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Decline and fall of Russia's gymnasts

Pritha Sarkar | May 24, 2004 17:37 IST

Four years on from their remarkable medal haul at the Sydney Games, the Russians have become an endangered species in the world of gymnastics.

After capturing five golds at the 2000 Olympics, the traditional powerhouse in the sport has dwindled to a fading force following a spate of abysmal showings at major events.

The men's team left the 2001 and 2002 world championships empty handed and performed only slightly better in Anaheim last year.

The mighty Alexei Nemov, who won six medals at the Sydney SuperDome to take his Olympics medal count to 11, walked away with a silver and bronze while Nikolai Kryukov completed the disappointing Russian count with third place on the pommel horse.

The women have not fared as badly as their male counterparts but their achievements have hardly been inspiring.

Elena Zamolodchikova was the only Russian to climb on top of the podium in Debrecen in 2002, while the willowy and often temperamental Svetlana Khorkina was the sole gold medallist from her country at last year's worlds.

Khorkina charmed the judges by writhing on the mat at the climax of her floor routine to become the first gymnast to win a hat-trick of world all-round titles.

"I am a woman now and I get the support from the public and they like to see me because I am different from the young girls," the 25-year-old said at the women's European championships in Amsterdam earlier this month.

"I look around and I can't find any shining gymnasts now. These little girls don't have my experience, my maturity and my pleasure to the public."

Unfortunately for Khorkina, "these little girls" managed to upstage her when she attempted to win an unprecedented fourth European all-round title.

DIFFICULT YEAR

The diva's title hopes evaporated within moments of the contest starting after she over-rotated on her triple twisting vault and fell flat on her face.

Khorkina's spectacular failure allowed Ukrainian teenager Alina Kozich to snatch the crown.

Although Khorkina managed to extend her reign as the European queen of the asymmetric bars for a sixth consecutive time, the other five titles were won by non-Russian competitors with an average age of just 16.

Russian coach Maslinnikova Nadejda had a simple explanation for her country's plight.

"This is a difficult year for us as we have had so many injuries," she said in Amsterdam.

"We have time before the Olympics to see what we can do but at this moment (our situation) is a disaster."

The Russians are certainly aware that they will not be able to rest on their laurels when Olympic competition gets underway in Athens on August 14.

The Chinese, Americans and Romanians have all flipped and somersaulted with accuracy and aplomb to capture a bagful of titles in recent years.

Li Xiaopeng has been untouchable in his favourite disciplines -- the parallel bars and vault -- over the past two seasons and will lead the Chinese challenge in Athens.

The Americans also appear to have laid to rest the bitter memories from Sydney, where they failed to win a gymnastics medal for the first time since the 1972 Munich Games, and they captured five golds on their own turf in Anaheim.

FOUR TITLES

Romania's campaign will be spearheaded by Marian Dragulescu, who wants to prove that his four titles at the European championships in Slovenia were not a fluke.

Although their rivals now lead the way, the Russians will be determined to reclaim the spotlight in Athens.

Khorkina and Nemov, perhaps the two most charismatic athletes to have graced the gymnastics stage, will want to bid farewell to their fans with gold medals around their necks.

Competing in their third Games, both Russians are chasing identical records -- to become the first gymnast to win the same apparatus title for a third consecutive Olympics.

However, with spectacular falls becoming a regular feature in their daring routines over the past 12 months, Nemov and Khorkina will have to be lucky if they are to complete a hat-trick on the horizontal bar and asymmetric bars respectively.

Although Khorkina failed to even reach the final on her trademark apparatus in Anaheim, she remained confident of succeeding on the big stage.

"I love new challenges. I don't like being traditional," Khorkina told Reuters.

"My strongest rival is myself. If I am capable of defeating myself, I shouldn't bother with the others," added the Belgorod resident, who raised eyebrows with her 1997 topless photoshoot in a Russian edition of Playboy magazine.


Athens 2004: The Complete Coverage

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