Unparallel bars U.S. women's gymnasts don't face fair trial in quest to make team

July 09, 1992|By Susan Miller Degnan | Susan Miller Degnan,Knight-Ridder

MIAMI -- Tonight, just 45 minutes from the Wonderful World of Disney in the Orlando suburb of Altamonte Springs, a teen-ager with a body of steel and psyche of porcelain will go to bed as the unhappiest athlete in the United States.

Tonight, the U.S. Gymnastics Federation will turn to one of eight young women -- seven of whom qualified for the Olympic Team at the Olympic trials -- and say in an ever-so-soothing and diplomatic way:

"Hit the road."

The USGF giveth, and the USGF taketh away.

What? You thought the women's Olympic gymnastics team was determined at the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials last month in Baltimore? You thought when they lined up the "winners," gave each of them a bouquet of flowers, played a tear-jerking version of the Olympic theme song to a standing, sellout crowd of 11,832 that all of these athletes were on their way to Barcelona? You thought Wendy Bruce, who made a heroic comeback after falling from the balance beam on national television, could finally call herself an Olympian?

As that cute little kid in the movie "Home Alone" would say: "I don't think so."

In a drawn-out, controversial process, the USGF uses two competitions -- the U.S. Championships and Olympic trials -- to determine the seven women who will qualify for a three-day "training" camp that ends tonight at Brown's Gymnastics in Altamonte Springs. An eighth athlete is then invited by the USGF round out the "non-competitive" camp.

Convoluted, confusing, unfair.

Each athlete's coach, along with a USGF representative, will vote tonight for the seven athletes they believe should go to Barcelona. The eighth woman -- Betty Okino, 17, of Elmhurst, Ill. -- could be voted to the team without having competed in the trials or U.S. championships.

Okino, who fractured her back in April, qualified for the camp by placing fourth in the world championships last September -- a USGF loophole that allows any of the top 12 previous world performers or top eight individual-event world finalists to petition their way into camp.

There's more: Michelle Campi, 15, of Carmichael, Calif., fractured an elbow two days before the trials. The USGF allowed her U.S. championships score to substitute as her trials result, good enough to get her to tonight's final process.

Maybe we should send Carl Lewis in the 100-meter -- instead of trials winner Dennis Mitchell, because we know Carl is the fastest man on earth. Better yet, maybe Carl should have stayed home with a sore leg and used his world-record time as the qualifier.

And let's bump the second- or third-place qualifier in the decathlon because we know world champion Dan O'Brien, who lost his bid on a lousy pole vault attempt, is our best hope for a gold.

Bruce, 19, and the other five gymnasts who competed in the trials and won -- some despite physical ailments of their own -- deserve to go to Barcelona. Make your seventh-place "performer" at the trials the alternate.

Reigning world all-around champion Kim Zmeskal, trials winner Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring and Kerri Strug are all expected to retain spots on the team.

At least the U.S. men's program has the sense to choose its team in the fairest and most humane way: The top seven finishers at the trials advance.

"Why prolong the pressure and cause unnecessary dissension?" men's trials winner Scott Keswick said.

Maybe the USGF should move its headquarters from Indianapolis to Washington, where politics reign. Especially in an election -- oops, Olympic -- year.

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