COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It was the Cold War in gymnastics, and it was played out like a Robert Ludlum novel.
In those days, there were secret meetings in men's rooms, lips loosened with liquor during late-night sessions in foreign hotel rooms, long-distance phone calls conducted in strange languages, slips of paper passed between men who found themselves allies of the moment.
What was the U.S. men's gymnastics squad after? A little book of precious pictures. Called the "Code of Points," it outlined the required elements for the next Olympics.
Designed by an international committee stacked with Eastern bloc representatives but without a single American, it was kept from the U.S. men until the last possible moment -- literally.
"In 1968, we got the code the day we arrived in Mexico City," said Robert Cowan, national men's program director.
"We were in the gym two hours before competition," recalled Bill Mead, an assistant coach for the 1968 men's team. "We were holding the book in one hand and telling the guys, 'No, you can't do that move that way, you have to do it this way.' "
Where was the CIA when these guys needed it? What was G. Gordon Liddy doing with his spare time back in 1968? "It was just like spying," Cowan said. "We would go to international meets loaded down with Chivas Regal, hoping to 'buy' some information."
Mead remembers meeting with a translator for the international committee in a men's room at the 1971 World Championships, urging him to remember what he could of the code.
A Hungarian friend of American gymnastics ran up $500 in long-distance phone calls prying bits of information from an acquaintance in his homeland.
"They [the Eastern bloc] had us down, and they wanted to keep us down," Cowan said.
All that has changed, and today Cowan -- and every American men's coach -- carries a well-thumbed copy of the "Code of Points." The United States has had a representative -- Bill Roetzheim -- on the international Men's Technical Committee since 1985 and has had a copy of the 1992 Olympic requirements since 1988.
"We thought we were lucky in 1971, we knew a little bit of the requirements almost a year in advance of Munich," said Cowan, crediting that long ago men's room meeting.
"Usually, we had only six months to prepare. And until 1966, they didn't even put the code in English."
The men competing this weekend in the U.S. National Championships for the 18 spots at the Olympic trials in Baltimore next month have performed the 1992 compulsory requirements for almost four years.
Those compulsories have been adopted by the NCAA, too. And because most men gymnasts have been college competitors, they have performed these Olympic requirements in college competition many times during the past four years.
To know if this emphasis on the compulsories was working, Cowan said he wanted to see raw scores of 54 or 55 after last night's opening round. "That would tell me they were very adept," Cowan said. "But 57 is what we're really looking for."
He got his wish. Leading after compulsories on six apparatuses was Minnesota's John Roethlisberger with a raw score of 57.50.
Also scoring well going into tomorrow's men's optionals were: Scott Keswick of UCLA, in second place with a score of 57.45, Tim Ryan of Stanford in third with 57.25 and Dominick Minicucci of Temple was tied for fourth with Chris Waller of UCLA with a score of 57.15.
1988 Olympic team veteran Lance Ringnald, in his first competition since injuring his shoulder at last year's World Championships, was a surprise fifth-place finisher with a score of 57.00.
The men of "Team Atlanta," the Olympic developmental squad, have known the 1996 requirements since last July.
"They are really tough," said J.D. Reive of Fairlawn, N.J., who finished first in the compulsories for "Team Atlanta" in yesterday afternoon's opening competition.
Only a sophomore in high school, he wasn't even born when the American men were scrambling in Mexico City, putting routines together on two hours notice.
"That would be amazing," he said, his voice soft with wonder. "There must have been a lot of crashes."
Knowing precisely what will be required has given the men an advantage. "We've bumped these requirements up three or four times," Cowan said.
"That way we are sure that when our guys go into international meets, they will be above average."
These compulsories make up 60 percent of an Olympic score, and a good measure of the U.S. hopes for a team medal in Barcelona comes from the ability of the American men to do these compulsories in the dark.
A big change from the days when they were in the dark.