BARCELONA, Spain -- They were leading Shannon Miller around the arena, now. There were photographers blocking her path and this silver medal dangling from her neck, and the crowd started to call her name.
She was off to drug testing and another interview and maybe even a brief visit with her parents, who had flown all the way from Edmond, Okla., to be with her on a night that was nearly perfect.
You couldn't wipe that smile from her face.
A few minutes later, the arena emptying out, Kim Zmeskal walked slowly up this red carpet, led like some punch-weary fighter by her best friend, U.S. teammate Betty Okino. Her coach, Bela Karolyi, had already left the building one step closer to retirement. Zmeskal was crying. She had been a world champion, and talked of establishing a tumbling era called Kim. Yet she was 10th, a gold-medal dream crushed in the blink of an eye.
You want to know what the 1992 Summer Olympics are about? Turn off the television set. Turn down the mood music. Take a closer look.
Last night, tiny teen-agers were thrown into a gymnastics pit to decide the all-around women's title. Three 15-year-olds with ribbons in their hair and steel in their guts emerged with the medals.
Tatiana Gutsu, of Ukraine and the Unified Team, used a final, near-perfect vault to win the gold with 39.737 points.
Miller, competing with a micro-screw in her left elbow, the last reminder of emergency surgery on April Fools' Day, received the silver, just 12 thousandths of a point from first, 39.737 to 39.725.
And Lavinia Milosovici of Romania won the bronze.
But on this night, you couldn't help noticing the brief shelf life of a world champion.
Zmeskal, best in the world in 1991, stepped out of bounds in her floor routine and wobbled once again on the balance beam to sink to 10th. Svetlana Boginskaya of Belarus, who won the 1989 world championship, was hindered by an unspectacular uneven bar routine and placed fifth.
By the end, the teen-age ex-champs, once the fiercest of rivals, ++ were exchanging hugs and kisses.
"I don't know if this was the best night of my life," Zmeskal said. "I did the best I could."
But it wasn't good enough.
Consider that Gutsu, 4 feet 9 1/2 , 70 pounds, and Miller, 4-8, 73, aren't much larger than the stuffed animals they collect. But don't be misled. Pound for pound, they may be the best athletes in the Games.
Gutsu climbed almost from nowhere to the top. Fourth among the Unified Team after the two rounds of team competition, Gutsu landed in the all-around final when her 14-year-old teammate Rozalia Galieva was given an injury du jour. Call it an ankle. Or a leg. But there was no way the Unified Team would keep its freshest and fiercest gymnast from reaching the final.
"I'm very happy and excited," Gutsu said, after a historic medal ceremony concluded with the playing of the Ukrainian anthem and the unveiling of the republic's sky-blue-and-yellow flag.
She won with one vault for the gold.
That's the way you are supposed to decide the women's all-around title, with a crowd rustling nervously, ready to unfurl flags. With two kids flipping across the arena from event to event, matching scores and wills, putting up numbers that place them ahead of all others.
Gutsu's mark of 9.950 in the uneven bars, to Miller's 9.925, would trigger the chase.
"Shannon was first up on that first event," said Miller's coach, Steve Nunno. "She didn't get the score she deserved. If it was that close, then Shannon was the winner."
Not quite. But close.
They went down to the final vault.
Miller came roaring across the vault runway and nailed a Yurchenko, using a round-off to a back handspring to soar from the board, finally pushing off the horse with a 1 1/2 somersault topped by a full twist.
She scored a 9.975 to move temporarily into first.
"I thought the judges were going to give her a 10," Nunno said. "Maybe they were holding out for some superhuman being."
Miller found a spot at the far end of the arena, climbed a chair and stood on her tiptoes, getting a glimpse of the kid from Ukraine. On her first of two vaults, that same Yurchenko, Gutsu ** got a 9.925, good enough for silver. The crowd waited. Gutsu charged again, touched down like a feather, got her 9.950 and her gold.
Afterward, they rushed the kids in for interviews. Miller talked of the chipped elbow that kept her from practice for one day in April, of her determination to become a champion, of her first brush with fame.
"I like it," she said.
Out in the empty arena, the 16-year-old who was destined for gold was crying. Zmeskal had no medal and no bouquet. She was famous for winning one world all-around title. And now that fame was moving on to the shoulders of others, smaller, younger, fresher.
"It just wasn't my night," she said. "Even the routines I hit, the scores weren't so good. I don't think I could have won, anyway."
Gutsu vs. Miller
The scores for gold medalist Tatiana Gutsu of the Unified Team and silver medalist Shannon Miller of the United States in the Olympics all-around gymnastics competition:
dTC Event .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Gutsu .. .. .. .. .. . Miller
Vault .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 9.950 .. .. .. .. .. .. 9.975
Uneven bars .. .. .. .. .. 9.950 .. .. .. .. .. .. 9.925
Balance beam .. .. .. .. . 9.912 .. .. .. .. .. .. 9.925
Floor exercise .. .. .. .. 9.925 .. .. .. .. .. .. 9.900
Totals .. .. .. .. .. . . 39.737 .. .. .. .. .. . 39.725