Women look to stick finish


SYDNEY, Australia - Bela Karolyi is stuck in a press box instead of prowling around a gym floor.

He's offering one-liners to journalists instead of hugs to gymnasts.

"This is so frustrating," Karolyi said yesterday after the U.S. women's team opened its Olympics show with a hesitant sixth-place performance in the qualifying round. "Someone has to generate enthusiasm on the floor. And you have to do it quick, quick, quick. No thinking."

When the Olympic team finals are held tomorrow, there will be no scenes dredging up reminders of Bela hugging Mary Lou Retton, or Bela carrying Kerri Strug, or Bela hectoring officials.

At the Olympics, there are only so many floor-access badges to hand out to coaches. And Karolyi, technically, isn't a coach anymore. He's the U.S. women's team coordinator, supervising a program trying to quickly recover from a sixth-place finish at last year's world championships.

He headed the four-member selection committee that picked the U.S. team and he ran the pre-Olympic workouts.

But this isn't Karolyi's team anymore. The two coaches on the floor are Kelli Hill of Gaithersburg and Steve Rybacki.

So Karolyi sits in a balcony perch, powerless to change the course of events.

He watched the qualifying with a grim look upon his face. The American women were clearly nervous when they came out. Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, the three-time Olympian, slipped off the balance beam. The dogged team leader, Elise Ray of Columbia, felt a twinge in her left shoulder during the floor exercise, and landed beyond the boundary line.

But Ray, who qualified for the all-around, quickly recovered. Yesterday, a team spokesman said she is fine and is expected to compete in the rest of the competition. Ray's quick recovery during the qualifying helped the team scamper into the final.

Did the team look flat?

"Yes," Karolyi said. "They need the attitude that they want to eat them up alive. When they are going down, now, that's the challenge. This is the Olympic Games, good Lord. You want them to say, 'I'll eat their shoes.' "

There's a little bit of Casey Stengel, Don King and Bart Simpson in what Karolyi says. But make no mistake: He knows the sport, molding gymnasts from Nadia Comaneci to the Magnificent Seven.

There's still a long way to go in this meet, with medals to be won in every phase. First up is today's men's team competition, with a rising U.S. team angling for a medal. Tomorrow, it's the women's team final.

It's clear that Russia, the leader in the women's qualifiers and Romania, the runner-up, are the two powerhouses.

Russia brings tumbling's Murderer's Row to the competition. They've got a diva in Svetlana Khorkina, an elegant 21-year-old with rubber-band legs, long arms and a neck like a swan's.

"Clean. Reliable. Artistic. And elastic," is how Russian coach Leonid Arkaev analyzes Khorkina.

The team also has tots with bobbing ponytails, stick-pin legs and shoulders like linebackers in Ekaterina Lobazniouk and Elena Prodounova.

And they've got a coach, Arkaev, who is hungry to show that the U.S. team win at Atlanta in 1996 was a fluke.

Asked if it would be easier to beat the Americans in Sydney, he said, "The results speak for themselves."

For the Russians, the real competition is Romania, with its tough performers like Andreea Raducan, Simona Amanar and Maria Olaru. They're not a spectacular bunch, but they do everything well and rarely make a mistake.

"Romania and Russia, they're in a class of their own," Karolyi said. "I still strongly believe anything else is open for any other team."

But Karolyi added that there is a lot of work ahead for the Americans.

"Maybe it's better to come from behind," he said. "Forget today. Go with a totally different attitude. Maybe it's better when it's not a very bright day and the sun isn't shining and you're generating your own type of desire. Maybe this is not bad."

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