Soviet dominance set for a tumble? Divided loyalties no coup for gymnasts

September 15, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

INDIANAPOLIS -- Hard-liners attempted a coup, tanks rolled through the streets of Moscow, and, in the end, statues were toppled.

In August, while a second Russian Revolution was taking place, Valeri Liukin was in a gymnastics training center on the outskirts of Moscow preparing for the World Championships.

Boris Yeltsin spoke out against the coup. Mikhail Gorbachev and his family reappeared at a flood-lit airport. A new order was created out of the chaos. But all Liukin could do was watch the drama on television and continue to tumble on a mat.

"It is better to keep to your own business," said Liukin, a reigning Olympic silver medalist whose career has been built on graceful performances under pressure. "It is better to do what you have to do, to do what you do best."

Less than a month after the failed coup hastened the restructuring of the Soviet Union, the country's athletes still are trying to adjust to rapid, profound political changes.

At these World Championships, the Soviets are continuing their historic domination of global gymnastics. But, even as the Soviet hammer and sickle is raised during medal ceremonies at the Hoosier Dome, questions over the direction of the gymnastics program remain.

"We will be in the next Olympics as one team," said Soviet men's coach Leonid Arkaev. "That is the most important thing. If all gymnasts are representing each republic, they'll lose in the upcoming Olympics."

The promise and the peril of the future were symbolized by Thursday night's medal ceremony for the men's all-around. Grigori Misutin of the Ukraine won the gold, Vitaly Scherbo of Byelorussia won the silver, and Liukin of Kazakhstan won the bronze. For now, they all remain part of the Soviet sports machine. But for how long?

Athletes from the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are likely to compete under their nations' flags during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Thursday, an agreement was reached by the 12 remaining republics to send their Olympic athletes under the flag of the Soviet Union.

"It would be best to remain together," Liukin said. "I'd be the only gymnast from Kazakhstan, and, at 24, I am the oldest gymnast."

The Soviet athletic system was built on centralized training. Top athletes from the republics were identified and nurtured before being brought to Moscow for intense, elite instruction. In gymnastics, the system has been nearly flawless. Since appearing at their first World Championships in Rome in 1954, the Soviets have won 19 women's and men's team titles.

"For Soviet athletes, gymnastics has been a way to a better life," said U.S. gymnast Chris Waller. "It's like how basketball in the United States is used by some as a way to get out of a ghetto. For the Soviets, gymnastics is a way to see the world. They've been around the world 20 times."

Already, though, cracks are appearing in the foundation of the gymnastics dynasty. According to Uri Titov, a top Soviet sports official and president of the International Gymnastics Federation, money is tight, participation is down and bureaucrats are supplanting sports officials and running the program.

"Elite sports are still getting money, but there are cuts in sports for the masses," he said. "I'm afraid that in the future it will fall apart because we'll be unable to identify the masses from below."

Four years ago, 700,000 children participated in gymnastics programs, Titov said. Now, less than half that number are training. To raise funds for training and travel, the national team is sponsored by a German jeans company and a French leotard manufacturer. The Soviets even plan to hit the road to raise money giving exhibitions.

"The hard-liners are attacking high sport," Titov said. "That will pTC eat all of sport. The old regime doesn't want to pay to the mass sports. The government is not paying attention. If the government doesn't find support for children's sport, we will lose the system for knowing how to select them."

Despite the problems, the Soviets apparently have ensured their success in gymnastics for the remainder of the decade. Titov said the Soviets have identified 200 of their top junior gymnasts, who will replenish the dynasty for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

"I think it will take time for the Soviets to notice any great change," said Tim Daggett, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist for the United States. "It's like the New York Giants. You take away their trainers and their extra equipment and you don't let them train. But you let them compete against Oklahoma, UCLA and Nebraska. Initially, they're going to win. But I don't know for how long"

Liukin said he doesn't expect any great changes in Soviet sports. He is confident that his country will remain unbeatable in gymnastics. But he offers no political predictions.

"It's hard to say what will happen to the Soviet Union," he said. "I have to see a lot on television. Here, I don't understand the TV, because it is in English. Every day, something else changes in the Soviet Union. It's hard to keep up."

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