For four grueling days the world's two best male gymnasts—a Soviet and an American—had tried to outdo each other on the floor and in the air inside Fort Worth's Tarrant County Convention Center. The American had cut through the air like a knife, seemingly capable of carrying out any flight of fancy, no matter how outrageously dangerous. The Soviet, on the other hand, had appeared reluctant to flirt with disaster, but that had been largely an illusion. So great is his strength that he all but bent the apparatus to his will and made his genuinely difficult routines look almost too easy. Now that one of them had been declared the all-around champion at last week's World Gymnastics Championships, they were seated next to each other, telling tales.
Kurt Thomas, the American silver medalist, spoke first. "I was sixth in the all around at the World Championships in France a year ago, and my goal for this meet was to move up to third," he said. "Because I started the night in second place, I wanted to at least stay where I was. I didn't care that much about moving up."
Aleksandr Ditiatin, the Russian gold medalist, speaks reasonably good English, and he probably understood Thomas' remarks without the aid of his interpreter. If Thomas wanted to pretend that he wasn't disappointed by defeat, Ditiatin certainly wasn't going to admit to a tactic that had been crucial in helping him attain victory. Questioned once, and then again, as to whether he had purposely left a difficult maneuver out of his high-bar routine, Ditiatin replied, "As I have said, I did my routines exactly as I planned. I left out nothing."
Of course, Ditiatin had left out his flyaway-half somersault to minimize the chances of a costly fall, which would have opened the door for Thomas. But sneer as he might at Ditiatin's denials, Thomas had reason to draw some comfort from his rival's conservative strategy. "It means he decided not to go at me talent-against-talent," said Thomas later. "Being the top man on a team like Russia's gives him incredible clout with the judges. He knew he could count on a 9.9 on high bar even without his flyaway half. Whereas, if he tries it, misses and falls off the apparatus, I win. How bad did he beat me, .275 of a point after 18 events? I'd say that means if Ditiatin is No. 1 right now, I must be 1 A."
If it hadn't been for Thomas' brilliant performance in the all around—he averaged 9.825 per event through two nights of qualifying and one night of finals—the Soviet Union would have had a 1-2-3 sweep with Ditiatin, eventual bronze medalist Aleksandr Tkachev and fourth-place finisher Vladimir Markelov. To appreciate the magnitude of Thomas' achievement requires an understanding of how difficult it is to get good marks in a subjectively judged sport like gymnastics when your country has no proud moments in its past on which to build a reputation. Until Thomas finished first in the floor exercise at the 1978 championships, the U.S. hadn't won a gold medal in significant international competition in 42 years. Judges make a lot of noise about adhering to the Code de Pointage, but many come to meets with preconceived notions as to who the leading performers are and who therefore deserve top marks.
Ditiatin, who has been called "the Soviet pinup boy," was expected to take over the top spot in the world at some point. He has won the last two World Cups, and he finished third in the all around in Strasbourg last year at the age of 21. At Fort Worth there was no question that he was the hot gymnast in the eyes of the judges—and just about everyone else. Ditiatin did nothing to cool off his reputation, but by winning six medals Thomas did plenty to heat his up.
As the rivals—and the judges—prepare for the Moscow Olympics, there is a real question as to who's the hotter. Besides winning the silver in the all around, Thomas also led the U.S. to a third-place finish in the team competition, another first for the Americans, whose fourth last year in France was their previous best. Thomas scored four 9.9s in a row to win four more medals in the individual finals. He won a gold in the horizontal bar, shared the gold in the floor exercise with East Germany's Roland Bruckner, picked up a silver in pommel horse and shared a silver in parallel bars with Tkachev, plus a bronze for the U.S. team's third-place finish.
There were other elements that made this one of the most memorable meets in international gymnastics history. The U.S.S.R.'s victory over Japan in the men's team competition ended a 19-year reign during which the Japanese had won five consecutive Olympic titles and five World Championships. Ditiatin defeated fading teammate Nikolai Andrianov, 27, who had been king of the sport since the 1972 Olympics but failed to qualify for the all around in Fort Worth. Last week also marked the reappearance of the People's Republic of China.
The locale may have served to mitigate the disdain with which U.S. gymnasts had long been regarded by international judges and as a result the Americans found themselves getting the scores they had always dreamed of.
While the U.S. and East Germany would battle to the wire for the team bronze, the question of whether the Soviets could defeat the Japanese was settled almost immediately. After the opening-day compulsory exercises, the U.S.S.R. left the floor with a lead of 293.0 to 290.6 over Japan, a commanding margin, considering the U.S.S.R.'s perennial superiority in the optional exercises to follow. With a score of 289.850, the U.S. was third coming out of the compulsories.