Gymnasts are the world's worst improvisers. They practice their routines with mind-numbing repetitiveness, for hours and days, weeks and years, so that each spinning, twisting landing off the high bar becomes an act of muscle memory. Trust your body, they tell themselves. And they do, or how could one possibly land a backward flip onto a four-inch-wide beam?
Which is why the gaffe during last Thursday's women's all-around competition, the crown jewel of the gymnastics schedule, will go down as one of the alltime blunders in sport. Someone set the height of the vault at 120 centimeters instead of the stipulated 125; that two-inch difference probably cost Russia's Svetlana Khorkina, the favorite, a medal, perhaps the gold. "In 30 years of coaching I've never seen that, never," said Donna Strauss, who coaches Kristin Maloney of the U.S.
Gymnasts were lucky that the improperly positioned vault, which is also called a horse, didn't cause a serious injury instead of merely shattering dreams. Elise Ray, who had led the U.S. to a fourth-place finish in the team competition earlier in the week, nearly missed the horse in her warmup vault and landed on her back. "It really scared me," said Ray. She then fell on both her competition vaults to score a 7.618. She could hardly have scored lower if she'd run into the apparatus headfirst. "I'm disappointed, but I'm also angry, and I'm sure the other competitors feel the same way."
Certainly Khorkina did. The exotic 21-year-old had her mind set on becoming the star of these Games. After winning a gold medal on the uneven bars in Atlanta, Khorkina said, "When I get home, I expect there will be a parade, and I expect lots of kisses and lots of flowers." Just imagine the booty she'd get for winning the all-around. Instead, Khorkina, who was leading after the first rotation, landed on her knees after doing a difficult 1� twist forward with a half turn off the horse. The resulting 9.343 killed any hope she had for the title.
Nicknamed the Queen of Bars because of her proficiency in that event, Khorkina then moved to her favorite apparatus. She faltered again, falling to her knees on her first release move. Only then, halfway through the competition, did officials discover that the vault was too low. The competitors who'd already done their vaults were offered another chance, but even had Khorkina done so, it was too late for her. "That's bulls—-," she fumed to her coach in excellent English. She chose to communicate to the press in Russian, storming past with a wave of dismissal and a guttural snarl. Translation, please, the press attach� was asked. His tactful summary: "Get lost."
"It's incredible," said Bart Conner, a 1984 gold medalist for the U.S. "Setting the vault at the wrong height doesn't happen even in 10-year-old age-group trials. The one thing that saved the credibility of the meet is that Andreea Raducan won. She's so good, she could win anytime."
But Conner spoke too soon. Raducan, who's only 4'10" and 82 pounds, had no problem with the faulty vault and became the first Romanian woman to win the all-around title since the legendary Nadia Comaneci did so in 1976. The 1-2-3 sweep by the Romanian women, who also won the team gold, led to a national celebration until it was learned that the 16-year-old Raducan, who also finished second in the vault, had failed a drug test following the all-around competition. She had taken cold medication, given to her by the team doctor, which contained pseudoephedrine, a mild stimulant that's on the IOC's list of banned drugs. On Tuesday morning the IOC's executive board stripped Raducan of her all-around medal (it went to her teammate Simona Amanar, the erstwhile second-place finisher) but allowed her to keep her team gold and her individual silver.
And Khorkina? She got a haircut, a manicure and a surprise visit from her 16-year-old sister, Julia, all of which conspired to help her forget her disappointment. Then she returned to the scene of the crime on Sunday and won her second gold medal on the uneven bars. "It will help me forget that day," she said, holding up the medal, "which will remain very, very far from me, somewhere perhaps near the North Pole."