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THE SEOUL GAMES : Notes : U.S. Gymnasts to Focus on Individual Medals Rather Than All-Around

Times Staff Writer

If there is a new Mary Lou Retton, the youth quadrennially anointed as the Olympic Games’ heartthrob, she won’t be from the United States. The legion of gymnastics coaches here on behalf of the U.S. effort has agreed on a strategy to push for individual event medals instead, leaving the title of all-around champion to, most likely, an Eastern Bloc gymnast.

In 1984, the situation was different. Retton, clearly among the best all-around gymnasts at the Games, was given a good chance to beat Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo for the title. So Retton was placed fifth or sixth in the lineup for every event, the better for her to catch the ascending scoring, an inescapable fact of gymnastics judging.

She was given the placing even though she wasn’t the best on her team in every event, certainly not beam, and at least one gymnast’s chances at a gold in an individual event were sacrificed so that Retton could catch an extra hundredth of a point or so.

And it worked. Retton finished 5/100ths of a point ahead of Szabo and became the new Nadia.

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But in 1988, the best gymnast from the United States, Phoebe Mills, is not given a shot against the likes of the Soviet Union’s Elena Shoushunova or Romania’s Daniela Silvas.

“We try to figure out the best strategy,” explained Bela Karolyi, Mills’ personal coach as well as one of two team coaches allowed on the podium. “The strong all-around has to be last in every event. But there is another consideration, to help (those) in individual event. We agreed on the second alternative.”

So the U.S. team will be chasing 12 medals instead of the 3 available in the more prestigious all-around. That means young Brandy Johnson will be placed last in the vault--"She does the biggest one,” Karolyi said. “Best public attention."--and that Chelle Stack may go last on parallel bars. Kelly Garrison-Steves may finish out on balance beam and Johnson could go last in the floor exercise.

Mills, though the only all-around threat on the team, said, “If I’m first or last, it won’t hurt too much.” It is clear, though, that come 1992 there will be no talk of the next Phoebe Mills.

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Add next Mary Lou: Karolyi, who coached Nadia Comaneci in his program at Romania as well as Retton in his current studio in Houston, doubts that any of the girls here will be as celebrated, no matter what their skills.

“Don’t believe in these circumstances, where Koreans sitting in bleachers, we will have that unusual performer. They won’t get crazy. They quiet like hell.”

On the other hand, Karolyi admits it is difficult to predict just who will catch the crowd’s fancy in any given Olympics. It obviously has little to do with technical skill.

“There are 10-15 (gymnasts) with the same technical level,” he said. “Personality makes the superstar. She does something at the right time and shocks everybody.

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“Olga (Korbut, of the Soviet Union) was a circus master. She smiled or jumped or did something, even when she wasn’t sensational. The technique wasn’t there, but she was the master of forcing you not to think about that.

“Nadia was a super-precise performer. It was as if, ‘This child doesn’t care for me, I better admire her.’

“Mary Lou was a combination. The crowd could see her going out and having a good time. That big smile!”

The gymnast to watch, according to many here, may be the Soviet Union’s Natalia Lashchenenova, the tiniest and youngest--she turned 15 Friday--on her team. She is a daring performer and somehow communicates a playfulness that could get the crowd off their hands. She may have star quality or, then again, she could fall off the beam.

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Basketball player David Robinson on his role as John Thompson’s favorite whipping post:

“Like I said, he expects a lot out of you. He knows I’m capable of a lot. Of having a lot of impact on the game. Those games (exhibitions) were training games. That’s when you do it. By the time you get to the real games, it’s too late.”

In the village: The weather here has been mild and it has been possible, except for traffic noise, to sleep with the window open. Yet some athletes from the African countries complained about the lack of heating in their apartments. . . . The barber shop has stopped shaving athletes’ legs. “Excessive service,” is the official reason.

The Olympic Villager canvassed athletes and found a wide range in daily allowances. Athletes from Thailand and Puerto Rico get $5, U.S. athletes $35. Soviet athletes were right up there with $20-$30 a day. . . . Seoul police stand guard over the color photocopier. Apparently some foreign currency is too easy to counterfeit.

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The village is plastered with posters announcing religious services. The Buddhists have been particularly aggressive, although the 4 a.m. wake up chant may discourage some.

On the streets: Seoul is awash with athletes and journalists, all wearing their plastic accreditation cards. On some streets they are more welcome than others.

It’aewon, the world capital of knockoffs, is particularly hospitable. The merchants, their English every bit as good as a United Nations translator’s, happily hustle the tourists into “my shop.”

U.S. basketball player Danny Manning was spotted there wearing a leather cap. It sat on his head like a thimble.

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Meanwhile, on Tongdaemun Market, a vast sprawl of stalls featuring everything from hardware to live eels, the merchants are less tolerant of sightseers. When journalists stopped to inspect some “Ree” and “Levee” jeans, they were quickly shooed away.

Similarly, when they got too close to a small cage that held two protruding paws, a merchant quickly drew cardboard over the animal. It is believed he said, “Boy, are my dogs tired.”

Colorful potted plants are delivered to Olympic sites daily. The thoroughfare leading from the Olympic Village to the Seoul Sports Complex, though congested, is wide, clean and flowering: Disneyland’s Main Street, rush hour.

A Special Coach: Mac Wilkins, veteran discus thrower who won the U.S. Trials this year and with it the right to compete in his third Olympic Games, brought along some very special assistance to Seoul. Wilkins was also a member of the 1980 Olympic team, which did not compete because of an American boycott.

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Wilkins got Wolfgang Schmidt credentialed as his personal coach, thereby getting his former competitor and current friend into the Seoul Olympics in a vastly different way than Schmidt hoped.

Schmidt, who took the discus silver medal for East Germany in 1976 in Montreal, behind Wilkins’ silver, was out of favor for many years in East Germany and finally, after an aborted defection attempt, was allowed last year to leave the country. He came to the United States and lived with Wilkins for a while after his arrival.

Earlier this year, West Germany attempted to get a waiver to have Wilkins compete for its Olympic team, but that was turned down by the International Olympic Committee. So Schmidt needed another way to at least get to Seoul. And Wilkins took care of that.

Seen at Olympic Park: Young men going over the shrubbery and ground cover with metal detectors in the early morning hours and police dogs sniffing light fixtures in the Olympic Gymnastics Hall. . . . The same plainclothes security forces, looking like kids about to ask for spare tickets, stand alongside the fence, every day.

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Memo to Los Angeles commuters: You don’t know what traffic is.

Times Sports Editor Bill Dwyre also contributed to this story.


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