Declaring himself pleased with the fairness and correctness of a selection process he called a monstrous nightmare just a month ago, Bela Karolyi said yesterday that the U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team he will coach -- something else he wanted no part of a month ago -- was fit and ready to take on the former Soviets, the Romanians and the Chinese in Barcelona, Spain.
"This time, the U.S. team is the best selection we could ever do," said Karolyi in a teleconference from Altamonte Springs, Fla. "I am shooting for a medal in the team competition. We were the silver medalists at the last world championships. We should hold to that standard."
Karolyi, his assistant coaches and seven women gymnasts leave by charter plane today for Nadonne, France, and, in a process that endures more cuts than a Hollywood movie -- and with just as much drama -- another round of competition to determine the final six competitors.
"The international rules say that we must name our six 24 hours before competition begins on the 26th," said Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. "But I would say we would know by the 22nd or 23rd."
One competitor, Kim Kelly of Allentown, Pa., has already been dropped from the team as a result of two days of semi-competition in Altamonte Springs.
Though she finished ahead of Wendy Bruce at the U.S. national championships and at the Olympic trials in Baltimore last month -- and though she made no mistakes in her eight routines in Florida -- she placed eighth, behind Bruce, in a balloting among ++ coaches and a USGF official. Her parents were considering legal action during the weekend and said a decision will be made this week.
Still another young woman will be designated as a non-competing alternate before all of this is over -- as part of a process drawn out to keep the minds of these young women on the task at hand.
"We have seen it before," said Jacki. "Once the team is named there is a shift in attention, a drop-off in intensity. This attitude letdown affects performance."
This is a process Karolyi railed against after the trials in Baltimore, calling it "a nightmare that will haunt us. We have created a monster."
But that was before one of his gymnasts, Betty Okino, made the Olympic team despite missing the nationals and the trials while recovering from stress fractures in her back that have kept her out of competition for months. Karolyi has three women on the team: Okino, world champion Kim Zmeskal and Kerri Strug.
"It was a fair and very objective process," said Karolyi. "I was amazed about the fairness and the integrity of the judgment."
He said the process was simply to evaluate the health and readiness of Okino, a medalist in international competition, and Michelle Campi, a fast-rising star who suffered a fracture dislocation in her elbow on the eve of the trials and did not compete. A member of the U.S. silver-medal team at the world championships, Campi also made the Olympic team.
"Readiness was the only procedure," said Karolyi. "We didn't look a past performances or international prestige. I blocked out the names. We looked at what they were performing and how they can help the team."
TTC That was all news to Kelly, who was so convinced that she had made the team after her performance on Thursday that she called her mother, Stephanie, to tell her the news.
But, at 2:30 Friday morning after a long meeting among the coaches, Kelly was told that she did not make the team.
"I made no mistakes," said Kelly yesterday from Allentown, where she trains with the Parkettes. "I admit Wendy looked good. It was her home gym. But Dominique [Dawes of Silver Spring] fell on the beam and her coach [Kelli Hill] was spotting her the whole time on the floor exercises. Kim [Zmeskal] fell on the floor and Betty nearly fell off the beam and her floor was not a world-class routine.
"All I want to know is what I did wrong. They said they wanted to pick the best team. But they obviously didn't. The system is wrong and it should have never happened," said Kelly, who will enter the University of Alabama in August on a gymnastics scholarship.
Jacki would not reveal how the coaches voted, but said, "It was significantly decisive. The coaches were strongly in favor of the team that was selected."
Steve Nunno, who coaches Shannon Miller, the Edmond, Okla., teen-ager who won the trials and who also made the team, admitted he had doubts about whether Okino and Campi were healthy.
"They both performed magnificently. I was amazed. After all I had heard, they were on their death beds. Shannon and I went through the same [injury] situation. I thought Shannon's [recovery] was magnificent. But Michelle's was a darn miracle," said Nunno.
"Betty still has some time to polish up. She was a little weaker than the Betty of the past. But she was in peak international form."
With one cut to go.