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South Africans Get Warm Greeting : Gymnastics: No one protests their team’s appearance at opening ceremony.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were introduced by none other than former Olympian Nadia Comaneci, who had come to the United States in search of freedom. And like Comaneci--who defected from Romania--these six South African gymnasts had also come here in search of human rights. In their case, for the right to compete internationally.

“The team, Afrique d’sur ,” Comaneci announced in French as she began the introductions of 51 teams Friday night at the opening ceremony of the World Gymnastics Championships, which begin today.

The South African gymnasts--four women and two men--were warmly greeted by the crowd as they marched into Market Square Arena to mark the country’s return to international competition for the first time in decades and, in this event, for the first time in 25 years.

South Africa has been banned from international competition for years because of its policy of apartheid, or racial separation. Recent legislation has abolished key apartheid statutes, but there are many who believe that the struggle for equality is far from finished and South African athletes should not be allowed to compete.

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However, there were no protests or demonstrations outside the arena, where a cluster of police and Secret Service agents said they were gathered only because of Vice President Dan Quayle, who spoke at the ceremony.

Inside the arena, Germany, the Soviet Union and the three-man team from Kuwait--who wore T-shirts that said, “Thank You U.S.A."--drew the loudest applause, other than the U.S. team. The Kuwait team is here, its coach said, because their government wants the world to know that Kuwait is still alive.

The Soviet Union, despite recent political changes, continues its longstanding reign as the top-ranked country in both men’s and women’s gymnastics. Any effect those changes might have on the sport will not occur for a long time, according to officials, who say the Soviet talent pool is deep.

This might be the year, however, that the U.S. women and men have a chance to earn their greatest applause on the gym floor. Since the 1984 Olympics, when the men’s team won the gold medal and Mary Lou Retton won the hearts of the world and the all-around gold, enrollment at gyms in the United States has more than doubled, providing a depth of talent.

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Bela Karolyi, coach for the U.S. women’s team, says the Americans are better because they are thinking more like capitalists.

“They are hungry now to earn medals,” Karolyi said. “They realize the tremendous opportunities medals brought, and they are justified in their effort to enjoy the compensation that comes with it.”

The U.S. men, after years of riding on the coattails of the women, have improved greatly both in skill and reputation in the judging community.

“I think we’ve got them a little worried this year,” said U.S. gymnast Scott Keswick, who, along with Chainey Umphrey and national champion Chris Waller, is from UCLA.

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The men’s team is expected to have a chance to win the bronze medal, but will face tough competition from Germany, which has five East Germans on its team; Japan; Hungary; Romania, and Italy. China is favored to win the silver.

Also on the men’s team is Patrick Kirksey, formerly of the University of Nebraska; Jarrod Hanks of the University of Oklahoma; Lance Ringnald, who trains in Albuquerque, N.M., and alternate John Roethlisberger of the University of Minnesota.

The U.S. women, who placed fourth at the 1988 Olympics and the 1989 World Championships--their highest finish in this competition--are expected to have a strong chance to win a silver or bronze medal in team competition. The Americans have the youngest team in the meet but also are seasoned and successful in international competition. Their main competitors for a medal are Romania, whose gymnastics program survived its country’s political changes, and China. The Soviet Union is favored to win.

The women are led by Kim Zmeskal, 15 of Houston, and Betty Okino, 16, of Elmhurst, Ill., who are considered two of the best in the world. They are coached by Karolyi, along with Kerri Strug, 13, of Tucson, and Hilary Grivich, 13, of Huntsville, Tex.

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Also on the women’s team are Shannon Miller, 14, of Dynamo Gymnastics in Edmond, Okla.; Sandy Woolsey, 19, of Tempe, Ariz.; Elisabeth Crandall, 16, of Sacramento, and Michelle Campi, 15, also of Sacramento, who trains at Pozsar’s Gymnastics in Carmichael, Calif. Woolsey and Crandall train at Desert Devils in Tempe. The alternate has not been designated.


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