BIRMINGHAM, England -- The kids in leotards look up as Svetlana Boginskaya of Belarus glides across the balance beam like a ballerina on a grand stage. Boginskaya is supposed to be too old and too tall for this sort of thing, yet here she is, nearly five years past her prime, trying to write what could be the most improbable of Olympic tales.
At 23, standing 5 feet 4, Boginskaya is back in gymnastics.
During the European Gymnastics Championships, Boginskaya showed that she still can compete with the children by winning the silver medal in Saturday's all-around final. In a sport in which athletes rarely have second acts, Boginskaya's medal was greeted with shock and sustained cheers. The performance also put her on track to upset the medal placings at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
"I never thought this would happen to me," she said. "I want to cry because I'm so happy."
The woman who was once dubbed "The Sphinx" because of her unsmiling demeanor is now a bubbly veteran. She smiles. She jokes with her rivals. She also speaks flawless English after living for nearly four years in the United States.
Boginskaya is trying to stretch the boundaries of a sport long dominated by performers who haven't hit puberty. In a way, she is following a path opened by skater Katarina Witt, the two-time Olympic champion who returned to the ice in 1992. Witt couldn't win a gold then, but it didn't matter much, as she lent a sport a bit of class.
Gymnastics, with competitions that often resemble an outing at a day-care center, surely could use an adult performer.
"The sport of gymnastics likes the idea that here is a mature woman who is performing because she loves it," said Bart Conner, who helped the U.S. men to a team gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
"There is a warmth about Svetlana now," Conner said. "She is charming. I think there is an undercurrent of support for her."
Boginskaya's medal at these championships may have pushed her back in the limelight, but she still has a way to go before becoming a star again.
This gymnastic age belongs to athletes such as Lilia Podkopayeva, 17, of Ukraine, the reigning world champion, who won the European all-around and collected individual golds in the uneven bars and floor exercise and a bronze in the vault. Podkopayeva combines the elements of ballet and acrobatics that coaches, judges and fans adore.
Boginskaya, nearly a half-foot taller than most of her rivals, doesn't begrudge the success of the tots.
"I love to see them. I love just to watch them," she said. "I want to try to do the same as they do, but it is not possible for me. For me, it's difficult. But I love them."
Boginskaya dominated women's gymnastics in the late 1980s, winning two golds at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the world all-around title in 1989. When she finished second at the worlds in 1991, American coach Bela Karolyi said Boginskaya was "a beautiful champion, but her time is over."
Karolyi's harsh assessment was accurate. Boginskaya led a unified Soviet team to an Olympic gold medal at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, but failed to pick up an individual prize, and retreated into retirement.
But retirement bored her.
"I didn't do any gymnastics, and I kind of missed it," she said. "I always wanted to try living a normal life. You know, I found out that living a normal life is not so much fun."
From the age of 10, Boginskaya was molded in the old Soviet gymnastics system, with its dawn-to-dusk training regimen in a military-style complex at Round Lake, 25 miles north of Moscow. When communism collapsed, Boginskaya adapted and took charge.
"Before, I couldn't decide anything for myself," she said. "Everything was decided for me. The coaches decided everything. I was just a little doll, a robot. Here, now I know what I'm doing."
It was Boginskaya who made the big choices in her comeback. She went to Houston two years ago and decided to train with Karolyi, the man who had called her washed up all those years ago.
"I was so angry with him; that's why I started to train with him," she said.
In Karolyi's gym in Houston, Boginskaya refined her moves and regained her confidence.
"I had more energy after my rest," she said. "Maybe I know what I'm doing now. No one is pushing me."
Boginskaya, the true test came here. Other gymnasts had more complicated routines and soared just a bit higher, but Boginskaya's experience -- and her regal presence -- carried her through. She didn't make careless mistakes, and she charmed the judges with dance moves that wouldn't have seemed so out of place among the Laker Girls.
Can she repeat her performance and gain a medal in Atlanta?
"I don't want to make any plans," she said. "I will have to work hard. Add more difficulty. I will go and try to do my best."
Pub Date: 5/21/96