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Sport: Coming of Age in Fort Worth

9 minute read

U.S. male gymnasts finish third in World Championships

It was the last men’s event in the World Gymnastics Championships, the finals in the individual competition on the high bar, and the Soviets’ Alexander Tkachev went first. He was trailing Kurt Thomas, the finest male gymnast in U.S. history, by just .025 points. Leaping up to the bar, Tkachev spun through a series of dazzling maneuvers. He launched himself into a twisting flyaway somersault, swooped down, then grabbed the bar a split second before crashing to the floor. Finally, Tkachev arched his body high above the bar, twisted through another flying double somersault with two half-twists and landed flawlessly, arms outstretched in triumph before the judges. Long minutes passed, then the score was flashed: 9.90, the highest score the judges were to give in the event during the championships.

Moments later, it was Thomas’ turn. He needed at least to equal Tkachev’s inspired display if he were to win the gold medal. A slight separation of the legs as he arced through his routine, a break in the clean line of his outstretched body and the title would be lost. Jammed into Fort Worth’s convention center, the crowd of 9,200 that had been roaring for its favorites sensed the meaning of the moment and fell silent: never before had an American tested muscle and nerve under such pressure in a world-class gymnastics showdown.

Thomas grasped the bar. He swung around once, twice, building speed and momentum for a spread-legged somersault over the bar, reaching in mid-air to grab the bar again before swinging into a perfect handstand. For a moment, he was frozen, balanced perfectly upside down. Then he flipped into action again, knifing his inverted body through a double “German” giant swing, arching his back into another handstand, twirling, spinning. Finally, tucking his knees into his chest, Thomas whipped into his dismount: a double somersault with a half-twist on each revolution. If he faltered on landing, took one steadying step, he would lose. He landed solidly and the gold medal was his. The judges’ 9.90 merely confirmed the crowd’s shout of delight: America’s male gymnasts had arrived.

In the final major meet before next July’s Olympic Games in Moscow, U.S. men won three gold medals, three silvers and a bronze in individual events. At the last world championships in 1978, the U.S. took just one men’s event —Thomas in the floor exercises. This time, Thomas won two gold medals and two silvers, and came within .275 of a point, after 18 events, of beating the Soviets’ Alexander Ditiatin for the coveted all-around title. Amer ica’s Bart Conner won a gold on the parallel bars and a bronze on the vault. What was more, the American men captured the bronze in the team competition, the first team medal ever for the U.S. in the world championships. Said Conner: “It’s the go ahead, the green light. Now we can go on to every ma jor world competition as a contender.”

Thomas and Conner coolly dueled the world’s best, displaying not only solid technical skills but the flair and inventiveness that raise their sport to art. Conner’s performance on the parallel bars was such a blend. Legs spread in a straddle position, he supported himself on one bar, pressed slowly up into a handstand — then shifted to a one-armed handstand. He was the only finalist even to attempt such a stunt. For making the difficult look easy, Conner earned a 9.90 score and a gold medal.

The U.S. men’s team, how ever, still lacks the depth to be sure of performing as well in Moscow. Says Coach Roger Counsil: “What we need are three more Bart Conners or three more Kurt Thomases.” Thomas, 23, is in his prime as a gymnast. Now an assistant coach at Arizona State, he has honed his routines in international meets for five years. Conner, a senior at the University of Oklahoma, has begun to come into his own at 21. But the rest of the U.S. squad of six are still young and green.

If the U.S. star is rising, Japan’s fortunes seem on the wane. For 20 years they had dominated men’s gymnastics so completely — winning every Olympic and world championship team gold medal since 1960— that many of the difficult tricks bear the names of the Japanese gymnasts who invented them. But a solid Soviet team, led by Ditiaid, 22, and the exciting Tkachev, 22, may change the language of men’s gymnastics. Says former U.S. Olym pian Muriel Grossfeld: “The Soviets are superb, awesome under pressure. At least five of the six Soviet men can do [tricks] only one or two could do last year. It’s amazing that a team could have that kind of depth.”

