U.S. men will show off Olympic gymnastics depth here tonight

June 12, 1992|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Staff Writer

The men of the 1984 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team scored eight perfect 10s and won the team gold and six other medals. Like the 1980 U.S. hockey team, they became media darlings.

Movies, commercials, television roles. Peter Vidmar said he had to wear sunglasses to complete his Mormon missionary work anonymously.

The men of the 1988 team finished an ignominious 11th and became a symbol of what was wrong with America's Olympic movement. They probably wished they could have worn bags on their heads.

What happened to the U.S. men's gymnastics program in those four short years? And has it been fixed in time for the 1992 Barcelona Games?

Looks as if it has.

The American men's team that will be chosen at the Baltimore Arena in competition that begins tonight certainly will contend for a bronze team medal. This generation is so deep that any one of 12 gymnasts could claim one of the six spots on the U.S. squad.

"This team will be the best since 1984," said UCLA's Scott Keswick, who likely will be on it. "They said that about us at the world championships last year. We were fifth, and we would have been better if Lance [Ringnald] hadn't gotten hurt.

"1988 is history. It happened. We're on the move, and this is a team that can fight for a bronze medal."

There are two reasons for the resurgence of the men's program:

* A U.S. Olympic Committee stipend program that has been paying between $8,000 and $20,000 a year to the top eight finishers at national championships since 1989, plus more for top finishes in other competitions.

* A little green book called the "Code of Points," which includes diagrams of Olympic requirements, which often was not available to American gymnasts until just months, days or, as in 1968, hours before the Games began. But that changed when the U.S. Gymnastics Federation placed one of its own, Bill Roetzheim, on the international technical committee in 1985.

These, and other improvements in the men's program, were a result of the hard lessons learned after the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

"We weren't prepared for what happened in L.A.," said Robert Cowan, director of the men's program for the past eight years. "And we weren't ready for what happened to the kids. They had movie offers, appearances, TV, commercials. Why train? We learned our lesson. We put $1 million aside for the athletes in 1992."

Because of the boycott in 1980, a number of gymnasts made the sacrifices of poverty required of them and stayed in the sport for 1984. Tim Daggett was one of them.

"After the boycott, we had two generations of athletes preparing to compete," he said. "The younger ones and the older ones who thought they had been denied something that was theirs."

After the 1984 Games, Daggett left the sport to earn a living.

"I had been starving for years, so I went out and made money," said Daggett, who owns a gym in Massachusetts and who will do some of the analysis for NBC during the trials. "Now, the guys can make money doing what they're supposed to do -- train."

"Mitch Gaylord could have been a gold medalist for us in 1988. He had the Gaylord Flip and a lot of stuff he was working on," said Francis Allen, coach at Nebraska and coach of the men's 1992 U.S. Olympic team. "But he signed a movie deal.

"Peter Vidmar had a wife and children. He had to go to work."

Keswick, whose UCLA scholarship expired this year, is eligible for $18,000 based on his second-place finish at the U.S. championships last month. Now that his NCAA eligibility has expired, he can accept that money and continue to train.

"If the subsistence money wasn't there, I don't know if I would," he said.

Patrick Kirksey is finishing his MBA at Nebraska and will earn about $15,000 this year from the Olympic stipend fund.

"The six or eight best guys are done with their college careers," said Keswick. "But they are still in it, and the money has a lot to do with it."

Chris Waller finished ninth at the 1992 Winter Nationals and, because the top eight get money, he was out of luck. Waller was the 1991 U.S. champion and considered a sure bet to make the Olympic team, but his scholarship days at UCLA have expired. He has to pay rent, buy groceries.

"He has to live on something," said Cowan, who controls the money. "So I told him, 'Look, I don't give my own children money. Earn it. Go do a clinic for me at Cal-Poly, and I'll pay you $1,000.' "

Waller finished fourth at the U.S. Championships last month and is eligible again for the stipend.

The Code of Points might be more important than the money. College scholarships carry the top male gymnasts through their prime years, but the Code is the key to knowing what skills will win medals.

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