When Bela Karolyi coached Romania's women gymnasts, he proved that the Soviet Union could be beaten, at least by the Romanians. Now that he is the leading coach in the United States, he believes the Soviets soon will have to contend with another challenger.
The U.S. women did not beat the Soviets Friday night in the Goodwill Games team competition at the Tacoma Dome, but they came close enough that their coaches were spending their idle moments scoreboard watching.
"When you can do that against the Soviets, boy, you have crossed the bridge," said one of the U.S. coaches, Stormy Eaton.
With outstanding individual performances from two Karolyi proteges, Kim Zmeskal, 14, of Houston, and Betty Okino, 15, of Elmhurst, Ill., the United States led the Soviets after two of the four rotations.
But if they Soviets felt pressured by either the performances of the Americans or the eager anticipation of the near capacity crowd of 16,603, they did not allow it to bother them. As stoic as ever, they rallied to win with 118.759 points to 118.484 for the United States. China was third with 117.573.
Whether the result was significant in determining the state of women's gymnastics depends on the perspective.
Skeptics no doubt will contend that the United States would not have fared so well if the Soviets had taken the competition more seriously or if Romania had sent a team or if China had entered its best gymnasts. Also, there were three times as many American judges as Soviets.
Nevertheless, Karolyi, the U.S. head coach, was ecstatic, calling the silver medal his greatest thrill since his former student, Mary Lou Retton, became the all-around champion at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
The Soviet women have not lost a team competition in the Summer Olympics since they first entered in 1952 and have lost only twice in the World Championships, to Karolyi's Romanian team in 1979 and again to the Romanians in 1987.
But Karolyi, who defected to the United States in 1981 and became a citizen last year, warned the Soviets that they should not be overconfident entering the 1991 World Championships in Indianapolis and the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
"For the first time, we are on the horizon," he said. "We are right on their heels.
"Next year, with even more experience, even stronger, even more hungry, we are going into the World Championships in Indianapolis, our field, our court. I hope the outcome is going to be more favorable.
"We're going to be extremely powerful in Indianapolis. Honest to God, I want to beat them. They're not statues. They are not someone you cannot beat. We can beat them."
One Soviet who appeared imminently beatable was Svetlana Boguinskaia, the all-around favorite here after sweeping the five individual goal medals in last year's European Championships. No gymnast had done that since Czechoslovakia's Vera Caslavska in 1967.
But Boguinskaia, 17, was only the third Soviet Friday night, 10th overall, after falling off the parallel bars and failing to land cleanly after her vault. Because teams can have only two representatives among the 16 gymnasts competing tonight for the all-around championship, she did not automatically qualify.
The Soviets, however, announced an hour after the competition ended that Boguinskaia will replace their second woman, Tatiana Lisenko, tonight. According to international gymnastics rules, teams can make substitutions for any reason they consider valid.
Cynics will suggest that Goodwill Games broadcaster Ted Turner's ratings might be considered a valid reason. Boguinskaia's presence here has been heavily advertised.
"Maybe the Soviets just want to win," a U.S. Gymnastics Federation official said, a task that might have been beyond Lisenko, 15, whose most impressive credential before Friday night was as the Soviet Union's 1990 junior champion.
The other Soviet in the all-around competition will be Natalia Kalinina, 16, who finished second to Boguinskaia in the European Championships all-around and had the second-best individual scores Friday night.
First was Zmeskal, while Okino was fourth. Their scores of 9.90 in the first discipline, the beam, put the United States in the lead, which it maintained through the floor exercises.
But the United States lost its lead and, ultimately, its chance for an upset on the third rotation, the vault. Okino scored 9.8 on her first vault, but she did not receive a mark for her second because judges ruled she made her approach before being given the green light.