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Nemov soars to title; Wilson's hopes crash


SYDNEY, Australia - The Russian gymnast threw a kiss to the crowd, strutted for the cameras and talked about the newborn son he has never seen.

The American left the floor with a scowl on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

That was the scene last night, as Alexei Nemov of Russia claimed the men's all-around gymnastics gold at the Summer Olympics, while the great American hope, Blaine Wilson, finished sixth.

It was an entertaining and elevating show dominated by Nemov, the Baryshnikov of the gymnastics world.

With breathtaking precision, Nemov mastered nearly every apparatus, only stumbling slightly on the vault during a march for gold that many in the sport long anticipated. The title capped an extraordinary month for Nemov, whose son, Alexei, was born Sept. 2 in Russia. The father has not yet seen a photo of his child, who was named by his wife, Galina.

"I now have a son," he said. "That motivated me. I did my best for Russia, for my family and for my loved one."

Nemov closed with a precise and passionate performance on his signature event, the parallel bars, emerging from his dismount with a smile on his face and the kiss for the crowd. He knew he had the title, scoring 58.474 points, with Yang Wei of China claiming the silver and Oleksandr Beresh of Ukraine the bronze.

Yet beneath Nemov's calm exterior, he was apparently nervous.

"I was performing like an automaton," he said. "I could fall at any moment. But destiny was on my side. God was on my side, so I ended with a gold."

Wilson got nothing. The gymnast who had won five American titles and finished fourth at last year's World Championships performed below expectations through much of the meet.

He was a disappointment in the team competition, where he twice landed out of bounds on the floor exercise. Last night, he performed much better, was third midway through the competition but dropped out of contention after a slight stumble on the dismount of the high bar.

Afterward, he bristled at any suggestion that his performance in the all-around was a competitive redemption. "I don't think I have to redeem myself," Wilson said. "I walked into this having done more for U.S. gymnastics than any other gymnast out there. I don't have to explain myself to anybody. Not to you, not to my parents, not to anybody."

As the medal ceremony took place, Wilson stood in a runway and snapped: "Those medals don't mean anything. They don't make anybody more of a man. All it gets you is more money. It doesn't buy happiness. I'm happy already."

One American gymnast was happy with his performance - Paul Hamm, 17, who finished 14th and marked himself as a future world and Olympic title contender. Hamm's biggest problem was the high bar, which he flew off twice during the team competition and once at the beginning of the all-around. Yet he recovered from the mistakes and climbed up the standings, calling it "a good first step."

He also had a ringside seat for Nemov's performance, competing right behind the champion nearly every step of the way. After years of watching Nemov perform on television, Hamm got to see the star, live, on the floor, and said he was "kind of in awe."

"He's very good," Hamm said. "He has great form. That's what the judges love about him. If I work on things, I can be up to that level."

Hamm has a grasp of what makes Nemov great. "He's not as powerful as some other gymnasts," he said. "He has the grace. He's very classy. I noticed how professional he was, starting and finishing his routine."

On the high bar, Nemov was like a trapeze artist, releasing three times and making three spectacular catches, whirling and whirling around in a performance that drew gasps from the spectators.

He seemed to create a break dance on the floor exercise, showing flexibility and athleticism and, one time, bouncing off the mat like a quarter dropped onto pavement.

But it was on the pommel horse where his true brilliance shone, as he seemed to turn himself into a human X, flicking this way and that, his hands and legs moving in perfect unison.

How did he perform so brilliantly?

"Honestly, I have no idea," he said. "And this is the truth. I just do my routine from beginning to end."

He longs to see his son. What will he tell him of this night?

"Come and talk to me in a few years," he said. "And then I'll tell you what I said."

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