Style will be everything for tumblers 3 favored women vie for all-around gold

July 30, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- In the end, the women's all-around gold medal in gymnastics could come down to one thing: style.

You have a power-pack tumbler from Houston, a willowy perfectionist from Oklahoma City and a svelte dancer from Minsk.

Tonight, one of these teen-agers probably will be wearing the gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Instead of one favorite, you have three. And two are from the United States, which has produced only one all-around champion in Olympic history, 1984 gold medalist Mary Lou Retton.

There is Kim Zmeskal, 16, sculpted in Bela Karolyi's Houston gym and transformed into the 1991 world champion.

There is Shannon Miller, 15, a shy Oklahoma high school freshman whose daring and charisma make her the sport's fastest-rising star.

And there is Svetlana Boginskaya, 19, of the Unified Team, the 1988 Olympic bronze medalist and 1989 world champion.

Taking different strengths and temperaments into the competition, the gymnasts make for fascinating contrasts that a panel of judges must sort through.

Zmeskal turns a floor exercise routine into a breathtaking "Rock Around the Clock." She is the toughest competitor of them all.

Miller has the best blend of grace, flexibility and sheer athletic talent, performing a triple release sequence on the uneven bars. Virtually unknown before the 1991 world championships, she has now beaten Zmeskal four straight times in head-to-head competition in compulsory routines. But her problem tonight is that the gymnasts will be performing the more selective optional routines, where flaws can be hidden and strengths accentuated.

And Boginskaya is a captivating performer, retaining her place near the top of her sport at an age when most are forced into retirement. Karolyi keeps saying that Boginskaya's time has passed, but she led the former Soviets to the team gold.

Others who could barge into the top three include Tatyana Gutsu and Tatyana Lysenko of the Unified Team, Cristina Bontas of Romania and Henrietta Onodi, Hungary's graceful performer who has a reputation of cracking under pressure.

If Onodi can keep her nerves under control, she has the potential of stealing the gold.

Still, it will be difficult to break into the top cluster.

"I don't really like to peer into the future," Boginskaya said. "Of course, I'll try to do my best. I'll try to do my double best. I'll try to perform in a dignified manner."

If only it were that easy. There is a history of resentment running through this competition.

A year ago in Indianapolis, Boginskaya and Zmeskal refused to shake hands on a medal podium. And although the gymnasts exchanged handshakes after receiving their team medals, they retain a distance.

The American coaching staff isn't exactly a smooth-operating unit, either. Karolyi and Steve Nunno, who oversees Miller's career, have been engaged in verbal squabbles since June, when the U.S. trials were held in Baltimore.

Miller was awarded the title at the trials on a technicality. Ever since, the coaches have sought to boost the chances of their pupils, much like promoters hyping their boxers.

What's more, there is added tension now that Karolyi has declared he will retire from coaching in team events after the Olympics. Although the man has made more retirement speeches than Sugar Ray Leonard, this time, his actions may match his words. He is clearly tired of the infighting and bickering that have marked the past four years of U.S. gymnastics.

Still, he'll fight for Zmeskal.

"Kim is very capable of winning, despite what occurred in the team competition," Karolyi said.

But it was Miller who actually led the individual scores after the two team rounds and qualified for all four apparatus finals. If she can retain her consistency, she could emerge with what is arguably the most coveted gold medal of the Games.

"Shannon beat everyone," Nunno said. "She is cooking and everyone knows it. As far as I am concerned, Shannon is No. 1, the best gymnast in the world."

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