Russian shows an all-around lack of class

Women's Gymnastics

Athens Olympics 2004

August 20, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

ATHENS - When is a ticked-off, chain-smoking Russian diva better than an earnest American who's now being called the new Mary Lou Retton?

When it's the Olympics and the delusional diva believes the judges and not her own athletic limitations doomed her to second place, that's when.

When in doubt, overlook the victor's performance and blame the judges, which is exactly what Uma Thurman lookalike/sourpuss Svetlana Khorkina did last night.

Nothing like grabbing the easy straw. Khorkina has the long arms of a ballet dancer to do it.

In the unofficial Olympic handbook, it says anyone - but particularly gymnasts and figure skaters - who does not win a gold medal immediately blames his or her internationally televised demise on corrupt, stupid or bribed judges.

The only problem is, when Carly Patterson, 16, was crowned Queen of the Olympics for her resounding performance in the women's individual all-around final last night, Khorkina had no leg to stand on - and that included her own pair of heron-like limbs.

"It took the [judges] time to announce the scores," Khorkina said, among other things.

Did she mean: Congratulations, Carly?


And in this distasteful fashion, Khorkina achieved nothing except to make a mockery of herself and her "sport," which might seem impossible, considering the standard.

Alas, new lows are achieved every time the girls hit the mats or the ice.

"There probably wasn't a difference between my performance and the American. I am from Russia. She is from the U.S.A.," Khorkina said through an interpreter.

"Just kidding," she added, blowing a raspberry into the microphone.

Nothing like soiling someone else's Olympic moment.

"It just means a lot. My whole life I worked for this dream," said Patterson, who hung a Mary Lou Retton poster on her bedroom wall and stubbornly proved to U.S. coaches she was ready and determined these Olympics would be her stage.

It helps that Patterson, energetic and athletic, has the skills requisite to gymnastics success.

Patterson's coach, Evgeny Marchenko, tried to steer clear of dignifying Khorkina's act, instead praising his athlete's performance and character.

"I know my gymnast is very respectful for what she has achieved," he said.

That lasted about three minutes.

"Svetlana is a great gymnast, but in this moment, Carly was the best. Svetlana has no respect for the Olympic champion. When she has been Olympic champion, we respected her. She has no idea."

It was stunning, really, considering Khorkina, 25, is a decorated veteran. The three-time world and European champion has two Olympic gold medals for the uneven bars, her specialty.

But in this, her final Olympics - she assured us - she coveted the crowning glory of the all-around gold. It is the pinnacle for gymnasts - the medal that confirmed the greatness of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci.

It was the one title missing from Khorkina's resume, but as a diva and not a complete gymnast, it was not for her to win.

Instead, Patterson became the only American to win the title besides Retton, who did it in Los Angeles in 1984, with the asterisk of the Soviet-led boycott.

Patterson's gold gave the United States an unprecedented sweep in the coveted all-around men's and women's gymnastics categories.

"I'm very proud of this. This is the greatest and most precious Olympic title," said Bela Karolyi, the former coach who pushed Retton to gold in '84.

"The sport really needed this. Sydney [in 2000] was a nightmare for us, I can say. The American public is going to love her. [Patterson and Retton] are two different athletes, but they are both strong, both aggressive ... and both would die in order to win."

Oddly, Patterson looked like she would die because she had won.

The diva could not relinquish the stage that was no longer hers.

"If you remember my performance during the team competition and today, it was up to the judges to call," Khorkina said.

Earth to Svetlana: Patterson won her gold on the strength of her dynamic performance on the balance beam, on which she went from fourth place to first with a 9.725.

Patterson hardly backed into her gold medal, despite Khorkina's tortured claim that her score on the vault (9.462) was suspiciously low.

"Well, I believe it was a minor mistake that was barely noticeable," Khorkina said.

Did the judges leave the door open for someone else to impress them? Probably.

Were the judges suitably unimpressed with Khorkina's "artistic" approach to gymnastics - i.e., a lot of arm waving and opera house posing?


"Khorkina, she is a classy gymnast, no doubt, but she doesn't have the power or aggressiveness," U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi said.

But she has the chutzpah.

Ah, if only gold medals could be handed out for making a mockery of oneself.

There's a reason why gymnastics and figure skating take the cake for television ratings. There's the sequins, the scowls, the bobbles, the wobbles, the blood, the sweat, the tears.

And, let's not forget: the bitter, sour, miserable grapes.

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