Nobody had right to break her heart

July 31, 1992|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Philadelphia Inquirer

BARCELONA, Spain -- And so, here in Ever Ever Land, where the athletes are built small and wound tight, where the only boundary is your imagination, the competition for best all-around Tinkerbell concluded last night.

As always, they were marvels, these ballistic Bambis, tumbling about like astronauts on a space walk, falling to the mats with an audible thud and then sticking their landings like a javelin quivering in the sod while prune-faced judges waited for just the slightest bobble.

We gave away our hearts to them. Again.

Every four years they come bounding into our lives with their doe eyes and their silly putty bodies, and the winners wear wreaths of smiles and the losers dissolve into weeping inconsolability, and who among us does not go all gooey?

Yes, it can get terribly maudlin and theatrical, but it is also a never-fail smash in the ratings. Face it: We're suckers for little girls.

And yet there remains this nagging feeling that this is no better than cockfighting.

It is wonderful, for example, that Shannon Miller, a pale wraith with dimples, catapulted herself from fourth to second with one mighty vault on her very last attempt. For a time, it appeared that the tiny Oklahoman might even win the gold.

She settled for silver, and glowed, waving gaily to the crowd, a shy thing who, it is to be fervently hoped, is happy to be exactly who she is.

But what of poor Kim Zmeskal? Last week, she was on the cover of Time. Last night she was described, cruelly, as a world-class disappointment.

That is a horrible fall from grace, even for one accustomed to hard landings. How must it feel to be dismissed as washed up at 16?

Anointed the favorite to win the all-around competition, which is the mats' version of MVP, she skidded to 10th instead and nearly bit clean through her lower lip while trying to keep the upper one stiff.

4 Ten years of her life splintered in one evening.

For her, it was over before it ever really began. In her very first event, the floor exercise, which is her meat, she completed a spellbinding tumbling pass and as she bounced down her left foot strayed ever so slightly over the restraining line.

That is a costly point deduction in Tinkerbell ball.

This is a creature who shut out life for gymnastics she even put off getting her driver's license to train, and what 16-year-old makes that sacrifice? and because of one slight misstep she will be judged a failure.

On one night, she was the 10th best in the whole world at what she does. Who among us wouldn't take that in a heartbeat? Yet she was left to collapse in the arms of her parents, the one place where she could find sanctuary.

Her coach, the self-aggrandizing Bela Karolyi, revealed himself as the thoroughly despicable scoundrel many of us have suspected. In her greatest moment of need, he coldly abandoned her. He left the arena abruptly, left his prize pupil convulsed in great, wracking sobs.

Normally, Karolyi hogs center stage, posturing and posing grandly. He seemed to fume when there was a delay before Zmeskal began her performance, and you were sure that he would create a fuss afterwards, whining that the delay had put her off.

But Zmeskal faltered in her other events, too, and slipped steadily in the standings, and soon not even Karolyi's patented protests of judging injustice, persecution and favoritism would have held up. And he couldn't help but know it.

So when it was over, the man who is always first to envelop her in bear hugs whenever the camera's red light blinks on, this night he was long gone into the night.

In triumph he enfolds her. In defeat, he doesn't know her.

And this is the man who has asked for -- and gotten -- her blind, unquestioning trust almost all her life.

So in her moment of disgrace, a little girl was left to face a vulturous flock of inquisitors.

Asked to come down and meet the press, she complied, facing what she, by all that is right and decent, didn't have to.

Her eyes were red, dark streaks of mascara smudged her cheeks.

"It wasn't my best meet," she said. "But it wasn't all bad. I did the best I could."

We cannot ask for more than that.

More, we should not ask for more than that.

The problem is, in the sport of Tinkerbell, they do.

And for that they should be mightily ashamed of themselves.

No one has the right to break a little girl's heart.

No one.

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