BEIJING — BEIJING - It's time for a pep talk from Bela Karolyi.
The U.S. women's gymnastics team will need a "spectaculous" performance to defeat China for the gold medal in what will be one of the most intriguing contests of the 2008 Olympics.
Who will stumble? Who will fall? Who will nail their landings?
The Americans are hurting. They are bandaged. They are older and bigger than the Chinese team, thus creakier.
China finished first in Sunday's team qualification round, just 1.475 points ahead of the United States. Don't miss the team finals, which will be broadcast live in prime time tonight. At the world championships in September, the United States edged China by less than a point.
It could come down to the curl of a toe on beam or the angle of a handstand on bars.
It could come down to Shawn Johnson wowing the judges.
It could come down to the very last routine. The Chinese will go last, knowing exactly what scores they'll need to beat the United States.
It could come down to a Kerri Strug-like moment, given the ankle injuries affecting two Americans.
"The most critical issue is staying on the equipment," former U.S. star Shannon Miller said. "It sounds simple, but both teams made mistakes on Sunday. It's been awhile since we've seen two teams so neck-and-neck."
The Americans want to win gold for the first time since the 1996 Olympics. China wants to win in its home gym.
Women's gymnastics will offer a dramatic microcosm of the larger U.S. vs. China rivalry threading through these Games.
For most gymnasts, the window of opportunity opens for only one Olympics. That adds to the pressure.
Plus, a controversy stoked by Karolyi means there is no love lost between the U.S. and Chinese teams.
China claims all its gymnasts play by the rules, which state that athletes must turn 16 the year they compete in the Olympics or world championships.
Two of the Chinese "women," Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan, look as if they could be 12. They have been identified in news reports as having been born in 1993 and 1994 in their provinces. But on passport information submitted to Olympic organizers, they are 16.
Karolyi scoffs. He said the Chinese team is using "half people." Never mind that his wife, Martha, the U.S. team coordinator, noted that Nadia Comaneci was 14 when she scored seven perfect 10s and won gold in 1976. Martha believes age limitations should be thrown out.
"If a girl is ready, she is ready," Martha said.
Comaneci now promotes Botox treatments. In gymnastics, older is not necessarily better, because older means more weight to hurl around the bars or over the vault. Which is why Chellsie Memmel, 20, by her own admission, eats only a piece of fruit for dinner.
The United States has greater concerns than age, however. Memmel has a sore ankle and will compete only on bars. If she wasn't hurt, she would be in the lineup for floor exercise and balance beam. Samantha Peszek injured her ankle on her last warm-up pass Sunday, which "gave a bit of disturbance mentally to the girls," Karolyi said. Peszek probably won't be available for floor or vault.
However, in the "three up, three count" format of the finals, the United States doesn't need its superior depth. Just three solid routines on each apparatus.
The Americans cannot repeat the mistakes they made Sunday: Memmel and Nastia Liukin flubbed their bars routines; Alicia Sacramone and Bridget Sloan stepped out of bounds on floor.
China made errors, too, and coach Lu Shanzhen said they would be corrected. The Chinese have also made huge improvements in their tumbling and vault power.
"They are doing the most difficult gymnastics right now," Miller said.
The U.S. ace, Johnson, could make the difference. She has risen to the occasion at every major meet.
"We've overcome so many obstacles, but we showed the world that we can come back strong," Johnson said. "We're ready to fight for it."