ATLANTA -- She couldn't call timeout.
If Kerri Strug had been a basketball player, there would have been a trainer rushing on to the court and a chance to test her injured ankle. If she were a tennis player, she would have had 10 minutes to make a decision about whether to continue, as Boris Becker did this year with a wrist injury at Wimbledon.
But Strug is a gymnast.
There are no rules on the books, but there is a precedent to what Strug did here Tuesday night when she sprained her ankle on the first of two vaults, injured it even worse on her second, and was carried out of the Georgia Dome as America's latest Olympic hero. Strug was following in the footsteps of Shun Fujimoto, who put on an even more remarkable show of courage at the 1976 Games in Montreal.
Fujimoto, a Japanese gymnast, broke his leg at the knee during the floor exercises of the men's team competition. With two more routines left, Fujimoto was able to land cleanly from both the pommel horse and still rings. The image has endured of Fujimoto landing from the rings, his face clenched in agony as he tried to maintain his balance and composure while helping his country to its fifth straight gold medal. Japan has not won since.
That image will be replaced now, by the one of Strug landing on both feet, raising her injured left foot in the air and turning to the judges before collapsing in similar pain. So will the picture of Strug, the gold medal hanging from her neck and choking on her tears, being carried off the medals stand by her coach, Bela Karolyi. But the question lingers: did she have to vault a second time?
Strug thought she needed to land a clean vault to both help her team beat Russia and help herself displace 14-year-old teammate Dominique Moceanu as the third American in today's all-around competition. She definitely needed a good score to pass Moceanu, who had fallen on both her vaults, but there remains some confusion about whether the U.S. team needed it to win.
It depends on whose interpretation you believe. If you ask Karolyi, he'll tell you two Russian gymnasts still had their floor exercise routines to finish and who knows what could have happened? If there were two left, they needed nearly perfect scores to overtake what seemed even to them to be an insurmountable U.S. lead. In truth, one Russian had finished and had not had her score posted, but she did not do a routine that was going to earn her a 10, or anything close to it. As things turned out, they received scores of 9.5 and 9.75 and the Americans won by .821. As things turned out, Strug's vault wasn't needed.
And, as things turned out, Strug heard her ankle pop for the XTC second time on her second vault.
"It took a lot of guts to do the second vault because I didn't know what was wrong with my foot," Strug, who sustained a severely sprained ankle and two torn ligaments, would say later. "It really hurt."
According to Karolyi, Strug went up to where he was standing along the periphery of the podium. Karolyi, who also coaches Moceanu, said the following conversation took place.
"I can't feel my leg," Strug told Karolyi.
"We got to go one more time," Karolyi said. "Shake it out."
"Do I have to do this again?" Strug asked.
"Can you, can you?" Karolyi wanted to know.
"I don't know yet," said Strug. "I will do it. I will, I will."
Whether this dialogue actually took place, or whether Karolyi was trying it out on a receptive audience and plans to put it in his next book, is up for debate. The tape of the NBC broadcast showed Strug barely within earshot of Karolyi in an arena filled with 35,400 screaming fans. The belief here is that Karolyi was trying to raise Strug's already heroic status. Instead, he might have only verified what his critics have said: that he will do anything to win.
In San Francisco journalist Joan Ryan's book, "Little Girls In Pretty Boxes," Karolyi was vilified for the way he treated several former young female gymnasts by wearing down their self-esteem, by calling them derogatory names, by making them compete with serious injuries and by forcing them to use laxatives to lose weight.
At 18 and headed to college in the fall, Strug was fully capable of making her own decision. But should a younger gymnast, such as Moceanu, be put in that position?
Maybe Strug would have vaulted anyway, the way Fujimoto competed two decades ago.
But maybe, had she had the luxury of stopping for a few minutes, the U.S. coaches would have realized that their team was likely going to win anyway. And had they lost because Strug didn't jump and the Russians pulled off a last-second miracle, maybe it would have been an honorable silver medal instead of an exploitive gold.
Pub Date: 7/25/96