Athens 2004

Commentary & Perspective

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Thursday, August 19

Little gymnast gives big dose of star power

Gymnastics are the Super Bowl of the Summer Games.

Shockingly, the Patriots pulled it off again.

Meet Carly Patterson, the new queen of Pixie Mountain. The Baton Rouge, La., native wowed the crowd Thursday, overtook an ice princess and became the first American female to win the Olympic all-around title since the great Mary Lou Retton in 1984.

Surely, the Wheaties box is in production, the toothpaste commercials already in planning stages.

``I'm just overwhelmed right now,'' said Patterson, 16. ``I can't even believe it.''

Better yet, Patterson's conquest came on the heels of Paul Hamm's stunning triumph in the men's all-around Wednesday, giving USA Gymnastics an unprecedented double. Given the massive couch-potato appeal of the sport, it surely turned up the sizzle of the Summer Games back on home soil, where the lack of star appeal was starting to show in the television ratings.

``It is a new era,'' said famed gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, who also coached Retton and tried very hard to take all the credit here. ``It is a new chapter in American gymnastics.''

Maybe, but this one may have triggered another Cold War.

When it was over, highly decorated veteran Svetlana Khorkina tried to hold back her displeasure. She clutched her teddy bear, keeping her answers short and mysterious. Then she was asked the difference between her and Patterson, and the reigning world champion snapped.

``Like probably there was a difference,'' she said with considerable sarcasm. ``I am from Russia. I'm not from USA.''

Then she stuck out her tongue, made that raspberry sound Archie Bunker used to make, and realized instantly what she had done.

``Just joking,'' she said.

Oh, right. That would also explain what she told an Olympic official moments after the meet concluded.

``If the judges were Greek, I would have no difficulty winning the gold medal,'' Khorkina said. ``They are the ones who are going to have to live with their conscience.''

Maybe if Khorkina had smiled during her routines, it would have made a slight difference. Or maybe if she mixed in a Happy Meal once in a while.

Seriously, you lose sight of Khorkina when she turns sideways. It is the honest truth that, on her official Olympic bio, she lists one of her hobbies as ``eating.''

Sorry, but one bad sport deserves another, and this is really getting away from the crux of the matter.

When it comes to women's gymnastics, much gets lost on television. The girls are much smaller in person, and at 5-foot-5, 25-year-old Khorkina towered over her competition in Greece. Seeing these pixies in person can be somewhat disconcerting.

Yet the beauty in Patterson's triumph is that, while the rest of the field struggled to keep their composure as the night progressed, the American kept rising. In this sport, the balance beam can be the perfect metaphor for champions, the ultimate test of nerve, will and pressure. This is where Patterson was simply stunning, nailing her routine and taking a slight lead over the Russian with one event left.

This is also when the drama went off the charts.

While the other competitors warmed up for floor exercise, Khorkina sat in a chair staring forward. Meanwhile, Patterson tried to stay warm. She was first on the balance beam and last on floor exercise. She knew exactly what was on the line.

``I didn't say very much to her, but I saw it in her eyes,'' said Evgeny Marchenko, Patterson's coach. ``She was ready to do it.''

Needing a solid routine to cement the victory, Patterson was almost perfect. When she finished, the crowd responded with a standing ovation, and Patterson cried in her coach's arms.

``She was the last competitor in the last event, and you can't ask for any more pressure than that,'' Marchenko said. ``And that's what she's famous for. That was the opportunity of a lifetime, and she just grabbed it and nailed it.''

Inevitably, there will be comparisons to Retton. She was Patterson's idol, and Patterson still has posters of the first American all-around gold medalist. In fact, the two met as recently as last year's world championships, where Khorkina beat Patterson for the all-around gold.

``She told me she believed in me, she told me I could do it,'' Patterson said. ``That meant a lot to me.''

While Patterson's performance didn't have the explosiveness or charm of Retton's, this one happened on foreign soil, in a meet that included the Russians. In some ways, it was less impressive. In some ways, it was more impressive. It would be nice if the comparisons weren't part of the equation, and the same goes with the sour grapes.

Was Khorkina cheated? Her vault score seemed low, and strangely, the judges seemed to take a long time figuring out the numbers on that one. But in the end, Patterson was clearly better. When it got hot, the American soared while the Russian stumbled.

In the end, she was good enough to win. Good enough to give the Americans double gold in the all-around. Good enough to stir national passion in an Olympiad that needed a jolt of star power.



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12:47 pm | August 29, 2004

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