SYDNEY, Australia - In one corner, the Chinese men unfurled a flag and raced around like kids in a schoolyard, running straight at the cameras and celebrating a gold-medal win that was 40 years in the making.
In another corner, the Americans packed their bags and headed for the exits after a fifth-place finish and another Olympic disappointment, another year away from the golden summer of 1984.
It was this beautiful and brutal image of Olympic victory and defeat that was played out in front of the world last night as the Chinese won the gold with an audacious high-wire act that enabled them to shed their image of being Olympic underachievers.
They flew - literally - in a breathtaking exhibition of gymnastics power and grace. They weren't mistake-free, but they avoided the pratfalls that left them with the silver in Atlanta in 1996.
And they crushed the field. China scored 231.919, more than a full point ahead of silver medalist Ukraine and bronze medalist Russia. It was such a rout that China's tumblers, led by the dynamic Yang Wei, were posing for a homemade video before making their way to their last apparatus, the vault.
"We have fought for this for 40 years," said China coach Huang Yubin. "We hope that we can take these aspirations into the new millennium, which we have. We think we should taste the fruits of champagne."
The Americans landed with a thud, taking as many knockdowns as a Mike Tyson opponent.
The Americans fought back all night as they tried to recover from a stumbling opening performance on the floor exercise, desperate to stay in medal contention.
But on the high bar, they lost it, flying off like spent, spinning tops.
Paul Hamm, a 17-year-old who seemed to have nerves of steel, flew off the bar twice, failing to make a catch, the chalk rising from his hands like smoke from a fire. And Blaine Wilson, the rugged team leader as noted for his tattoos as his twists, flew off , too, cussing and fussing and continuing an Olympic slump that began in qualifying.
A team that figured it had a chance to gain a medal for the first time since claiming gold in 1984, tried to figure out what happened.
"You misfire everywhere because you're trying too hard," said Stephen McCain, who twisted an ankle on a vault. "It's a little heartbreaking."
Head coach Peter Kormann tried to shoulder the blame for the performance, saying he didn't prepare the team well enough.
"I thought we could win a medal, easy," Kormann said.
But it didn't happen.
"Sometimes you want something so badly and it just doesn't happen. They looked terrific. They had little things that didn't add up," said Peter Vidmar, a member of the 1984 team who is working as a TV commentator in Sydney.
Vidmar said even the Chinese made some small mistakes. But they avoided the big ones.
"They did what everyone said they should be doing for years," he said. "They had a meltdown in Atlanta. They were almost written off. It was wise for all of us to give them one more chance."
It may have been a last chance, too, for the Chinese. "They had the weight of the world on their shoulders," McCain said. "I heard that if they didn't win the Olympics, they would move that team aside."
McCain said there are three keys to the Chinese success: "They've got a lot of people, they've got good body types for gymnastics and they're cutthroat the way they do their stuff. If you get injured, you're out of here."
The Olympics aren't over, yet. Wilson, who has been stumbling around for two days, may still recover his form in the all-around.
The future belongs to the likes of the Hamm twins, Paul and Morgan, the building blocks who will form the core of a new American gymnastics effort in the coming years.
But until the U.S. men start to gain Olympic medals, they'll always be in the shadow of the 1984 team.
"Let them stand on their own two feet," Vidmar said. "U.S. gymnastics will find a home at the top of the sport. We're going to be a dominant force."
Just who will lead the Americans in the future is also undecided. Kormann, a former coach at Navy, announced last night that he will retire as coach and recommended the job should go to John Roethlisberger, a three-time Olympian who was a solid performer in Sydney.
He performed with heart and style last night, getting more out of his battered 30-year-old body than he had a right to. And as he left the floor, his competitive career over, his eyes were rimmed red.
"I kind of felt we would win a medal," he said. "I hope America is proud of this team. They represent everything good about our sport, the Olympic Games and our own country. These guys are tough. They want to win a medal."
"I'm sorry we couldn't do it," he added. "At the same time, we're an all-American team. We bleed red, white and blue."