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The Seoul Games: Day 5 : Gymnastics : Soviets Have Flying Finish to Win Gold

Times Staff Writer

How good are the Soviets? The search for relative standards is daunting. “Their alternate , Valentin Mogulinyi, could probably be the best gymnast on any other team here,” U.S. Coach Abie Grossfeld said. “Their worst score would probably be the best in any event.” And so on. Let’s put it another way: One of their gymnasts uncorked the first triple back somersault in Olympic competition and received a 9.85 on floor, second worst on his team.

This is discouraging for anyone interested in a competitive game. But it’s more obvious than ever that the Soviets practice gymnastics at a safe remove from the rest of the world. Their score of 593.35 for the team gold Tuesday night was nearly a full 5 points better than runner-up East Germany (588.45), almost 8 more than bronze-medal winner Japan (585.60). It was nearly 2 full points better than the United States’ record score in the 1984 Olympics.

In the sense that nobody is close to them, these Olympics are merely a kind of exhibition for Soviet gymnasts, with the 11 other teams offering an occasional distraction. Some teams are less distracting than others, of course. Such as the U.S. team, which finished 11th in the 12-team competition. But the United States had been so hammered in the compulsory exercises earlier in the week that it pronounced its improved scores in optionals a team success.

“It’s like we won a gold medal,” Kenneth Suter said.

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If beating West Germany, France and Italy in optionals (but only West Germany in combined scores), seems like a gold medal, then the United States indeed has a long way to go. In fact, the United States (576.85) has more than 16 points to go for something that hangs like a gold medal.

But the United States didn’t truly figure to compete in this anyway. “You don’t like to be negative before a meet,” said Grossfeld, who had not exactly been positive, “but the 1984 team was considerably better. Our ’83 team, same team in ’84, out of the 6, 2 were doing triples (back somersaults) off rings and 2 others were doing double-twisting backs. Now, you hardly see a triple.”

The United States, which has suffered a disastrous lack of continuity (only Scott Johnson remains from the glory year), does not compare to the 1984 team in either degree of difficulty or precision. Though high bar expert Charles Lakes may be called, in Grossfeld’s word, electrifying , he seldom answers to the name of consistency. Though he struggled heroically to save a doomed high bar routine (“Not many people could have come out of that,” Grossfeld said), Lakes still could manage no better than 9.70 on his best event. Only a 9.995 on parallel bars lifted him into the all-around competition. He finished 28th and was the only U.S. gymnast to join the 36-man field in Thursday’s competition.

Other U.S. finishers were Lance Ringnald (47), Kevin Davis (53), Johnson (63), Dominick Minicucci (67) and Suter (69). No U.S. gymnast qualified for the individual event competition Saturday.

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To get back to our original attempts at comparison, it is useful to note that the lowest Soviet finisher, 18-year-old Vladimir Nouvikov, finished 11th. The top four scorers, led by Vladimir Artemov, were all Soviets. And all but one qualified for the finals, with Valeri Lioukine qualifying for four and defending world champion Dmitri Bilozertchev and Artemov qualifying for three.

This was a team, incidentally, without two-time world champion Yuri Korolev, back home with a snapped Achilles’ tendon.

“The Soviets are at the top of the game,” Grossfeld said. “They’re doing 9.9 routines when they get 9.9’s. They’re in condition. They’re just better--their execution, their body lines, their aesthetics. And they do top-quality gymnastics. They do not do cheap gymnastics.”

What Grossfeld means is this. In gymnastics these days, it is possible to score a 10 with a double-layout off the high bar, if there is no step on the dismount. This is comparatively safe.

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Yet four of the Soviets do triples, even though there is nothing to gain, and more to lose, with the extra revolution. And, with their typical precision, everybody scored 9.90 or better, except for the fabulous Bilozertchev who uncharacteristically missed a handstand and got tangled with the bar for a 9.45 (only 1 of 2 blown routines by the Soviets all night).

“That’s the thing about the Soviets,” said 1984 Olympian Peter Vidmar. “They’re on the cutting edge and still technically correct.”

Moreover, the Soviets are so deep that two-time world champion Bilozertchev strains to stand out. He scored 10s on pommel horse, rings and parallel bar yet nearly missed qualifying for the all-around competition, in which each team can qualify a maximum of only 3 gymnasts.

Because of his botched high bar routine, Bilozertchev scored just 118.45 to place third going into the all-around (where the score will count as half of the total). Sergei Kharikov, who had one of the Soviets’ 7 perfect scores, was a half point behind.

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And what about Mogulinyi? “He’s chalking up the parallel bars,” Vidmar said, “and he’s the (1985) world champion on that event. People stand up when he gives exhibitions.”

You may ask just why are the Soviets so good.

Vidmar says “the Soviets keep it in the family.”

“Champions retire and continue coaching,” he said. “Ours go into civil engineering or something and make more money. And also you’ve read about their selection process, how Bilozertchev was sent away at the age 8. We depend on some parents sending their kids, who may or may not be the best, to some private school.”

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Even so, U.S. gymnasts should be able to compare. Someday the U.S. best will be even better than the Soviets’ alternate.

The Chinese, meanwhile, continue to bewilder. Li Ning, their famous tumbler, continued to flounder in routines. Tuesday night he fell off the pommel horse, an event he won in Los Angeles. For those miscues, and Lou Yun’s break on high bar, the Chinese retreated from gold contention.

And Japan, which was fifth in the World Championships, has taken their place.


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