WHAT WE KNOW
Unified, the former Soviet republics stood tall in the 1992 Olympics, winning 12 medals in men's competition; divided, they fell entirely off the medal stand at the 1995 world championships--Russia finishing a disappointing fourth, the Ukraine fifth and Belarus sixth.
Before the breakup, the Soviet Union was the Big Red Machine of men's gymnastics, winning 94 medals from 1952 through 1988, and the Unified team won the team gold medal in Barcelona. Post-breakup, China has emerged as the dominant force, winning the '95 world championship (by more than three points better than runner-up Japan) and heavily favored for the gold in Atlanta.
The Chinese are led by the all-around virtuosity of Li Xiaoshuang, the reigning world titlist, who created a sensation in Barcelona with a triple backflip in his gold medal-winning floor exercise. At the 1995 world championships, Li beat Vitaly Scherbo, winner of six gold medals for the Unified team in 1992, by more than half a point to become China's first world champion.
Alexei Nemov of Russia, current world champion on the vault, is considered the chief threat to Li and Scherbo for the individual all-around title. Romania should compete for a team medal.
WHAT WE DON'T KNOW
Will the American men win even one medal? And if they do, will anybody care?
The U.S. men are clearly the poor brothers of the sport in this country, taking a backseat to female tots half their size and, in some cases, nearly half their age. Why the popularity gap? "Why is men's college basketball more popular than the women?" four-time American champion John Roethlisberger says. "I don't know, maybe it comes to winning a few gold medals."
That wouldn't be a bad place to start. American men have won only one medal--Trent Dimas' surprising gold on the high bars in '92--since the Soviet-boycotted '84 Games. At the world championships, the U.S. finished ninth, falling apart in the optional competition after placing third in compulsories.
The Americans' best medal hopes are Roethlisberger in floor exercise, Jair Lynch on parallel bars and Mihai Bagiu on pommel horse.
SOMEONE YOU SHOULD KNOW
Scherbo, who now competes for Belarus, became the most decorated male gymnast in history last October by winning four medals at the world championships--gold on parallel bars and floor exercise, bronze on vault, silver in all-around. His six gold medals in Barcelona, unprecedented for a male gymnast, included four in one day.
Scherbo nearly quit the sport last year after his wife was seriously injured in an automobile accident. But at her insistence, Scherbo returned to the gym and eventually made it to Sabae, Japan, to set the record with his four-medal haul.
SOMETHING YOU SHOULD KNOW
American men have won 14 Olympic gold medals in gymnastics--12 during the three Summer Games in this country (St. Louis '04, Los Angeles '32 and '84).
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Gymnast works on middle and both ends of horse, touching horse only with hands. Routine should flow from circles to scissors. Hand placements should be quick, quiet and rhythmic.
Heigh: 4 feet
Width: 14 inches
Length: 5 feet
Rings: Rings hang 8.5 ft/ above the mat from a suspension bar 18 ft. high. Ball bearing swivels. Laminated wood or similar material.
Parallel Bars: Watch for swinging moves performed on only one bar, flight moves where gymnast loses sight of bar, and release moves where gymnast releases and regrasps bar.
Heigh: 6 feet
Width: 11.5 inches
Vault: Watch for good height, distance and speed, no-step landings.
Heigh: 4.5 feet
Width: 14 inches
Key move: a roundoff, back handspring creates the acceleration and tempo needed for a gymnast to do complicated tumbling passes.
Area: 40 feet by 40 feet
Plywood layered with rubber, foam or springs, topped with rubber or foam.
Routines: 50 to 70 seconds. Must cover entire mat. Superior routines have double-twisting flips late in routine to show stamina.
Watch for high-flying tumbling passes; strength moves like a straight-arm press to handstand; flexibility elements like splits and balance moves.