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August 31, 2000

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Old timers to dominate gym events

Steve Keating in Lausanne

Like every other Summer Games in recent memory, the Sydney Olympics are sure to produce an elfin prodigy.

Svetlana Khorkina of RussiaTiny footprints to be added to the gymnastics walk of fame alongside those of Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug.

Every four years, women's artistic gymnastics unveils a new line-up in much the same way the fashion industry rolls out its latest designs -- both suddenly in vogue, then seldom seen again.

But when competitors take to the SuperDome mats, diminutive newcomers such as 1.45-metre Elena Zamolodtchikova will be wrestling some big-name old-timers for places on the medal podium.

Returning to the spotlight will be 23-year-old Dominique Dawes and Amy Chow, 22, two veteran members of the Magnificent Seven, who helped the United States to its first women's Olympic team gold in Atlanta.

And, once again, leading them into battle will be gymnastics guru Bela Karoyli, lured out of retirement and off his Texas ranch to resurrect a U.S. squad who have floundered in his absence.

But most of the attention, and the cameras, will be focused on Svetlana Khorkina, the elegant 21-year-old Russian, who has put an acting career on hold for one more shot at Olympic glory.

Although it would be difficult to label the part-time model as a grizzled veteran, Khorkina, gold medallist on the uneven bars in Atlanta, possesses a wealth of experience in a sport where athletes' careers often have the lifespan of houseflies.

The 1997 world and 1998 European all-around champion Khorkina was written off after a 12th place finish at the 1999 worlds. But four gold medals, including another all-around title at the European championships in May, have transformed the Russian into a multiple gold medal threat in Sydney.

Other top contenders for the all-around crown include world champion Maria Olaru of Romania and Khorkina's team mate Yelena Produnova, a powerful and gutsy performer and the only woman in the world doing a double front vault.

After missing the 1996 Olympics due to a hamstring pull and the 1997 worlds because of broken fingers, a healthy and motivated Viktoria Karpenko will also provide a serious challenge as she looks to become the third successive Ukrainian woman to claim the Olympic all-around after compatriots Tatiana Gutsu in Barcelona and Lilia Podkopayeva in Atlanta.

Where the high-profile U.S. squad figures into the medal mix is uncertain but there is no question the American women have left themselves an impossibly tough act to follow.

The pictures of Strug, hopping around on one foot with a badly injured ankle after nailing her final vault to give the Americans their historic team gold, is one of the lasting images of the Atlanta Games.

Scooped up by Karoyli and tenderly carried off the mat to a waiting stretcher, Strug left the sold-out Georgia Dome to tears and a standing ovation, not knowing her team had won the gold.

But since those heady days in Atlanta, the U.S. women's programme has fallen on hard times, placing a lowly sixth at both the 1997 and 1999 world championships.

Karoyli is back, this time in the role of national team co-ordinator, but five members of the group that became known as the Magnificent Seven are not.

Unlike their coach, Strug and Amanda Borden, could not be tempted out of retirement while Shannon Miller, the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history with seven Olympic medals, Dominique Moceanu and Jaycie Phelps, were unable to shake off nearly four-years of rust and injuries and failed to make the grade.

U.S. gymnastics officials will be hoping that the controversial Karoyli, who has bullied, prodded and willed an all-star list of athletes, including Comaneci, Retton, Strug and Moceanu, to the top of the Olympic podium, still has the golden touch.

"I came back because I was frustrated at seeing something I was proud of going down the drain," said Karolyi. "The fire, desire, the motivation somehow was missing. But I see now the same fire, the same desire I used to see.

"The team makeup is well balanced, we do have experienced returning Olympians in Amy and Dominique and we do have the fiery young generation.

"I believe it's a very good combination and I'm very optimistic."

But not as optimistic as Russian coach Leonid Arkayev, who expects his gymnasts to collect at least five gold medals, including a sweep of both the men's and women's team titles.

"Last year in the world championships, we had five gold medals and we don't want to step back from that," said Arkayev.

The fight for the men's team gold shapes up as an intriguing battle between defending champions Russia and world champions China, with Belarus, Ukraine, Japan and the U.S. wrestling for the remaining place on the podium.

Alexei Nemov, a dual gold medallist in Atlanta and at last year's world championships in China, will lead an experienced Russian men's squad that includes Alexei Bondarenko.

'Sexy Alexei', as Nemov is known among his female fans, will also be among the favourite to take gold in the all-around after settling for silver behind China's Li Xiaoshuang in Atlanta.

But the man to watch could be Belarussian Ivan Ivankov, who missed the 1996 Olympics with a torn Achilles tendon.

Strong and clean everywhere, Ivankov bounced back from his injury to win the 1997 worlds and will be a multiple medal threat in Syndey.

Other medal contenders include the Chinese duo of Huang Xu and Zhang Jinjing and Japan's Naoya Tsukahara, son of legendary gymnast Mitsuo Tsukahara, inventor of the Tsukahara vault.

Russia will also be expecting to add to its medal haul in rhythmic gymnastics, as the sport looks to restore its credibility following a major judging scandal that resulted in the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) sanctioning 14 judges.

An investigation by the FIG into scoring at last year's European championships revealed widespread incompetence and a judging conspiracy. A total of eight judges were banned from working at the Sydney Olympics while six others received one-year suspensions.

At the centre of the scandal was the Ukraine's Yelena Vitrichenko, the 1996 Olympic bronze and 1997 world gold medallist. Placed 19th after the preliminaries, Vitrichenko withdrew in protest but is expected to be back in Sydney fighting for a place on the podium.

The gold medal favourite, however, will be 17-year-old Alina Kabayeva of Uzbekistan.

Known for her extreme flexibility and playful smile, Kabayeva is expected to add an Olympic title to her world and European crowns, having scored several perfect scores of 40.00 all-around competitions this year.

Trampolining will make its Olympic debut in Sydney with medals going to men's and women's individual champions.

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