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Sweeping victory all-around for new star and Romanians


SYDNEY, Australia - She was so tiny her coach could swing her like a doll, place her on his shoulders and celebrate a victory that belonged not just to her, but also to a country still emerging from the shadows of communism.

She was neither Nadia nor perfect, but it didn't matter as the crowd cheered for a sport and a star.

Last night, Andreea Raducan, 16, led Romania to a sweep of the medals in the women's gymnastics all-around final at the Summer Olympics.

The 4-foot-10, 82-pound sprite won with daring and charisma, bounding on the floor exercise with breathtaking tumbling passes that ended with her leaping from the mat and into the arms of her coach, Octavian Belu.

It was a star-is-born moment as Raducan climbed to the pinnacle of world gymnastics.

It was also a triumph for hard-pressed Romania, which became the first country to sweep the women's team gold and all-around medals since the Soviet Union in 1960.

Simona Amanar claimed the silver, while Maria Olaru, one of the pre-Olympic favorites, got the bronze.

"I wish all three Romanian gymnasts could have achieved gold," Amanar said.

In some ways, they did, all following in the footsteps of Romania's great international star, Nadia Comaneci, who was perfect at the 1976 Montreal Games.

"It's easy to say this is the second Nadia or the third Nadia," Belu said of Raducan. "But Nadia is unique. If we had the chance to clone Nadia, maybe the clone wouldn't do gymnastics. Nadia is a dream behind us. It is history."

The present belongs to Raducan, who began competing at 7 and performed her first triple twist at 10 and joined the national team at 13.

Last night, she was the last gymnast left standing in a seesaw competition as the main contenders from China and Russia fell away, leaving the stage to the Romanians.

The country that is still emerging from the ravages of communist rule has remained a gymnastics power through good times and bad. The defection of Bela Karolyi to the United States in the early 1980s hurt the program. So did the country's financial woes.

But under Belu, who oversees the team at its base in Deva, the Romanians forged a style and claimed medals.

"I worked with a group to keep the work moving, the spirit moving, the tradition alive," he said.

But during hard economic times, Belu faced difficulties keeping the country's best coaches in Romania, where they might earn $150 a month. He said more than 500 coaches now work overseas.

"It is my hope after these results that they will come back to Romania to work at home," he said.

These Games have become the culmination of Belu's career.

"It was my dream to have an Olympic champion," he said. "It was very exciting for me to try this. The gymnasts have a lot of medals in Olympic Games and World Championships. I try to push, to prepare this kind of spirit for my girl to want to be the best in the world, for my girl to have this title, to be the Queen of the Games."

Raducan is a tough competitor who performed consistently throughout the competition. She didn't smile until she knew she had won.

"I'm very excited," she said. "I was very happy that I got gold in the team and I expected a good result [in the all-around]. It was important to do my best. I am very happy that I was able to control my emotions."

There will be little time to celebrate. With the individual apparatus finals still to be decided, the Romanians were due back in the gym today for a double practice session.

"This is already history," Belu said of the all-around. "This is in the books. We have to worry about the World Championships."

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