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They're tiny heart of Games

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SYDNEY, Australia - When you're 14, it's hard to be a symbol of perfection in an imperfect world.

But that's what happened in 1976, in Montreal, to Nadia Comaneci.

One moment, she was just another stony-faced tumbler from Romania. And in the next, in the blink of a perfect 10 on a scoreboard, she became a star, who owned the Olympics and commanded a chunk of the world's sporting interest.

"I didn't feel any pressure because nobody was expecting me to win," she said the other day, nearly a quarter-century after she first commanded the public stage. "No one had scored a 10 before. But now, I realize, my God, it's a lot to carry on your back."

For decades now, it's been the tiniest Olympic performers who have carried the Summer Games on their taut, muscled shoulders.

Say what you want about track and field being a world sport. Talk all day about split times in a swimming pool. Dream on about America's dream basketball teams.

In the made-for-television world of the Summer Olympics, American prime-time belongs to the women's gymnasts.

They've got speed, strength and grace. They've got enough drama and tears in a competition to float a soap opera.

And they've got so much star power that the legends don't even need last names.

Olga.

Nadia.

Mary Lou.

"People expect an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old to perform well and win," Comaneci said. "But if they see a little one, they root for them."

Ever since Olga Korbut flew into the air in Munich in 1972, Comaneci achieved perfection in Montreal in 1976 and Mary Lou Retton came down a runway bound for glory in Los Angeles in 1984, the little tumblers have been the big Olympic stars.

But this year could be different. With new age rules limiting the performers to 16-and-over, the competition that began today may actually be among honest-to-goodness women, instead of sprite-like kids. The rule was designed to allow the competitors to become more mature and better equipped to face the pressure of competition in which the slightest stumble is often all that separates success and failure.

Bela Karolyi, the U.S. team coordinator, said the age limit discriminates against younger, talented gymnasts, telling reporters at the recent U.S. trials: "We take away the dreams of the young ones, and we drive them from the sport. Why is that? What is the point? Why should the little ones not be able to show what they do?"

Comaneci, perhaps Karolyi's most-talented protege, can see both sides to arguments over the rules. On the one hand, she said, those who miss the cutoff by a few months may not be good enough to compete at 18.

On the other hand, she said, "You're curious to see the 13-year-old, but I like to see her grow into the sport."

How the change will affect the division of medals, the style of gymnastics, and viewer interest, is anyone's guess.

The favorite for the all-around gold here is a tall, statuesque Russian named Svetlana Khorkina. She is 5 feet 4, 21 years old, and has already posed in the buff for Russia's Playboy.

A sprite, she's not.

"I think Khorkina shows that anyone of any height with any dimension can do something in the sport," Comaneci said. "But you wouldn't expect to see 20 Khorkinas out there."

The standard has already been set by the likes of Korbut, Comaneci and Retton.

Korbut was like a kid with a bright smile.

Comaneci was serious, studious and stupendous.

And Retton was the power pack.

They were small and fearless, winning medals and winning the crowds.

Believe it or not, there was a time when women's gymnastics didn't dominate the Olympic stage. While men's gymnasts have been part of the Olympic program since 1896, the women's tumblers didn't make their debut in a team event until 1928, and didn't compete for individual medals until 1952.

To understand how much things have changed, consider this: One of the first modern Olympic gymnastics stars was Hungary's Agnes Keleti, who won 10 medals in two Games and closed her Olympic career in 1956 at the age of 35.

The other big star of the early modern age was the Soviet Union's Larysa Latynina, who closed out her third Olympics in 1964 with a career total of 18 medals.

It all changed in 1972 in Munich.

The world's best performer was an athletic 19-year-old woman named Lyudmila Turischeva.

But the star of the Games was Turischeva's Russian teammate, Korbut.

Korbut was 17. but looked like a child, a 4-foot-11, 85-pound dynamo with a ponytail.

She flew off the uneven bars in a breathtaking move. She was captivating in the floor exercise. She was steely on the beam.

The crowd at the arena adored her. And American television went wild, transmitting her flirtatious and vivacious routines to a country that became entranced by her skill and daring. At a time when Soviet-American relations were often rocky, Korbut was celebrated, even in America's heartland.

"One day, I was nobody, and the next day, I was a star. It was almost more than I could take in," Korbut wrote in her autobiography.

She didn't actually win the all-around. But it didn't matter. She was a star who transformed the sport from a dance among women to a high-flying, high-wire act among girl-like tumblers.'The whole sport changed with Olga," said Bart Conner, Comaneci's husband and the leader of the American men who claimed a gymnastics team gold in 1984.

"Her success brought the whole attention to these amazing athletes," he said. "She wasn't the winner, but she was daring, acrobatic and dramatic."

Next up was Comaneci, who scored the first perfect 10 on the balance beam.

"Nadia just dominated the 1976 Games," Conner said. "They started on shaky ground, and all of a sudden on the first day, this little ponytailed girl from Romania scored a 10 and made everything right again."

Retton added something special.

"She made it all American," Conner said. "She was the first true American champion for all the little gymnasts to shoot for."

There is a new American generation, led by Elise Ray of Columbia and aided by three-time Olympian Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring.

Dawes competed in her first Olympics at 15. Now, she's 23.

"I know it's considered old," Dawes said. "I know that when I was 15, I wasn't a woman. I want girls to know that as long as your body and mind hold up, you can do it."

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