THE SEOUL GAMES / DAY 6 : Soviets Win Gymnastics Team Gold : U.S. Women Finish Fourth as Penalty Proves Costly

Times Staff Writer

When team competition was over, and it finally did end Wednesday night, it was left to the perspective of a 17-year-old girl, a U.S. alternate actually, who had humbly followed her teammates from event to event during the competition, chalking their bars and moving their mats and otherwise performing modest housekeeping duties.

Caught napping on the podium after attending her duties by the stern Ellen Berger, the apparent caretaker of East German gymnastics, poor Rhonda Faehn could only shrug at the resulting .50 deduction, her unwitting contribution to history, that ultimately cost her team an Olympic bronze medal. In international competition, no one is allowed on the platform during compulsory competition except the competing gymnast, although the rule is obscure and seldom enforced.

“An adult doing that . . . that I couldn’t believe,” Faehn said, her innocence dissolving right before your eyes.

The world got to see what both children and adults can do, and you wouldn’t believe it either.


The Soviets performed heightened and flawless routines--1 of their gymnasts scored 10s in 3 of 4 events--to win the team gold medal, scoring 395.475 to Romania’s 394.125. (Elena Shoushounova’s Romanian rival, Daniela Silivas, could only manage a pair of 10s).

And the East Germans, their team reduced to 5 through injury for the optional exercises, fell off the balance beam twice to open the competition and then came back dramatically on the final event, every gymnast sticking her dismount off uneven bars, to return to third place.

And what of the U.S. gymnasts, young and inexperienced, who had been less than half a point behind the East Germans after Monday’s compulsory exercises, until Berger, the head of all judges, tagged a half-point deduction on them for an obscure and vaguely worded technicality?

Unmindful of their long odds, they returned with solid optionals Wednesday, finishing on the treacherous beam without a bobble, and made up all but .30 of the difference.


In other words, had it not been for Berger’s deduction, which was upheld by a jury of 3, the United States would have finished .20 ahead of East Germany and won a bronze medal.

That would have been a surprising finish indeed for a team that finished sixth in the most recent World Championships and then went through enough coaching and personnel changes to make George Steinbrenner envious. You wouldn’t believe that, either.

But don’t forget about all those adults, lurking about the mats in their blue and red blazers.

Because this is not just about play but international prestige, as well. It is often charged that women’s gymnastics follows an agenda that is more political than athletic. So it was charged again Wednesday night, and not just by a hysterical U.S. delegation but by an unlikely ally.


Said Yuri Titov, president of the International Federation of Gymnastics, and himself a Soviet, a member of the Eastern Bloc dominance: “I am sorry (shrugging). It is not sporting, is it.”

But there was more to shrug at than Berger’s infamous deduction for a rule meant to keep coaches from remaining on the podium with their athletes, not alternates who remove springboards for teammates and then, unwittingly, fail to leave. Faehn said she never knew of such a rule. “Nobody ever told me.”

There was the question of Wednesday night’s judging as well, again thought by the United States to be unfairly influenced by Berger.

“That wild woman came down like a tornado,” U.S. coach Bela Karolyi said. “She was with us from the first minute to the last, intimidating the judges.”


Bill Strauss, personal coach of U.S. Olympian Hope Spivey, agreed, saying, “She was around our team all night long. There was no reason except that we were a threat (to East Germany). She’s been on the judges ever since our first podium training, when she first saw us. The judges were threatened, I know that. I’ve been hearing that all week. They were all afraid she’d take them off the floor.”

The charges in these kinds of situations can be wild and fabulous. Berger, for her part, restated Wednesday night that she was merely observing the code of points when she logged the original deduction. She did not reply to other charges but there is some question as to whether she was behaving like a tornado, impartial or otherwise. Mike Jacki, president of the United States Gymnastics Federation and no Berger fan, said she “seemed sedate.”

