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Archive for Saturday, August 19, 2000

U.S. Gymnastics Trials mean little

Makeup of six-member Olympic team entirely up to discretion of USA Gymnastics

August 19, 2000

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— In the abstract, it all makes perfect sense. In human terms it stinks.

Guaranteed at least one of the best woman gymnasts in this country, her life altered forever, will be in tears Sunday night and possibly in court Monday morning, proving once again the sport is doomed to a fate of perpetual controversy.

It's not that they haven't tried to get it right.

They've appointed committees and independent coordinators. The sport's coaches, jealous and contemptuous of one other, attempt to make nice in public. And you hardly ever hear of the old abuses anymore, of anorexic waifs trying to achieve the perfect body type or 13-year-olds riddled with stress fractures.

But the Olympics are all about winning medals. If that wasn't clear before, the U.S. Olympic Committee has made sure every sports federation in this country understands, and if they don't and that medal count in Sydney next month isn't satisfactory, then maybe the funding isn't as generous next time around.

USA Gymnastics got the message. And in an attempt to have a fighting chance at the Olympics, it has devised a system by which the makeup of the six-member women's team is entirely up to their discretion. The Olympic Gymnastics Trials in Boston this week is a nice TV event, but when all is said and done, national team coordinator Bela Karolyi and his committee of four will place whomever they choose.

Their reasoning is this: Only the top four scores at the Olympics will count. Thus a gymnast who may be the fifth-best all-around competitor in her country is probably not as valuable as a "ringer" such as former Olympian Shannon Miller, who can come in and be great in one or two events.

Miller hasn't competed since the 1996 Olympics, when she was part of the gold-medal winning U.S. team and also won a gold on balance beam. She is recovering from a hairline fracture in her leg, which forced her to petition into the trials. But unless she literally falls on her face in Boston this week, she seems a shoe-in to make the final cut, top-six finisher or not.

The name Kim Kelly is sure to come up this week. She's the woman who was bounced off the '92 Olympic team after finishing sixth in the trials. Picture this. She's introduced as a member of the U.S. team, given an Olympic warm-up, Olympic anthem blaring, crowds cheering. She had put off her college education for this moment, her parents had taken out a second home equity loan to support her training and she has the meet of her life.

Then, less than a month later, she's out, replaced by Betty Okino, who was injured and couldn't compete in trials but passed a "special evaluation" held for her and one other injured gymnast. Kelly was not even kept as an alternate, supplanted there by a gymnast who trained at the same Orlando gym where Okino was evaluated. Oh yeah, and Karolyi just happened to be Okino's coach as well as the U.S. Olympic coach.

Gymnastics officials will tell you the selection procedure is based on the new scoring, that no one on the committee coaches any of the gymnasts, that a just decision will be made and everyone will understand. Get real.

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