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The Seoul Games / Day 3 : Gymnastics : Soviets Vault to First; U.S. Takes Tumble

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

When we left the U.S. men Sunday afternoon, they were merely trailing the Italians. As disastrous a development as that was, it got somewhat worse. By the end of the night, they had fallen through the entire lineup. This, we can tell you, is not the kind of tumbling anybody had in mind for 1984’s gold medal-winning team.

The Soviet gymnastics team, meanwhile, turned the compulsories into an exhibition. By the time Tuesday night’s optionals are completed, producing the team champion, the reigning World Championship team may well have broken the U.S. point record from 1984, when the scoring was notoriously high. After Sunday’s compulsory routines, the Soviets had scored 295.70 to second-place East Germany’s 293.45.

Japan, which had been thought to be on something of a slide, surprised with a third-place standing at 292.65, followed by China’s disappointing 291.40.

As gymnastics operates on a rich-get-richer premise, the gaps can be expected to widen. The U.S. team, which had opened the Olympics in the doomed first session and was accordingly under-scored, will open the optionals with a first session. The judges, even more so in optionals than compulsories, will reserve the high scores for the higher scoring teams later in the day.

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The U.S. team, heritage and all, may not climb out of 12th place. And Charles Lakes, who was 35th in the all-around, may not be able to advance to any events finals. His 9.8 on high bar early Sunday was a nice set. But by the second session, when the scoring loosened, there were five 9.9s.

And the Soviets can be expected to increase their advantage. They are the rare team that combines exactitude and amplitude. Even in compulsories, where individuality is quashed, it was obvious that their tricks were bigger. And, as usual, there were few missteps. In optionals, where not even the sky is the limit for these gymnasts, there may be some amazing things.

Vladimir Artemov, a two-time World Champion on parallel bars, scored the night’s only 10, a perfect score in the apparatus. That gave him a one-tenth lead over teammate Dimitri Bilozertchev in all-around in what appears to be the only contested development in men’s gymnastics for 1988.

To give you an idea of Soviet depth, the No. 3 position is nailed down by Valeri Lukin. Lukin is one of three gymnasts in the world who regularly attempts a triple somersault on floor. “You see triple backs off rings,” says 1984 Olympian Jim Hartung, “but on floor, a 40X40 mat where you don’t have enough space to get maximum height, that borders on impossible.”

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Of course, nobody has ever seen Lukin actually hit that routine and it’s unlikely that he’ll try it if the all-around is still up for grabs. He might take his usual 9.90. On the other hand, teammate Vladimir Gogoladze, who is well out of the running (13th), may try his. And China’s Li Chunyang will almost certainly try his. The Chinese don’t seem to care whether they fall or not. They get up and smile and go on to the next fabulous trick.

The Chinese, the World Championship’s runner-up and the anticipated threat here, remain a mystery, particularly Li Ning, an explosive tumbler who had taken over the Los Angeles Games with two golds. Sunday he busted on three routines, smiling all the while. U.S. men’s coach Abie Grossfeld had called this one, though. He had observed during workouts that Li stood apart from his teammates, smiling of course. He wasn’t doing the work. And people wonder why he’s so cheerful.

Grossfeld had accurately handicapped the whole thing, actually. When asked how the United States would do, he gave a thin smile and said, “As well as could be expected.” The Russians? “They could beat themselves if they miss, but they do it all. The other teams don’t take enough chances. The Chinese tumble higher but only some do adequate difficulty. Their last guy in every event is extra good. But what makes the Soviets so good, is that every one of them is tremendous. Their routines do not fall off.”

As the Soviets are about to win the gold medal, and as the United States is about to bring up the rear in the team competition, it may be time for U.S. fans to begin their ritualistic gnashing of teeth. Yet, be forewarned, this is how it is, how it was, how it will be.

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“I wouldn’t be surprised if we never beat the Russians again,” Hartung said. The kind of commitment it takes to produce a team like the Soviets’, he said, will never be seen in the U.S. “And I’m not sure it should be. Taking a kid at 6, putting him in a distant school. But I do think it’s possible to get close. And some Olympics, when the magic is in the air and the machine breaks down. . . . “

But this week the Soviets clicked along. And all that filled the air were some Soviet gymnasts, teasing the stratosphere with their toes on those flying dismounts.

Most concede the women’s championships to the Soviets, so the early session of Monday’s compulsory gymnastics, which count half toward the team championship, seemed useful only to the extent that there are two additional medals to give away.

In that case, you have to like Romania for one of them. The World Championship team was thought to have lost some of its spunk. At least everybody from the U.S. team, including Bela Karolyi, U.S. coach and former Romanian coach, thought the Romanians were suffering from “glory sickness.”

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“I have seen it every time, when they win a big one,” Karolyi said.

Especially suspect was 16-year-old all-around titlist Aurelia Dobre. She has had knee surgery since her surprising victory over the Soviets’ Elena Shushunova--a red scar is visible down her right knee when she peels the bandage off--and was considered to have a motivational problem as well.

And then the Romanians blasted through the day sessions, scoring 196.425 to keep well ahead of the East Germans (195.425) and the Bulgarians (194.375), both of whom were thought to be contending for the bronze. As for Dobre, she was dragging only in comparison to teammate Daniela Silivas, a third-place finisher in the World Championships. Silivas scored 10s on bars and floor, following Dobre’s routines each time. Dobre was only third best on her team.

The Soviet gymnasts, pretty well intent on avenging their World Championship embarrassment, followed in a Monday night session, and the U.S. women, who at least have the luck of the draw, follow in the night’s final session, finishing up close to midnight.

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