Pommel horse throws U.S. from ride to medal Mistakes cost men shot at team bronze

Atlanta Plympics

July 23, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The opportunity was there yesterday for the U.S. men's gymnastics team. Halfway through the optional finals in the 1996 Olympics at the Georgia Dome, the upstart Americans still were hanging around, still in the hunt for a bronze medal and a measure of respect.

When it was over last evening, the U.S. team gained respect but missed out on a medal.

The Americans were thrown by the pommel horse.

The team's two best -- four-time national champion John Roethlisberger and Mihai Bagiu -- fell off, and the United States fell out of medal contention. Though the team showed some resilience by coming back on the rings and the vault, it wasn't enough. The Americans wound up fifth overall. As expected, Russia won the men's team gold with a score of 576.778. China won the silver with 575.539, and the bronze went to Ukraine with 571.541.

It was still the highest finish by a U.S. men's team in any Olympic competition since the Americans won the watered-down, Eastern bloc-boycotted 1984 Games in Los Angeles. It was also their best showing in a fully participated Olympics since finishing fifth at Rome in 1960.

The Americans, who finished a distant 6.525 points from a medal in Barcelona, wound up .923 short of a bronze this time. But it also demonstrated how much further the United States has to go to compete with the world's powers.

"This is the most improved team in the world," said men's coach Peter Kormann, who will relinquish his position and head back to Ohio State after the Games. "We were ninth in the world the last two years. We weren't absolutely perfect. Everyone wants to be perfect. We had a couple of rough spots. We were in the hunt the whole way. One year ago, no one would have thought we'd be in the hunt for a medal."

They were, despite a shaky start on the parallel bars that included leadoff man John Macready's botching his routine. But Macready and his teammates came back strong in the high bar, then had more problems in the floor exercise, with 1996 national champion Blaine Wilson stepping off the mat. Still, when Alexander Svetlichnyi of Ukraine fell from the high bar during the fourth rotation, the bronze was there for the taking.

"The bronze was ours; that was our place," said Roethlisberger, a four-time national champion. "I was really confident [going into the pommel horse]. To fall is inexcusable. Maybe I relaxed a little."

Said Bagiu, who finished fifth in the event at last year's world championship: "There's always in the back of your mind the thought that maybe if you didn't fall, the team would have come in third or fourth. But you can't beat yourself up over it."

The Americans weren't the only ones to make mistakes. Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus, who won the pommel horse in Barcelona among his six gold medals, fell off it yesterday. And the Chinese, considered pre-Olympic favorites by many, had three of their gymnasts fall from the high bar, a couple taking frightening spills.

Kormann didn't blame Roethlisberger or Bagiu. In fact, Kormann, a former Naval Academy coach, blamed himself for not putting in the more difficult pommel horse routines the Americans tried here soon enough.

In Roethlisberger's case, he changed his routines at the team's pre-Olympic training camp earlier this month. Kormann asked Bagiu to change the routine that went so well at the worlds. It was done in order to compete with the Russians, Chinese and Ukrainians. And with Scherbo, who finished second individually to Russia's Alexei Nemov.

"We had to go for it," said Kormann. "John and Mihai did moves that they didn't do at the trials. I take the blame for their mistakes. I encouraged them to do a more difficult routine. It just caught up with us. We needed a little bit more time."

Though the opportunity passed for the U.S. team, it remains for Roethlisberger, Wilson and Macready. They finished among the top 36, meaning they will move on to the all-around competition later this week.

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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