Yet John Arends, Director of Communications for the USGF, noticed Berger making a curious phone call to the judges’ panel as the U.S. was preparing to perform just ahead of the East Germans in the vault. “You hardly ever see that,” Arends said. “Usually the technical director just sleeps. Yet there she was on the phone. Of course, for all I know, she could have been ordering a sandwich.”

At issue is the East Germans’ relative high scores for relatively simple tricks.


“They were awfully high,” said Martha Karolyi, who coached 3 of the Olympians with her husband. “The worst example was in vault. They did real simple vaults, some that don’t even start from a 10. And then 2 fall on beam and get 9.4s!”

The East Germans, who started just 5 gymnasts because Martina Jentsch was sore after the compulsories, had indeed gotten off to a horrible start, with their best gymnasts, Dagmar Kersten and Doerte Thuemmler, falling off the beam for the mandatory .50 deduction each.

They managed to receive 9.4s despite that, however, and the East Germans, who alone did not have the luxury of losing the sixth score--only the best 5 are counted in the team competition--survived the event.

Later, on the uneven bars, when they were obviously behind the United States, they performed heroically, and without the apparent help of judges. Each gymnast, perhaps playing it a little safe with easier routines, planted a perfect dismount and no gymnast scored lower than 9.725.


The U.S. delegation was furious afterward. Jacki had spent a futile 2 days trying to get the deduction disallowed, even though there was no disputing that Faehn had remained at the apparatus after Kelly Garrison-Steves had begun her bars routine. “But it was a Mickey Mouse thing,” he protested.

Then he spent most of Wednesday thinking it didn’t matter anyway, until the scores were tabulated.

“They got paid and we got ripped,” Jacki said, storming about. “East Germany got paid, they were way over-scored. We had the third-best team out there and everyone on our team knew it. I hope they sleep good tonight.”

The theme was repeated from coach to coach and old intrigues were rehashed. Jackie Fie, a head judge and a longtime FIG committee member who fought against the deduction, but abstained from voting seemed to remember that she had tried to apply a similar deduction to a Japanese gymnast in the 1983 World Championships but that Berger had overruled it.


Yet Titov thought he remembered a meet in 1981 when Fie called it on a Soviet gymnast. “A Soviet young girl,” he said. “A 13-year-old girl. Thirteen, much more severe. Remember (Fie) was on the front line to institute it and now she argues it. But, of course, I am sorry.”

The memories grew selective. Points of view on the judging swung wildly. Motives were assigned. It was put forth by Donna Strauss, coach of the U.S. team as well as Spivey’s coach, that Berger has it in her power to assign or strip judges. She is a force, Strauss said. The adults rallied. This would become one more example of the muddled world of international sports. They will rehash this for years.

And lost amid it all were the women, girls really, only 1 of them older than 16. What did they think of all this--this mess?

Well, it was difficult for them to say that the East Germans were over-scored, because they were doing their own routines at the same time. Of course, they knew they had been jobbed on the deduction but they were willing to fight through that.


“We all know that we got third,” said Garrison-Steves, who, at 21, is the oldest women in the competition. “We realize we’re a better team. We have to know that in our hearts.”

Yet give a girl the last word. Return this competition to the youth, who worked hardest for and enjoyed it the most after all. Said Missy Marlowe: “Anyway, we do this for ourselves.”

The Romanians were no match for the Soviets, whom they had beaten for the first time in the 1987 World Championships, but their duel will continue on the individual level Friday when the all-around competition begins.

The Soviets’ Shoushounova, with her 10s in vault, bars and floor exercise, scored a combined 79.675 to move slightly ahead of Romania’s Silivas at 79.575. Scores from the first 2 competitions will count half toward the all-around title.


Phoebe Mills, Brandy Johnson and Garrison-Steves were the only U.S. gymnasts to qualify for the all-around competition. Mills and Johnson also qualified for Sunday’s individual event championships. Mills will perform on the bars, beam and floor, Johnson on the bars.

Each country can advance a maximum of 3 gymnasts to the all-around competition, with only the top 8 advancing to the individual event competition.