THE BIGGEST MOMENT : U.S. Men Gymnasts Could Have Been Content With Just Earning a Medal; Instead, They Were as Good as Gold

Times Staff Writer

They met again a year later and what a difference a year makes. The Olympic hues of magenta and vermilion, pigments of America's imagination way back in 1984, had faded. For the 1985 rematch between the two powers, less than half the seats of Pauley Pavilion were occupied. And the gymnasts below, though the best of a new generation, padded across the spring-loaded floor in virtual anonymity.

But a year ago, with the United States men so boldly challenging the favored Chinese for the Olympic gymnastics gold, the air was charged with enough electricity to light an entire nation. Who can forget that night? A country that hadn't won a team medal in 52 years was poised to overtake one that had finally become the sport's dominant force. A country that had been penciled in for third place--and that high only because of a boycott by some East European nations--was about to make history.

It is difficult to recreate the surprise of that event, when the U.S. men's gymnastics team did, indeed, make history. Looking back, it is easy to recognize them as the superior athletes. We have seen them on the Carson show, have read their exercise books. We will soon see their movies. They must have been good then to be this famous now. Open a magazine: There's Mitch Gaylord doing a situp in an advertising layout. And we recognize him easily.

A year ago, however, these men were unheralded, newcomers to the tremendous exposure of Olympic competition, a competition that elevates a cult sport such as gymnastics to something as broad-based as international politics.

Not much was expected of them if you recall, although it was heartily hoped that they wouldn't embarrass themselves on the home court. China, which had won the World Championship the year before, beating even the Soviet Union, would of course win the team medal. Japan, a former power on the way back, would take the silver, no question. The U.S. would do well to finish third. It would establish U.S. credentials as a serious contender and that was all that could be asked.

Then these men, without the burden of high expectations, smoked the Chinese in the compulsories, taking a lead of 1.05 into the finals, the optional exercises. And then, with the burden of high expectations, they held on to defeat the Chinese by .6 points. Booking agents everywhere picked up their phones.

It is true that the Olympics was a time of much national chest-beating. There was so much flag-waving that Rambo himself might have asked for moderation in things patriotic. Yet the appreciation of this particular U.S. victory was not entirely chauvinistic. It was not just that the U.S. won, although it was a significant element. It was that an underdog won. The victory was immediately likened to the U.S. hockey team's triumph in the 1980 Winter Olympics. It was like that.

The other reason this particular victory will long survive in Olympic lore, possibly the real reason a nation enshrined the six gymnasts as heroes, was how it was achieved. It could hardly have been more dramatic had it been scripted. See if you remember:

In the second rotation, with the Chinese hurling themselves from the rings in all kinds of imaginative ways and the U.S. men performing only so-so on the pommel horse, the lead had been cut to .45 point. And then the two teams, having certified that this could still go either way, engaged in gymnastics shootouts the likes of which had never been seen.

The United States took the rings and the Chinese moved to the vault and the crowd alternated gasps as the one matched the other in daring. Next on horizontal bar, no Chinese gymnast scored lower than 9.90. Working on parallel bars at the same time, the U.S. gymnasts had a throwaway 9.80, four 9.90s and a 10.

The U.S. saved the cutest story turn for the final event. Scott Johnson had scored a personally disastrous 9.50 on the horizontal bar, which was not necessarily team disastrous as long as it was the team's lowest score and it could be thrown out. All that had to be done to preserve a team victory was for the rest of them to exercise caution--nothing fancy was required, only an avoidance of catastrophe.

That meant that Mitch Gaylord, some-time master of the Gaylord II, didn't need to challenge the bar with his risky maneuver. All he had to do, as last man up, was land on his feet. And the U.S. would have won.

But that wouldn't have been much fun, would it? Gaylord, who had blown his opportunity to showcase the twisting release move above the bar in the individual event, wanted desperately to show the world what he could really do. His coach was just as desperate, but in a different way. Later, Gaylord would say of Coach Abie Grossfeld: "He was looking at me strangely. I think he wanted to come over and tell me not to do it."

Grossfeld said, "I saw the look in his eye. Scotty (Johnson) had missed and there was no way I should have let him throw it. I knew Mitch could get a 9.8 automatic without it and that's all we needed."

Gaylord went with his Gaylord II, a move he doesn't make even in practice all that often. If he misses, he misses. He soars past the bar and lands face down on the mat. And the U.S. doesn't win. But Gaylord didn't miss it. He scored a 9.95, which is beside the point.

The U.S. men went for the gold, they did not settle for it. That was the point.

For most, the enduring memory is of the six young men on the award podium. Peter Vidmar's chin was fractured by massive trembling. Light mists fogged their vision as they stood before a grateful crowd. Their arms were upraised in the classic awards posture, one that would become an Olympic cliche. But then, before the impossible had become routine, it seemed fresh.

The gymnasts would all, to some degree, capitalize on their new fame. There were a couple of tours. Some talk shows. Gaylord and Bart Conner, the two more charismatic gymnasts, would come out with exercise books and they would also be subjects of much Hollywood trade talk. Screen tests were the new forums of competition. Gaylord would be identified in the ads as Medalist-entrepreneur.

But nothing could cheapen their achievement, a combination of timing, patriotism and good old-fashioned right stuff. Whatever they had was magic.

A year later, when a China-U.S. meet can invoke nothing beyond the curiosity of the gymnastics cult, it is still possible to appreciate.

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