Selection process shadows gymnasts Moceanu, Miller don't compete, still qualify

June 30, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

BOSTON -- Since the U.S. Olympic Trials concluded in Baltimore four years ago, officials for USA Gymnastics have tried to ensure that performance rather than politics would determine this year's outcome. By changing the selection process to prevent athletes injured before the trials from petitioning their way onto the women's team, they figured to have an equitable, if not quite airtight, system.

But that was before Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu, perhaps the two biggest stars in American gymnastics, got hurt. That was before the two athletes petitioned to have their scores held from the recent national championships in Knoxville, Tenn., where Miller, 19, finished first and Moceanu, 14, placed third. That was before a sport often questioned for the treatment of its teen-age athletes found itself shrouded in controversy again.

The new system allowed Miller, a former world champion with a sore wrist, and Moceanu, who last year became the youngest competitor to win the U.S. championships but is now nursing a stress fracture in her leg, to pull out of the trials but still perhaps make the seven-member team.

Going into today's optionals, which count for 40 percent of the total score, both Miller and Moceanu have mathematically made the team. Despite arguments to the contrary by officials at a news conference last week, the 14 female athletes competing in the trials were in essence vying for five spots, two fewer than their male counterparts earned on the floor yesterday.

It also opened the door for some second-guessing after a rash of decidedly low scores in Friday's compulsory program at the FleetCenter.

Some are left wondering whether another new system will be in place by the time the next trials are held four years from now. That is, if trials are necessary at all.

"I think there's been a lot of discussion and talk between coaches, athletes and judges before the trials and that was related by the media," Kelli Hill of Gaithersburg, the longtime coach of 1992 Olympian Dominique Dawes, said Friday night. "I don't think the judging was unfair, but they were obviously not the same scores [as were used at nationals]. It was a protective measure for the two who were petitioning to have their scores held."

Traditionally, the scores go up between the U.S. nationals and the Olympic trials as the gymnasts work out the rough edges in their routines. Miller's coach, Steve Nunno, was quoted before the trials as saying that the judges probably would score the trials lower, knowing the chance, however slight, of Miller and Moceanu being knocked off the team. Though smart enough not to repeat his inflammatory remark, Nunno nonetheless felt sure Miller would be in Atlanta regardless.

"We wouldn't have petitioned unless we felt confident that the scores would hold," said Nunno. "History has proven that we don't have a perfect process, but we have to use the one we have."

The selection process was changed after two injured gymnasts, Betty Aquino and Michelle Campi, were invited to a training camp after the 1992 trials in Baltimore. It was there that they were added to the team and two others, Kim Kelly and Amanda Borden, lost their spots. Kelly and her parents wound up receiving an all-expenses paid trip to Barcelona to watch the Olympic Games, where Aquino performed well but Campi was unable to compete because of injuries. Kelly retired from the sport.

Borden, now 19 and an Olympic contender, said last week that she hoped this year's team would be decided by results rather than reputation. "I think it will be more fair," said Borden, who comes into today's optionals in fifth place among those competing and seventh overall, meaning that she needs to hold or improve her position in order to make the team. "I don't think it will be affected by the two injured gymnasts."

Injuries are not a factor for the male gymnasts, who like most U.S. athletes must compete in the trials to make the Olympic team. USA Gymnastics officials defended their decision by saying it was the only way to put the best team in Atlanta against countries that don't hold trials to determine which athletes to send.

"If we had chosen the cleanest, easiest-to-explain-away system, we might not have produced the best team," said Kathy Scanlan, president of USA Gymnastics and a member of the committee that changed the rules. "We felt [the current system] would not only produce the best team, but be the fairest way."

That this latest incident involves Miller, the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history and Moceanu, considered by many to be the sport's next superstar, only heightened the debate. With the popularity of women's gymnastics in the Olympics -- it sold out faster than any other sport and likely will get maximum exposure by NBC, which is televising the Games -- there is a growing speculation that the rule change was made with this type of scenario in mind.

But gymnastics officials disagree, saying it was a coincidence.

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