Young gym pretenders aim to upstage stalwarts
Posted: Monday August 2, 2004 9:19PM; Updated: Monday August 2, 2004 9:19PM
LONDON, Aug 3 (Reuters) -- As at every Olympic Games in recent memory, a dainty prodigy is expected to surge into the spotlight at this month's extravaganza in Athens.
Many teenagers will try to add their footprints 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 as a Formula One factory rolls out its latest cars -- both aiming for supremacy but with a very short shelf life.
When competitors spring into action in the Olympic Indoor Hall on August 14, diminutive newcomers such as 16-year-old Ukrainian Alina Kozich -- the surprise all-round champion at this year's European championships -- will be looking to deny some of her more illustrious rivals a place on the podium.
Returning for her third and final dose of Olympic glory, Russian diva Svetlana Khorkina will be determined to make a dazzling exit from the sport.
A sultry floor exercise routine guided the Russian into the record books in Anaheim last year when she became the first gymnast to win three world all-round titles and she will be looking to create history again in Athens.
Khorkina hopes 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 her daring routines over the past 18 months, Khorkina will be lucky if she is able to complete a hat-trick of titles on the asymmetric bars.
"I love new challenges. I don't like being traditional," a confident Khorkina told Reuters.
"My strongest rival is myself. If I am capable of defeating myself, I shouldn't bother with the others," added the 25-year-old, who raised eyebrows with her 1997 topless photoshoot in a Russian edition of Playboy magazine.
Double Olympic champion Elena Zamolodchikova appears to have finally put her injury woes behind her and will be returning to defend her floor exercise and vault crowns.
While most of the cameras will again be focused on the long-limbed Khorkina, the Americans will also be battling it out to secure their share of the publicity.
The Americans appear to have recovered from their dismal outing in Sydney, where the U.S. failed to win a gymnastics medal for the first time since the 1972 Munich Games.
Charismatic and controversial mentor Bela Karolyi, who has bullied and willed an impressive list of athletes, is once again the guiding force in American women's gymnastics.
Although he is no longer the official coach of the team, Karolyi was coaxed out of retirement in 1999 and has resurrected the U.S. squad by holding camps at his Texas ranch.
Karolyi's curriculum vitae includes taking Comaneci, Retton and Strug to the top of the Olympic podium and he proved he still had the golden touch in Anaheim.
The women emerged triumphant in the team competition on home soil and, with a wealth of talent at his disposal, Karolyi believes they will be able to repeat the feat in Greece.
Courtney Kupets will spearhead the American campaign in Athens along with fellow world championship medallists Carly Patterson and Cuban-born Annia Hatch.
"The team is powerful now and has never lost a team competition since 2000," Karolyi, who is in charge of directing the national team, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"Things are looking extremely bright for the Athens Olympics."
China and Romania will more than likely have to depend on their men's team for gold-medal success.
Li Xiaopeng has been untouchable in his favourite disciplines -- the parallel bars and vault -- over the past two years and will lead the Chinese challenge in Athens.
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.
"My dream is to repeat my own performance in Ljubljana at the Olympics," Dragulescu told Reuters in an interview.
"The medals in Ljubljana will be nothing without some Olympic medals in Athens."
Success for Dragulescu and company will go some way towards erasing the painful memories surrounding Andreea Raducan.
The Romanian gained worldwide sympathy when she was stripped of the 2000 Sydney Olympics all-round gold for failing a drugs test after taking a cold cure.
Another notable participant eager to finish on top will be Oksana Chusovitina.
In a sport dominated by prepubescent teenagers, the 29-year-old Uzbek continues to defy the age barrier and will be one of the major contenders on the vault when she enters the arena for her fourth Games.
Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.