Despite prying cameras and, doubtless, praying NBC executives, no darling emerged from the gymnastics competition in Seoul. And stripped of the glow of an Olga, Nadia or Mary Lou, international gymnastics was exposed as a flawed, even corrupt, sport, in which performances take a back seat to politics, and sportsmanship takes no seat at all. "No question about it," said Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, "we have the worst judging in any sport."
If the achievements of the gymnasts had been allowed to speak for themselves, they would have told a different tale. The Soviet men, led by all-around champion Vladimir Artemov, easily won the team gold medal with an Olympic-record 593.350 of a possible 600. "There are six Greg Louganises on that team," marveled Jacki, whose U.S men's team finished a dismal 11th in a field of 12. "The scoring system doesn't do them justice."
The scoring system doesn't do anyone in the sport justice. A total of 40 "perfect" 10's were awarded to 14 gymnasts during the week, many for performances containing flaws that could be spotted from 35 rows back in Olympic Gymnastics Hall. As a result, gold medals were handed out like chocolates. In the men's individual pommel horse finals on Saturday, the four judges—unable to decide among the Soviet Union's Dmitri Bilozerchev (who took three golds and a bronze in all), Hungary's Zsolt Borkai and Bulgaria's Lubomir Geraskov—declared the first three-way tie for a gold medal since 1948.
The political shenanigans were most openly displayed in the women's competition, which otherwise might have been one of the highlights of these Games. The Soviets, led by Elena Shushunova, and the Romanians, led by Daniela Silivas (world champion Aurelia Dobre of Romania was still subpar following surgery on her left knee), went at it tooth and nail for the team gold. In the end the Soviets emerged triumphant, and Shushunova edged Silivas for the women's all-around title in a battle that came down to the final vault. Shushunova scored—what else?—a 10.0 on her trademark full-twisting Yurchenko, "sticking" her landing as if jumping in a bucket of tar. Silivas's vault, with a fraction less amplitude, was scored 9.95, although eyebrows were raised when Soviet judge Nelli Kim saw it as a 9.8. Not so subtle, Nelli. Nyet-nyet.
October 2, 1988
The East Germans and Americans had been just as determined as Shushunova and Silivas in the struggle for the team bronze. The rallying cry of the U.S. gymnasts during the team competition was "K-G-B!": kick German butt.
On Sept. 18, the day before the team compulsories were held, word leaked out that at the judges' meeting, East German pooh-bah Ellen Berger, the head of the women's technical committee for the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), had specifically cautioned the judges against allowing the scores to drift higher as the night went on, as they have a tendency to do. East Germany, it just so happened, was in the first session of the day, while the U.S. was in the fourth. When Bela Karolyi, the most visible and vocal member of a consortium of U.S. coaches who handled the team, heard about Berger's speech, he reacted in anger: "That cow!"
Berger soon made matters worse with a dubious ruling that cost the U.S. team the bronze. During the compulsories, when the U.S. women were on the uneven bars, Karolyi asked team alternate Rhonda Faehn to be in charge of removing the springboard. After Kelly Garrison-Steves, the first American up, started her routine, Faehn pulled the springboard away from the bars and crouched silently behind it so as not to block the view of the judges. There is a rule that forbids coaches, though it doesn't specifically exclude others, to remain on the podium during a performance; the penalty is .5 of a point—a substantial margin in gymnastics. Berger, acting as the final arbiter, assessed that half-point penalty to the U.S. team's total. "For an adult to do that, I couldn't believe it," said the 17-year-old Faehn, who had been unaware of the rule. "The East Germans have had the bronze for I don't know how many years, and Berger didn't want to lose it."
The U.S. appealed the deduction to the Soviet Union's Yuri Titov, the president of the FIG, but Titov, predictably, backed Berger. "I think it is bad, this punishment," he said, masking his political allegiance with a bit of wry philosophizing. "Is not sporting. But is rule. You must understand, even in your family there are two opinions: yours and your wife's." In her defense, Berger told the New York Times, "A regulation is a regulation. When a person is on the podium, that is a deduction of half a point. It's automatic."
The U.S. women finished the compulsories in fourth place, .975 behind the East Germans. But in a fine team effort the Americans fought back during last Wednesday's optionals, moving into third just before the last rotation of the night. The G.D.R. finished on the uneven bars, the U.S. on the beam. Despite solid performances by the Americans on that apparatus, the East Germans, who had been scored generously all night, passed them by .3 to take the bronze. The half-point deduction the first night had made the difference.
"U.S. women very strong, very good," offered a reporter from the Soviet news agency Tass. Then she summed it all up: "Judging mafia."
Karolyi was at his metaphorical best after the results were in. "I feel like I was stopped on the highway, robbed, kicked in the mouth, and you go home naked," he said. "That wild woman [Berger] came down like a wounded animal. No warning. Even your own child, stealing money from your pocket, you warn first: 'Don't do that again.' No, a person in charge cannot act like that."
"Someone should tell Ellen! Tell her!" Marta Karolyi, Bela's wife and an assistant coach, said of Berger. Tell her what? "That she was cheating!"
Abusing the spirit of competition is more accurate. In a classic case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, the FIG two days later changed the maximum deduction that a judge can take if a coach remains on the platform to .3. And, Titov predicts, the FIG will soon pass a rule that a warning be issued before a deduction is taken.
About the only Americans not foaming at the mouth were the gymnasts themselves. "You just have to learn how to deal with this kind of thing," said Phoebe Mills, 15, who on Sunday became the only U.S. gymnast to get a medal when she took a bronze on the beam during the individual apparatus finals. "I think all of us feel, know, we should have won the bronze medal."
"The only difference is we don't have the medal in our hands to show people," said Salt Lake City's Missy Marlowe. Then she shrugged and said, "Look, if I only did gymnastics for results, I wouldn't put up with all this."