Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Chinese Grab Gold in Gymnastics; U.S. Is Second

Published: August 13, 2008
BEIJING — For Alicia Sacramone, the oldest member of the United States gymnastics team and the team’s leader, the final moments of the Olympics were spent staring at the floor exercise with tears welling in her eyes.

The Americans were just a point behind the Chinese going into the last rotation, the floor exercise. The gold medal seemed up for grabs.

But Sacramone, 20, started off the event by falling on her second tumbling pass, then stepping out of bounds. And with those errors, the gold-medal chances for the United States slipped away.

She and her teammates on the floor — Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin — all had stepped out of bounds during their floor routines. The top score was Liukin’s 15.2, which was not enough to overtake the Chinese.

To end the day, the United States women sat looking solemn while the Chinese competed on the floor to a raucous, pro-China crowd that cheered, “Come on!”

China’s floor routines weren’t perfect, but they were good enough for the team to win the gold medal, the second gymnastics medal for China at the Beijing Games. Neither the men’s nor the women’s team won a medal at the 2004 Olympics.

The Chinese scored 188.900. The Americans won silver, with 186.525. Romania won bronze with 181.525.

Not long before that final event, it seemed that the Americans had a chance. On the balance beam, the Chinese star Cheng Fei had fallen. She rushed off the platform with an ashen, devastated look. Every person inside the packed National Indoor Stadium seemed to gasp.

With that fall, China’s chances of beating the world champion United States team seemed to fall with her.

But in the close competition between the United States and China, fates can change quickly. Halfway through the competition, China was ahead by 1.125 points.

Sacramone then fell mounting the beam. Then she and her two teammates made mistakes on the floor. The Chinese pulled away.

Leading up to the Olympics, on-line sports registration lists in China suggested that half the Chinese women’s team — He Kexin, Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan — did not meet the age requirement of turning 16 in 2008. The international gymnastics federation and the Chinese team officials said those gymnasts were eligible, and that the ages on their passports were correct.

The controversy, though, led to more examination of the gymnasts on both sides.

For sure, the Chinese team’s body types and those of the women on the United States team are opposites. The Chinese gymnasts are curveless, with an average height of 4-feet-9 and an average weight of 77 pounds.

The women on the American team, generally more muscular and shapely than the Chinese, are three and a half inches taller and 30 pounds heavier.

“I think the U.S. women look healthy, not decrepit like some gymnasts used to look because of eating disorders and those type of things,” said Dominique Dawes, a former Olympic gold medalist for the United States. “It’s nice to see gymnasts finally looking like young women, not children.”

Still, when the Chinese and American women went head to head in the team final, it wasn’t only a test of athlete versus athlete, but also system versus system.

The manner in which two countries train their women’s teams could not be more different.

In China, the gymnasts often are sent to sports schools as children, sometimes as young as 4 or 5. They leave their families and their normal lives behind.

There, they train for hours every day and are taken care of by women who serve as surrogate parents. They eat in cafeterias, where they often use one bowl and one plate, washing them after every meal. They sleep in communal bedrooms, often in bunk beds. If they are lucky, the young ones see their parents on weekends, but that is not guaranteed.

Though the system is trying to change, many sports schools still focus on sports over everything else. Education often is secondary.

Bela Karolyi, the former coach of gymnastics legends like Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci, said that kind of centralized training system is on its way out.

“They are living, training and breathing in the training camp and, sure, that’s efficient, but the world is moving forward,” Karolyi said. “I wouldn’t give it another Olympic cycle. I think this type of preparation will be eliminated forever, even in a place like China.

“Can you imagine if we plucked our girls out of their homes when they were 5 or 6, then kept them and trained them never let them go home?” he said. “In America, that just would not happen, never. We’d have a hundred lawyers knocking on our door because it does not work that way. For us, this system works the best.”

Karolyi , whose wife, Martha, is the women’s national team coordinator, said he prefers the system used in the United States — a semi-centralized system that allows the athletes to live and train at home.

In that system, the gymnasts train with their own coaches, then travel to the Karolyi ranch and national team training center outside Houston about every seven weeks so they can be evaluated by Martha Karolyi and other members of the national team staff.

There, the gymnasts go through a battery of tests, like how high they can jump and how long they can remain in a handstand on the balance beam, and their performance is compared to that of their teammates.

“It’s great because seeing the other girls kind of pushes you to work harder when you go home,” said Nastia Liukin, who is coached by her father, Valeri. “For me, it’s perfect because if you’d have to live at a training center, I kind of think you’d end up one-dimensional.”

Shawn Johnson, who trains not far from her home in West Des Moines, Iowa, attends a public high school, where she hangs out with her friends on weekends and even was the ball girl for the football team one year.

She went to the prom this year in a sparkly yellow dress and, yes, she stayed out late.

Johnson said she couldn’t imagine life any other way.

“Gymnastics is a big part of my life, but certainly not everything in my life,” Johnson said. “I’m a person first, and a gymnast second.”