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Some Olympic finals can be measured by the sounds they emit.
Yesterday at the Georgia Dome, a Chinese gymnast's fall from the
horizontal bar was followed by the sickening slap of flesh
against mat. A teammate did the same, and with that second
spill, China, the overwhelming favorite in the men's team
competition, was relegated to silver medal status. Earlier, the
United States had made a bold and unexpected run at the bronze,
and the crowd's roar made the building quiver with patriotic
hope. But then two consecutive U.S. gymnasts fell from the
pommel horse. The noise subsided, and so did the medal hope.

Entering the second half of the two-day competition, there
seemed to be two certainties. One was that the Chinese, winners
of the last two world championships, would win the gold medal;
two, that the U.S., which finished ninth at the 1995 world
championships, had no chance to win a medal. One of those
assumptions was crushed, the other severely tested.

Throughout the withering competition, whose outcome was
determined as much by failure in the face of opportunity as it
was by success, the Russians had performed flawlessly. They won
the gold after shining in both Saturday's compulsories and
yesterday's optional exercises. China, known for its precision,
fell apart on the second day as the competition unfolded on the
six apparatuses. "The Chinese dropped the ball more than any
team I've ever seen," said Tim Daggett, a former U.S. gymnast.
"I've never seen anything like it."

The Chinese's most dramatic stumble came on the horizontal bar,
their fifth apparatus in the rotation, at a time when they were
in striking distance of the Russians--.651 of a point behind.
But in a matter of moments they were out of the gold medal
chase. First, Huang Huadong fell from the horizontal bar on a
release, hushing the audience at one end of the arena. Then Shen
Jian also failed to catch the bar after a release. "We made some
errors," said Chinese coach Huang Huabin, "because it is under
great pressure doing this."

Given their fourth-place performance at the '95 world
championships last October, the Russians hardly looked like gold
medal contenders entering these Games. But under the direction
of Leonid Arkaev, who directed the Unified Team in 1992, they
devoted five hours a day to practicing their compulsory program,
and the work paid off richly. Russia entered the optionals with
almost a full-point lead over China. "We have a strategy to beat
China, but I can't say now," Arkaev had said after the
compulsories. Clearly the strategy was to perform well on the
first night and force the Chinese to chase.

For Russia, the victory was a tribute to Arkaev and his
reconstruction of a program that had been taken apart by the
Soviet revolution. Eerily, Arkaev has coached almost all the
members of the teams from Ukraine, which won the bronze, and
Belarus, which finished fourth, ahead of the U.S. "This is much
better than any previous [Russian] team," Arkaev said.

It is a strikingly young team, led by 20-year-old Alexei Nemov,
who finished first in the individual scoring and heads into the
all-around competition as the favorite to supplant Vitaly
Scherbo of Belarus as the best gymnast in the world. He
summarized his gymnastic history as such: "My mother took me to
the sports club in 1982, and now I am exhausted." Only one
member of the Russian team is older than 23, and he's
25-year-old Sergei Charkov.

The U.S. positioned itself for a run at the bronze with a
brilliant performance on the horizontal bar in which the
Americans added maneuvers to raise their degrees of difficulty.
As a result, the U.S. passed Belarus and trailed Ukraine by
1.025. When Alexandre Svetlichnyi of Ukraine fell hard from the
horizontal bar, the U.S. had an opportunity to make another move.

But then its last two gymnasts on the pommel horse, Mihai Bagiu
and team leader John Roethlisberger, fell during their routines.
The pommel horse is the U.S. team's weakest event, and Bagiu and
Roethlisberger were attempting new, more difficult routines. "We
went all out," said Bagiu. "I would have felt worse if I did the
old routine and fell short than I did trying the new routine and

Roethlisberger, who finished fifth in qualifying for the men's
all-around competition, said, "We came here to get a medal, but
this is a performance we can all be proud of." Teammates Blaine
Wilson (12th) and John Macready (33rd) also qualified for the
all-around finals. Wilson qualified for the rings finals, Jair
Lynch for those on the parallel bars.

Yet as solid as the Americans' performance was--"This is the
most improved team in the world," said U.S. coach Peter
Kormann--the gymnasts' reaction can be measured by the tears
that were shed afterward. And in this matter they might learn
from the Russian team, which was built four years ago from the
remnants of the Soviet sports system and climbed back up the
world ladder to yesterday's gold.

"We had to search deep," said Arkaev, his eyes confident and
strong. "But it's tough luck that makes you better. The
experience of surviving made us tougher here."

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Kip Simons (left) and the Americans soared on the horizontal bar but were no match for Dmitri Vasilenko and the Russians on the horse. [Kip Simons performing on horizontal bar]

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR[See caption above--Dmitri Vasilenko performing on pommel horse]