Changes in Soviet Union felt on gymnastics team 5 republics home to 6-man squad

September 12, 1991|By Michael Janofsky | Michael Janofsky,New York Times News Service

INDIANAPOLIS -- The six men who just won the fourth consecutive team title at the world gymnastics championships come from five republics, and if that's not enough to raise questions about the future of gymnastics in the Soviet Union, several minutes with Yuri Titov will.

His country's foremost gymnast 30 years ago, Titov is now president of the international federation for gymnastics, an organization of 88 countries that could grow considerably as Soviet republics gain independence and ask for representation on their own.

For now, that's the least of Titov's concerns. More critical, he said in an interview the other day, was how the country -- in whatever form it takes -- might continue producing the world's best gymnasts, as it has for more than a decade in the biennial championships.

The men's title was the Soviet Union's sixth since 1979. After leading 28 other countries in the compulsory round, the women were favorites last night in the optional round to win their fifth over the same period.

As the Soviet Union lurches ahead through political change and economic upheaval, money has become the central concern for its national gymnastics federation.

The central government, with concerns far greater than sports, has not only drastically reduced financial support, but is also heavily taxing the federation's precious few outside sources of revenues through sponsorship arrangements.

As much as 40 percent of money generated must be funneled back to the government. Officials in the gymnastics federations have asked sponsors for goods and services rather than hard currency.

In the short term, a period through the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and probably the Atlanta Games of 1996, the impact of the money crunch might not be readily visible to the rest of the world.

In a system that traditionally identified quality athletes before their 10th birthdays, the Soviet coaches and officials have fed the factory enough talent to maintain a position of prominence for the time being.

Already, Titov said, more than 100 10-year-old girls and an equal number of 12-year-old boys have been selected to be included in national training programs for gymnasts.

But it's the future Titov worries about. With a lack of government support and depleted funds, he fears the elite program will wither and the support programs, which locate talented youngsters, will disappear.

He estimated that four years ago 700,000 children practiced gymnastics. Now, he figured, about half that number do.

"If the government doesn't find support for the children, we will lose the system of how to select them," he said. "If we lose this system, we will lose the results."

The potential breakup of the Soviet Union poses a less immediate threat to the development system, Titov said, because he thought at least eight of the existing 12 republics would maintain the necessary ties to keep a system intact.

Chief among them are the areas that have produced the majority of the country's best gymnasts -- Russia, Byelorussia, the Ukraine and Uzbekistan -- in which four of six members of the current men's team live and all six of the women.

On Tuesday night, Vitaly Scherbo, Grigory Misutin, Valery Lyuken and the defending all-around champion, Igor Korobchinski, finished in the top four places among 212 athletes.

At the conclusion of the women's compulsory round on Monday, Svetlana Boguinskaya, the 1989 all-around champion, led 190 athletes, and all six Soviet women ranked among the leading 18.

Lyuken, a 24-year-old native of Kazakhstan and the only member of the men's team who competed in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, said he doubted that a political breakup would necessarily affect the Soviet team's performance any time soon. At least, he hoped it would not.

"It would be bad," he said. "I would be the only one from Kazakhstan, and I'm already an old gymnast. I want us to be together. I think it would be better."

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