The gymnasts make a big show of, what would you call it, adhesion. On rings and the horizontal bar they wear huge grips, clawlike things that improve their safety. And on the other apparatuses they are so chalked up that at the slightest touch they release small clouds, like pollen almost.
Yet watching Vitali Scherbo, the most decorated Olympic gymnast ever, storm from the podium, slipping the bronze medal from his neck, you realized that the real trick might not be hanging on but letting go.
The Belarussian was furious, spiteful. The last meet of his life had been sullied by judging that was "poor" and a medal that was "of the wrong color." Six golds in Barcelona and they dare give him this ... thing. Moreover, he was outraged at the scoring that the all-around winner, China's Li Xiaoshuang, had received. "I saw his scores on [parallel] bars and [horizontal] bar," Scherbo said. "I was shocked."
The two had gone at it before; Li, the reigning world champion, once called Scherbo's magnificence on rings into question. The reigning Olympic champion did not appreciate that and had craftily carped after his rival ever since. Done right, this sort of back-and-forth can be elevated to the level of feud, and all are the better entertained for it. But, alas, Scherbo would exit the sport after the individual event finals, and, besides, Li did not seem to have the heart to fight any longer. ("Oh, he's improved a lot," said Scherbo of Li's new humility. "Now he has more culture.")
But Scherbo's bitterness, his inability to let go, may not have had everything to do with Li. It was also the natural disappointment of any great athlete at the end, and Scherbo's was compounded by an unusual circumstance. He had given up gymnastics after his wife, Irina, was critically injured in a car crash in December '95; only when she awoke from her monthlong coma and begged him to return to his sportby then, 15 pounds overweight, he could no longer do even a handstanddid he resume training.
His pledge to her was specific, and maybe his disappointment at breaking a promise so important was understandable. No gold. "In my family we don't know of medals of any other color," he said. So hard to let go.
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