Even for an Olympic athlete there were many frightening sights at these Games. The 10-meter (30-foot-plus high) platform at the diving pool. The raging (albeit man-made) H0 at Penrith Whitewater Stadium. The sight of the Bulgarian weightlifting team advancing upon the pork chop section at the chow line. For my money, though, nothing is as fearsome as the 16-foot-long, four-inch-wide balance beam at the Sydney Super Dome.
It was that spare, awful block of wood that decided who would win which cast of medal—and, in the case of the United States, who would win no medal—at the women's team gymnastics final on this Tuesday night. The Russians failed to beat Romania for the gold largely because two of them fell off the beam. The U.S. fared better than expected on the uneven parallel bars (second overall) and in the floor exercises (third) but came in dead last on the beam and therefore finished fourth, behind bronze medalist China, whose athletes scampered across this cursed apparatus as if they had iced chai in their veins.
What's often overlooked about these gymnasts who enthrall us every four years is their linebackerlike guts. In the vault they race pell-mell down a runway, all the while being shadowed by a movable TV camera that looks like the mechanical rabbit at a dog track, then launch their bodies into a variety of precarious midair positions. Miss the horse and it's a face plant on the mat. On the uneven bars they work up enough torque on one bar to zoom right out of the building, then have to fly through the air and grab the other bar.
The beam, though, is the worst of all, a sadistic test of nerves and balance that allows for zero margin of error. The whole idea of that apparatus—this nasty object of torture that looks as if it should be sitting in the town square of some 17th-century Puritan community—is for an athlete to sell the idea that she's having fun up there, as if performing a series of aerobic contortions three feet, 11 inches off the ground is natural. The first two Russians on the beam in this competition fell off. If they had kept their balance, Russia might have won the gold.
Personally , I don't understand why everyone doesn't fall off the damn thing. The average routine begins with a flip or a somersault onto the beam, which is a little like entering your front door at night by shooting yourself out of a cannon. Then it really gets tough. At some point during the 70-to 90-second routine, the competitor must touch the beam with her torso; most do some kind of split, landing with a splat on the beam, thereby providing a graphic illustration of why this is not a men's event.
Physical prowess aside, the concentration required on the beam is phenomenal. Tiger Woods asks that all activity within four square miles cease while he lines up a putt. Women gymnasts cartwheel across a plank while macarenaesque music from the floor exercises blares nearby. Imagine trying to walk across a clothesline in the middle of a Greek wedding reception while reading Thomas Pynchon, and you begin to get the idea. All that, and you have to be judged by people who couldn't sashay down a sidewalk without stepping on the grass.
With the exception of the unspectacular but always solid Kristin Maloney, the U.S. did not fare well in this difficult beam test. That was no surprise; this was a good and gutsy team but not a great one. Even Bela Karolyi, the Svengali of the somersault who was brought in 10 months ago as team coordinator, did not make much of a difference and, the way some saw it, may have been a detriment. After the competition U.S. coach Kelli Hill implied that Karolyi's once-a-month pre-Olympic camps were a waste of time, and U.S. gymnast Jamie Dantzscher had this to say of Karolyi: "He takes the credit when we do good and blames everyone when we do bad." After Amy Chow fell off the bar, Karolyi looked to the roof of the Super Dome in exasperation and pounded one fist into his palm.
Here's what I propose: Get a gym full of spectators, put on some dance music at a hundred decibels and let ol Bela try to walk across the balance beam. But, please, not in a leotard.