"To start with the balance beam, that is like a ditch, a hell," U.S. women's gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi said last Friday after his team drew the beam to begin the Goodwill Games team competition. Early jitters can be magnified into disasters by the demanding length of elevated, slippery wood. If the U.S. gymnasts were to have a prayer of upsetting the Soviet team, they had to begin well.
In almost four decades only Romania has beaten a U.S.S.R. women's team in major international competition. The U.S. never has. "You've got to realize they're not statues," Karolyi told his four girls. "They are not perfect."
Whereupon Svetlana Boginskaya immediately made his case. The elegant Olympic and world champion, 17, the most balletic of Soviet stars, mounted the uneven bars and swung into a Takachev, in which she released the high bar, flew above it with legs widespread, then reached to regrasp it. Her hands came away with only chalk, and Boginskaya dropped to a saddened stance on the mat at the Tacoma (Wash.) Dome. The fall called for an automatic half-point deduction, and her eventual score was 9.275.
The lowest of each team's four scores on each apparatus is thrown out, so the Soviets, whose other three scores were solid, weren't mortally wounded. Yet the door, if not opened, was unlocked.
Against it pushed the U.S. national champion, 14-year-old Kim Zmeskal, 4'5" and 72 pounds of Retton-like power. Willing away tendinitis pain in her left wrist, Zmeskal scored 9.90 on the beam.
Then up stepped slender Elizabeth Okino, 15, a product of spectacularly exotic parentage. Her Ugandan father met her Romanian mother while studying veterinary medicine in Bucharest. Elizabeth was born in Idi Amin's Uganda and spent her infancy in Nicolae Ceau?escu's Romania, finally escaping with her family to the Chicago suburbs.
Okino has risen like a shot this year. She was only 20th in the junior nationals in 1989, and the Goodwill Games were her first international experience. Executing a dangerously dizzying standing triple pirouette that may soon be named for her, Okino too was given 9.90 on the beam. Amy Scherr's 9.725 put the U.S. into the overall lead after the first rotation, albeit by less than a tenth of a point.
"To start on beam and lead," said Karolyi, "that is tremendous." Thus began a team struggle nearly as compelling to the 16,603 in the Tacoma Dome as the sheer mystery of women's gymnastics.
The mayfly brevity of gymnasts' careers, the perplexity one feels as tots in bright leotards writhe to the music of adult love, death and loss—such surreal scenes flow from one hard fact: Whippy-quick, superconditioned girl children, caught in the year or two before adolescence erodes their skills, are our species' best at firing themselves through the triple back flips that win big meets.
There should be, says 1972 Olympic champion Olga Korbut, a women's division. But there is not, and as long as the athletes are children, coaches and officials will loom large in the sport.