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Sport's creator watches approval jump


SYDNEY, Australia - It's hard to imagine an 86-year-old man who responds to the nickname "Hands."

But then, you've probably never met George "Hands" Nissen, the one-time carnival performer who earned a living performing on his hands instead of his feet.

Nissen is the father of the trampoline and the Abner Doubleday of an honest-to-goodness Olympic sport.

"I'm a ham," Nissen said last night, as the sport he helped create made its Olympic debut with the women's trampoline.

That's right, an Olympic schedule already overloaded with what some consider such "trash sports" as beach volleyball, synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics has found room for gymnastics trampoline.

Despite any criticism, the sport seems extremely popular. A loud crowd showed up to watch Russia's Irina Karavaeva claim the gold, Ukraine's Oksana Tsyhuleva the silver and Canada's Karen Cockburn the bronze.

So, a sport that really takes its roots from leaping on a sofa or a bed is now in the Olympic history books.

"It's not just a backyard toy," Cockburn said. "It is a real sport, and I think this will make people see this."

Before the competition began, Nissen talked of inventing the trampoline back in the 1930s when he was at the University of Iowa with "Leaping" Larry Griswold, a vaudeville acrobat.

"I did it to practice tumbling and diving," Nissen said. "I did it to get ready for the circus."

On his first trampoline, he used bedsprings.'That didn't work so well," he said. "Then we used rubber inner tubes and put them together with a canvas sheet."

Were there ever any early trampoline casualties?

"Surprisingly, no," he said. "We did an exhibition during a basketball game. We split one down the seam."

Nissen, whose name is stamped on many a trampoline, is still in pretty terrific shape. During a practice session, he actually performed a back flip, although, he said, "I can't press up anymore." He can still do a handstand, though.

In the old days, he said, "there weren't any tricks. You went out and jumped awhile."

To be honest, it might take a bit of time before trampoline is taken seriously as an Olympic sport.

It's diving without the board or water.

The names of the tricks are seemingly incomprehensible, such as "Rudi out pike," and "Barani out tuck."

And, like figure skating, there is a kiss-and-cry area where the competitors wait for their results.

By the way, an all-male panel of judges oversaw the women's competition.

"We wanted that they were experienced and they were neutral," said Horst Kunze, president of the Technical Trampoline Committee. "We just couldn't find any women to do it."

There is certainly danger involved, which is why there are four spotters at the corners, two mats at the ends and a coach who has a mat of last resort, which is the equivalent of a giant catcher's mitt.

And there is skill involved as the gymnasts twist, somersault and spin during routines that last 18 seconds.

In the early days of trampoline, the Americans were dominant. Last night, the U.S. performer couldn't even get out of the qualifying round.

Jennifer Parilla's Olympics lasted about 36 seconds - the time it took for her to complete two rounds and fail to make the final eight.

"A lot of people know trampoline as a backyard sport," Parilla said. "It's a difficult sport to understand unless you see it in person."

At least one part of the sport makes sense: It's pretty easy to single out the gold medalist.

That's Karavaeva, the 25-year-old, doe-eyed acrobat who soared so high, she nearly leapt out of camera range.

"This is something completely different for me, and it really opens big doors for my future - a lot of prospects," she said of the Olympic medal. "It is a particularly beautiful sport, and now that it is part of the Olympics, it will be more and more popular all over the world."

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