INDIANAPOLIS -- In gymnastics, grace is usually cast aside at mat's edge. So was it really a surprise yesterday that an athletic Cold War was reborn inside the Hoosier Dome?
Is it a shock that two tiny gymnasts, one from the Soviet Union and the other from the United States, refused to shake hands? And really, did anyone expect U.S. coach Bela Karolyi to ignore the opportunity to unload a few verbal shots at his longtime rivals?
"Politics, it's always politics," Karolyi said.
After nine days of beauty and triumph, the World Gymnastics Championships ended with an ugly little encounter on a medal stand. Kim Zmeskal, the all-around champion from Houston, offered a tiny hand to deposed titlist Svetlana Boguinskaia of the Soviet Union after the floor exercise final. Boguinskaia refused to shake hands, and the crowd of 12,790 booed.
It was a tit-for-tat gesture by Boguinskaia, who said she was snubbed by Zmeskal in a medal ceremony for the vault Saturday night. Karolyi denied that was the case, and Zmeskal said she couldn't remember not shaking the Soviet's hand.
L About yesterday's incident, Boguinskaia declined to comment.
Zmeskal said "she doesn't have to shake hands if she doesn't want to." Karolyi, the Romanian-born coach who said he was still upset by the treatment he and his athletes received at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, was enraged.
"I'm glad they're heading in the way of democracy in the Soviet Union," Karolyi said. "But sportsmanship, civilization, they have a long, long way to go. You cannot brag about the public being against you and then start acting like a primitive person. You have to learn to respect competitors."
Was this much ado about nothing or a preview of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain?
"The future of the [U.S.-Soviet] rivalry is very evident," Karolyi said. "It will not be a clean rivalry. It will be a dirty one."
The World Championships confirmed that the Soviets remain dominant, but the United States is gaining -- fast. While the Soviets won the men's and women's team titles and dominated the overall medal count with 18, the U.S. team won five.
"The American team is very strong and very well-prepared," said Romanian women's coach Octavian Belu. "In terms of technique, they are not yet with the Russians or the Romanians. But they're getting close."
But this meet wasn't just a Soviet-U.S. challenge. Cristina Bontas continued Romania's gymnastics tradition, winning the floor exercise.
China also displayed strength as Li Jing won the parallel bars and Li Chunyang won the high bar and North Korea's Kim Gwang Suk, a doll-like daredevil who is 4 feet 4 and weighs 60 pounds, earned a perfect 10 on the uneven bars. "It is like I am flying in the sky," she said.
The United States also soared, led by Zmeskal's all-around gold and the women who won a team silver. In yesterday's apparatus finals, Zmeskal added a bronze in floor exercise and Betty Okino won a bronze in balance beam.
"This will help us for next year," Okino said.
Next year, the spotlight could fall on Okino, 16, who finished fourth in the all-around. Okino goes back into Karolyi's gym in Houston to train side by side with Zmeskal. Like "scorpions in a bottle," the pair will battle for supremacy, in not only America, but also, perhaps, the world.
"We'll push each other," Okino said. "If Kim does a move, I'll have to do a move."
But Okino could actually have the advantage performing in Barcelona. Her balletic style could play favorably in Europe, compared with Zmeskal's power-packed show.
"Kim is a gymnast with big power, with very good preparation with this desire to win," Karolyi said. "But the judges and the audiences helped her. I appreciate the power and the victory. But gymnastics is more than this. It is ballet. But I understand this. This is America, and in America, everything is possible."
Everywhere else, peace is breaking out. But in America, in a gymnastics competition, the Cold War is revisited.