The first names begin to tell the story. Kim versus Svetlana. Short, compact, snappy versus long, graceful, svelte. The American innocent versus the dramatic Belarussian whose life has been tinged by tragedy. The 16-year-old world champion, at the peak of her skills, confronted by the imposing former champion who, at 19, is trying to turn back the clock. Two women, built like the sounds of their names, will meet in Barcelona to determine once and for all which one is the best all-around gymnast in the world.
One, Kim Zmeskal (opposite), the three-time U.S. champ from suburban Houston, is fast, low to the ground and 80 pounds of explosive power. Happy, uncomplicated and steel-nerved, Zmeskal in 1991 became the first American to win the all-around world championship. The other, Svetlana Boginskaya, the 19-year-old sphinx from Minsk, is tall, exotic, complex and choreographically elegant—a woman competing against adolescents. The 1989 all-around world champion and a controversial second to Zmeskal in '91, Boginskaya is bent on disproving the assertion made by Bela Karolyi, Zmeskal's outspoken coach, that she was "a beautiful champion, but her time is over."
Upon hearing that opinion, Boginskaya, a winner of two Olympic gold medals in 1988, said, "I don't think Kim Zmeskal is good enough to make my era come to an end."
Two women. Only one gold medal and a world of night and day stand between them.
The day that Lyubov Miromanova, Boginskaya's coach since she was six years old, returned to Minsk from the Seoul Summer Olympics, she hung herself. Svetlana was 15. She had performed brilliantly in the gymnastics competition in Seoul, winning two gold medals (team and vault), a silver (floor exercise) and a bronze (all-around). What should have been the happiest weeks of her young life were suddenly transformed into a nightmare. Miromanova had been more than her coach. She had been a friend, a surrogate mother, someone Svetlana could talk with about womanhood and life. If practice was going badly, Svetlana could plead with her, whine to her, reason that it might be a nice idea to work on something else for a while. Miromanova would listen, and before Svetlana knew it, the training session would be over. Now Miromanova was gone. She had taken her own life, and no one could explain why. It remains a mystery to this day.
"Only closest relatives of Miromanova may know why she did it," says Aleksandr Aleksandrov, head coach of the women's gymnastics team that will compete for the Unified Team in Barcelona. "There was never an explanation given. After it happened, Svetlana did not speak about the incident at all. I don't think anybody will be able to talk to her about it, ever. We just tried to help her through it. She has a tough character, as both a performer and a person. Svetlana is a very complex person, hard to get along with, very difficult to socialize with. We have had arguments. The older she gets, the more emotional she gets. Maybe for some reason she feels a little guilt. That is just my opinion."
Aleksandrov is speaking at the Round Lake gymnastics training center, 25 miles north of Moscow. It is an hour's drive from Red Square because of the condition of the roads, which are rutted and pitted with potholes. The training center, in the midst of farm country and woodlands, has the look and feel of a military facility. A metal gate guards the entrance. It is operated by a man who stands in a concrete hut. Just inside the gate, a crane towers over a partially dug foundation. This was going to be a hotel to house the swimmers and gymnasts who train at Round Lake, until funds ran out. No one has worked the crane for more than a year. Now it is only an eyesore.
But then, none of it is pretty. The buildings haven't seen a fresh coat of paint in years. Rust shows on the doors, window frames and railings. Construction materials are heaped into ungainly piles, and rain falls on mud instead of lawn. This has been Svetlana Boginskaya's home away from home since she was 10. Most of her childhood was spent in these dreary surroundings, with Miromanova as her coach. Two weeks at Round Lake, four days at home; two weeks at Round Lake, four days at home. Since she was 10. At first Svetlana missed her parents desperately, but she eventually got used to the routine and even stopped calling them. Her mother, at some point in each phone conversation, would blurt, "My darling daughter, come home. Why are you doing this? I miss you so much."
"She doesn't understand all this jumping around and standing on your head," Boginskaya says. "She finds it very scary. She's never seen me compete in person, and seldom on television. Would you call home if you were subjected to that?" So Round Lake became her home. Gymnastics was not a hobby, not a sport, but a way of life, the only one she had known since some sports official came into her kindergarten class when Svetlana was six years old and asked the teacher if anyone might like to try gymnastics. "Take this one," the teacher said, pointing to Svetlana. "She's a rabble-rouser."
Inside the athletes' dormitory, two middle-aged women sit in the entryway and watch the Russian equivalent of MTV. They are tired, indifferent. Perhaps it's the drabness of the building. The gymnasts sleep three to a room. Boginskaya rooms with Natalya Kalinina, 18, and Tatyana Lisenko, 17, both from Ukraine. Gymnastics posters cover the walls, literally floor to ceiling. Lisenko has been teaching Boginskaya and Kalinina to speak English, but Boginskaya is too uncertain to try it with her guests. She and the rest of the elite Unified Team gymnasts train here eight hours a day, six days a week, from 7 to 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Four times a week teachers come to tutor them, from 8 to 9:30 at night.