Finger-pointing is the next event after U.S. gymnasts fail to medal

Summer Olympics

September 20, 2000|By JOHN EISENBERG

SYDNEY, Australia - Disappointed that the U.S. women's gymnasts failed to win a medal in the team competition last night? You should have seen what happened after they were finished tumbling and vaulting at the Olympic Park Superdome.

The world got a glimpse of the ego problems, turf wars and turmoil that have troubled the team for several years, leaving the unmistakable impression that, if anything, a fourth-place finish in the team event was a major accomplishment.

Yes, it was a far cry from the gold medal won in Atlanta four years ago in a moment that turned a nation of television viewers into gymnastics fans. But as the fingers were pointing and accusations were flying last night, finishing fourth behind Romania, Russia and China sounded pretty good.

In one corner, there was Jamie Dantzscher, a member of the U.S. team, sounding off that former U.S. coach Bela Karolyi, now hovering in the vague role of team coordinator, was "a puppeteer" who wanted to accept responsibility only if things went well.

"I have no loyalty to him," Dantzscher said.

Then there was Karolyi, perhaps the greatest coach in the sport's history, holding court with reporters and protesting that "this generation [of gymnasts] lacks the necessary work ethic" and that, well, frankly, this was an average team.

Fourth place "probably is the superior limit of what they're capable," said Karolyi, who watched from the press box as U.S. coaches Kelli Hill and Steve Rybacki worked the floor.

Of course, Karolyi added, give him another six months with them and things might have turned out differently.

"Six more months with me would have made a big difference," Karolyi said.

None too pleased with that suggestion, as you might imagine, was Hill, who was asked if she would have used the same selection criteria and basically turned the process over to Karolyi, as she did.

"Hell, no," she said.

The gymnasts themselves added little fuel to the bonfire except for Dantzscher, who was furious that Karolyi had "benched" her on one apparatus, substituting Tasha Schwikert on the balance beam.

But while the rest of the gymnasts took the high road and said they were mostly blind to the politics and fond of each other, it was hard to forget Dominique Dawes' pre-Olympics statement that "we all get along fairly well."

Talk about a dysfunctional family.

What are we supposed to believe? Where does the truth lie amid all this smoldering debris?

How did the U.S. fall from first to fourth?

Well, for starters, Karolyi obviously is right that this just isn't an exceptional national team. It was the sport's version of an average college football recruiting class before Morgan White was forced to miss the Games with an injury, a setback Hill referred to as a "major hit."

As it happened, only Columbia's Elise Ray and Amy Chow qualified for tomorrow's all-around competition finals, and Ray is the only U.S. qualifier in an individual apparatus final.

You can't dance around the lesson in that. It was no coincidence that the U.S. team sank to sixth in the most recent world championships, convincing the U.S. federation to bring back Karolyi, who had retired to his Texas ranch after his 1996 triumph.

He might be a shameless self-promoter, but there is no denying Karolyi's history of motivating athletes and churning out Olympic champions, and he might well have made something of this team had he been given more time in the "advisory" role he was given earlier this year.

At the same time, the arrangement was doomed to fail, like an NFL team bringing in Bill Parcells as a general manager and also giving him control of practice.

Bringing in Karolyi "was a huge change that eliminated a lot of the coaches' power," Dawes said. And that was bound to be problematic in a sport in which young gymnasts look to their coaches for inspiration.

Much was made of Karolyi being in the press box rather than his traditional spot on the floor, where he made his name hugging champions coming off the floor, and some in the gymnastics world believe his presence could have made a difference.

That's doubtful, given that he hadn't coached any of this group of gymnasts up from their pre-teen days and basically was little more than a figurehead to them.

"He certainly wasn't my motivation," Dantzscher said.

In any event, the fourth-place finish is certain to lead to a wave of self-examination as America tries to avoid getting left behind in a changing gymnastics world. Although a minimum age of 16 is now in place, this Olympics is being dominated by pixies from Romania, China and Russia, younger women less independent and easier to mold than the U.S. team of high school and college students.

"There were too many people around this team, 21 people I counted at one point," said Karolyi, referring to boyfriends and other fringe figures surrounding the team. "You can't keep a team together that way."

Would he be willing to come back, take over and try to get things back to the way they were?

"I can't say right now," he said with a smile.

Or is he now just a lingering remnant of a bygone era when a coach could control a U.S. team barely beyond adolescence?

"Things are different these days," Hill said, smiling herself.

And this one thing is certain: For one night, a sport that has benefited from the Olympic spotlight could have stood a little less scrutiny.

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