The women’s team competition turned into a struggle between the Soviets, the defending champions, and the Rumanians, who got limited help from Nadia Comaneci. Four years older and 2 in. taller than she was at the Montreal Olympics, when she scored her seven perfect “tens” and won four gold medals, Nadia came to Fort Worth determined to prove that little girls can grow up and still be winners. In the first day of compulsory exercises, she ran off her usual daunting string of performances. Then an infection flared in her left hand and she was forced to enter a local hospital for treatment. When she emerged the next day, her hand was red and swollen to nearly twice its normal size. Despite obvious pain, she competed in one more event, the balance beam, and as the crowd gasped, whipped through two flipflops, bearing all her weight on one hand. Nadia’s courageous effort was good for a 9.95. The next day she returned to the hospital and surgeons operated on her hand to drain the infection. Understandably, Nadia looked grim all week. Said she: “I have nothing to smile about.”

Meanwhile, the air was suddenly filled with falling gymnasts. Three Soviet women in a row lost their grip and crashed to the mats while competing on the uneven bars. From then on, they played it conservatively, eliminating some of the more difficult tricks in the floor exercises in hopes of staying on their feet. The Rumanians charged ahead. Emilia Eberle, 15, heiress-apparent to Nadia’s throne, reeled off a dazzling floor exercise; Melita Ruhn whistled through a difficult and risky performance on the uneven parallel bars. When the totals were in, the Rumanians had edged out the Soviets by .625 points. It was only the second time the Soviet women had not won an Olympic or world championship team title since 1952.

After the compulsory exercises, the American women were in fourth place. But competing on the beam, three American women went up and three fell off, one of them twice. That did it. The team finished a disappointing sixth. Lamented Coach Linda Metheny Mulvihill: “Everybody tightened up. It was a little scary for the girls.” The grande dame of the championships turned out to be Nelli Kim, 22, who saved Soviet honor by winning the all-around title. Her gold-medal performance in the floor exercise was women’s gymnastics at its best, a mature blend of dance and acrobatics. Kim’s routines are elegant, sculpted studies in a sport that contracted a lingering case of fanny-wagging cuteness from Olga Korbut. With a gold medal draped around her neck, Kim as sayed the Lolita style of her rivals: “Even girls who are 18 and 19 for some reason try to do everything possible to look twelve and 13. I think we should separate women’s and children’s gymnastics.”

The happiest surprise of the championships was the return of the Chinese. They had not competed in the world championships or Olympics since 1962, and, in a sport in which yesterday’s supertrick is today’s ordinary item, they were not expected to stir much attention. Chinese Men’s Coach Xia Dejun admitted that the gap had hurt his country’s development program. Said he: “During the Cultural Revolution, many of the schools were closed, most of the spare-time sports academies were closed, and for five years there was no training for our gymnasts. Our men’s team has one gymnast who is 30. He started gymnastics before the Gang of Four. The rest are very young, and they started after the troubles in China. But we have no one in the middle. So now we must do two years’ training in a single year if we are to reach the top level.”

Many coaches at Fort Worth argued that the Chinese have already just about reached their goal. They often received low scores from Eastern European judges notorious for voting as if the champion ships were Warsaw Pact property. But the Chinese were cheered by their rivals. The Chinese women per formed on the uneven parallel bars with a joyful daring that quickly made them favorites of the crowd. Said Frank Bare, chief of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation: “I just couldn’t under stand the judging on the Chinese. Their women on uneven parallel bars were incredible, the best I’ve ever seen.” One of them, Ma Yanhong, was so good that the judges could no longer fend off the boos: Ma shared a gold medal with East Germany’s Maxi Gnauck after scoring two 9.95s and two 9.90s. Said U.S. Coach Counsil: “They’re good, really good. I’d like to steal some ideas from them.”

Not that he really needed any for the U.S. men’s team. As the final day drew to a close, the victory stand was filled, for the first time, with smiling Americans. Kurt Thomas summed up: “For so long, our flag has been down in the box some where during the medal ceremonies. Now it was up there almost every time. It was a great feeling.” On to Moscow.

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