It was just a snapshot moment, the sort that lasts only an
instant. But the fearlessness it signified was important:
Chinese gymnast Li Xiaoshuang was soaring above the high bar
with abandon, his face serene and his chalked hands outstretched
as if he knew--just knew--that when he regripped the bar he
would rejuvenate China's wobbling gymnastics reputation and beat
back Belarus's Vitaly Scherbo and Russia's Alexei Nemov, the
past and future kings of men's gymnastics who were breathing
down Li's neck like a hot draft from hell.
Only a hair's breadth separated the three men in the race for
the individual all-around gold medal--that Li knew. China's
pratfall to a silver medal in the team competition on Monday
flitted through his mind too. But before Li started his final
routine of last night's seesaw battle at the Georgia Dome,
Chinese coach Huang Yubin sent Li off toward the high bar with
an exhortation: "Look forward. Press ahead. If you look
backward, you may fail. Remember: Only hope lies ahead."
And so did the gold medal. When Li came back to earth--sticking
his twisting dismount as though his stocking feet had been
staple-gunned to the floor--he bounded off the mat as China's
first Olympic all-around champion.
Li's 9.787 high-bar score leapfrogged him past Nemov and into
first place by a mere .049 of a point--58.423 points to Nemov's
58.374, the latter weighted down by a slight flub in the floor
exercise less than 30 feet from where Li flew on the high bar.
Nothing could dampen Li's enthusiasm about the come-from-behind
victory--not even some scalding complaints by Scherbo, the
displaced all-around champion of the 1992 Olympics, who had to
settle for the bronze this time. Scherbo promptly launched
blasts at both Li, whom he dislikes, and the Olympic judges,
whom he blamed for the .226 points that separated him from Li.
"I was shocked [at his score]," said Scherbo, who won six gold
medals at the Barcelona Games and arrived in Atlanta hoping,
even boasting, of breaking the men's record of eight career
gymnastics golds set by Sawao Kato of Japan (1968 to 1976). But
in the four years since Barcelona, the landscape of men's
gymnastics had changed.
China, not Russia or one of its former republics, won the last
two team world championships. Li, a 5'2", 123-pound sparrow,
came to Atlanta as a favorite in the all-around, along with
Nemov, a 20-year-old prodigy who competed magnificently here
despite an unspecified left-shoulder injury that he says will
require surgery after the Games. Even the American men were
grabbing headlines last night with an unexpected showing of two
top-10 finishes in the all-around: John Roethlisberger was
seventh and Blaine Wilson 10th.
Judging from Scherbo's tart comments, he doesn't much care for
the new world order that now exists. Li, 22, and Scherbo, 24,
have been trading swipes since the 1995 world championships in
Sabae, Japan. There Li said he was more concerned about fending
off a challenge from Nemov than from Scherbo, and Scherbo has
been doing a slow burn ever since.
When asked to assess Li's performance last night, Scherbo
sarcastically said, "Oh, he's improved a lot [since Sabae]. He's
got a little more culture. He's now modest. Maybe his mother and
father told him how to live with a world championship." Asked to
rate last night's judging, Scherbo hissed, "Poor."
If Scherbo's lack of grace bothered Li or curdled his joy, the
Chinese star didn't show it on the interview-room dais the
gymnasts shared. Nor did he seem especially concerned when
Scherbo made the Schwarzenegger-like promise that he'll be a
factor Saturday and Sunday in the individual-apparatus finals.
"I'm very excited because a gold medal in the individual
all-around has been my target for 10 years," said Li. And if
Scherbo doesn't like it?
Let him talk. Let him talk.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS While Li (opposite) flew through the air and over Nemov, Scherbo (above) pulled up the rear with a bronze and criticized the scoring. [Li Xiaoshuang]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Vitaly Scherbo]