."
"It's incredible," said Bart Conner, a 1984 gold medalist for the
U.S. "Setting the vault at the wrong height doesn't happen even
in 10-year-old age-group trials. The one thing that saved the
credibility of the meet is that Andreea Raducan won. She's so
good, she could win anytime."
But Conner spoke too soon. Raducan, who's only 4'10" and 82
pounds, had no problem with the faulty vault and became the first
Romanian woman to win the all-around title since the legendary
Nadia Comaneci did so in 1976. The 1-2-3 sweep by the Romanian
women, who also won the team gold, led to a national celebration
until it was learned that the 16-year-old Raducan, who also
finished second in the vault, had failed a drug test following
the all-around competition. She had taken cold medication, given
to her by the team doctor, which contained pseudoephedrine, a
mild stimulant that's on the IOC's list of banned drugs. On
Tuesday morning the IOC's executive board stripped Raducan of her
all-around medal (it went to her teammate Simona Amanar, the
erstwhile second-place finisher) but allowed her to keep her team
gold and her individual silver.
And Khorkina? She got a haircut, a manicure and a surprise visit
from her 16-year-old sister, Julia, all of which conspired to
help her forget her disappointment. Then she returned to the
scene of the crime on Sunday and won her second gold medal on
the uneven bars. "It will help me forget that day," she said,
holding up the medal, "which will remain very, very far from me,
somewhere perhaps near the North Pole."