U.S. can't stand up to China

Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- This was not a silver medal won for the United States but a gold medal lost to a team younger, fresher, less experienced but with a bounce in their step and smiles on their faces instead of stares.

China won the Olympic gymnastics team gold medal today because a trio of 16-year-olds with little international experience, flew through uneven bars routines with fearlessness.

Jiang Yuyuan, Yang Yilin and He Kexin, who have all had their official ages questioned in the last three weeks and who all weigh less than 80 pounds, gave China the lead after their breathtaking bars work and 20-year-old Alicia Sacramone started a cascade of U.S. mistakes when she missed her mount on the balance beam.

By the time Sacramone, then 18-year-old Nastia Liukin and 16-year-old Shawn Johnson all fell or stepped out of bounds on floor exercise, it was left to China's Cheng Fei to finish off a triumphant victory dance and bring the house down with waving Chinese flags and thunderous cheers.

This was China's first Olympic team gold medal and it came emphatically, 188.900 points to 186.525. Defending Olympic champion Romania won the bronze.

There has been a simmering controversy for over three weeks as several news organizations received and printed Chinese provincial registration lists showing that as many as three of the Chinese competitors -- He, Yang and Jiang -- may not have their 16th birthdays during this Olympic year. Some documents and even news stories in Chinese publications indicated all three may have been born in 1993 and 1994.

Former Romanian and U.S. coach Bela Karolyi has been outspoken to media here about the "little, little girls," and even while doing his NBC commentary today suggested it was an unfair competition.

His wife and national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, after her team finished second and a second straight Olympics after being favored for team gold, wouldn't agree with her husband, but she wouldn't contradict him either.

"I have no proof," Martha Karolyi said. "I know one baby is missing her tooth, but I have no proof. But I don't think for sure all the countries are going by the rules."

Chinese Coach Lu Shanzhen had this response: "If you think our girls are little because of looks, then maybe you should think the European and Americans are strong because of the doping."

Things began to go badly for the U.S. when Sacramone fell on her mount on the balance beam after a long wait while judges and a floor television producer spoke and gestured.

According to Martha Karolyi, the official Beijing symbol flashed briefly on the start screen. The athlete must wait for a red "stop" sign to change to a green "go" sign on the screen before starting a routine. Sacramone had to step back away from her mount twice because it didn't flash go.

"There was no stop sign, just a blank screen," Sacramone said. "I just stood there until my name came up. It seemed like forever. I think that could have contributed to my fall. I was pretty nervous.

"I have to live with my mistakes and just try to put a smile on my face and remember we won a silver medal."

The atmosphere at the National Indoor Stadium had become raucous after the Americans took an early lead on vault. As soon as a "USA" cheer began, though, the Chinese fans chanted louder and longer and the Chinese girls got more steady.

The United States and China competed on the same events, head to head and the teams began with vault.

The Chinese made a surprise substitution, putting up Deng Linlin as their third vaulter even though the start list had Jiang Yuyuan as up third.

Yang Yilin was the first vaulter and with one hop on her landing and a start value of 5.80, Yilin posted a 15.100. Defending world vault champion Cheng, with her big vault and its start value of 6.50, landed with bent knees but no other flaw and had a 16.100. Deng, with her face scrunched in concentration, landed with a step and had a 15.250.

Up first for the U.S. was Bridget Sloan. Had teammate Samantha Peszek not injured her ankle during warmups for Sunday's team qualifications Sloan would have been on the sidelines for today's finals, where only three girls on each apparatus compete.

Sloan earned Karolyi's bearhug by finishing with a tiny hop and scoring 15.200. Johnson, who has a start value the equal of Cheng's, soared higher and landed with one foot crossed in front of the other. She too received a 16.000 and Sacramone, the defending world vault bronze medalist, hit her vault with only the tiniest of extra steps and earned a 15.675 so the U.S. had the best of round one, 46.875 to 46.350.

The two teams moved to uneven bars, where the Chinese were expected to have the better of it. And the youngsters swung the momentum.

Yang, with every pointed toe and finger and with her release moves done precisely, had a 16.800. He, who had fallen during team qualifying and left the floor in tears, had no hint of a nerve and when she held on to all her released and resolutely made her landing, China had outscored the U.S. 49.625 to 47.975 even though Liukin had the best number, 16.900.

Momentum left China for a moment.

The next apparatus was balance beam and China's sole 20-year-old, Cheng, fell off on her first tumbling pass. It was the first major mistake by any of the two contenders. After Deng and Li Shanshan both scored high for China, Sacramone was up.

And then down, fallen on her mount and left in tears too early. The U.S. went to the final rotation, floor exercise, needing three high-scoring routines but Sacramone fell fast and the oomph was gone from them all.



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