China, U.S. Tensions Boil Over to Solo Competition

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As riveting as the competition between America and China in women’s team gymnastics was yesterday, we may look back on these Olympics and view it as just the undercard.

The main event takes place tonight (Friday morning in Beijing), when two members of the American team will try to shake off the disappointment of Team USA’s silver medal and go for the gold in the individual all-around against several strong gymnasts from around the world, including two medal contenders from China.

The matchup of Americans Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin with China’s Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan became a grudge match after the team competition, when both the U.S. coach Martha Karolyi and her husband, the legendary gymnastics coach and NBC commentator Bela Karolyi, suggested that the host nation is cheating by using gymnasts younger than the International Olympic Committee’s minimum age of 16. Martha Karolyi also complained that one of her gymnasts, Alicia Sacramone, fell on her balance beam mount after Chinese officials made her lose her focus by repeatedly delaying the start of her routine.

Karolyi’s griping about the balance beam delay comes across as sour grapes, but China’s claims that its gymnasts were all born in 1992 or earlier don’t pass the eyeball test. Whereas the vast majority of the gymnasts from around the world in last night’s team competition looked like late-teenage girls who are small for their age, China’s gymnasts look like pre-teenagers. Anyone who watches tonight will notice that Johnson and Liukin, both petite young women, dwarf Yang (who is listed by the International Gymnastics Federation as 4 feet 10 inches and 77 pounds) and especially Jiang, listed at 4 feet 6 inches and 70 pounds.

Whatever the visual evidence suggests, the IOC has accepted China at its word, and Johnson, Liukin, Yang, and Jiang enter the individual all-around as the four gymnasts the world will watch.

Johnson enters the all-around as the favorite, which even the Chinese coach, Lu Shanzhen, acknowledged after the team competition. Johnson won the all-around gold at the 2007 World Championships and Pan-American Games, and she is generally recognized as the top gymnast in the world. Johnson, whose best event is the floor exercise, is aiming to become the third American woman to win the individual all-around, after Carly Patterson won in 2004 and Mary Lou Retton in 1984.

If Johnson doesn’t win, another American, Nastia Liukin, has a good chance. Although she has been surpassed by Johnson as America’s top gymnast, the 18-year-old Liukin may benefit from having two more years of experience competing at the highest levels of gymnastics, and having received world-class coaching her entire life, courtesy of her parents, both of whom were gymnastics champions in the Soviet Union.

Yang and Jiang already have gold medals from yesterday, and they’re both in contention for another gold in the individual all-around. Yang, Johnson, and Liukin were the only gymnasts to earn scores of 15.000 or higher in all four apparatuses (the vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise) in qualifying, and Yang is considered China’s most complete gymnast and its best chance at winning the all-around gold.

With a gold, either Yang or Jiang would emerge as a huge star from these games and as China’s first women’s individual all-around winner. They would also demonstrate that whereas gold medals in women’s gymnastics were once almost the exclusive domain of Eastern Europeans, the sport is more global now than ever before.

Patterson and Retton are the only individual all-around gold medalists from outside Eastern Europe, but this year, in addition to the two American and two Chinese gymnasts, an Italian and a Brazilian have realistic medal hopes. In 2007, Vanessa Ferrari of Italy and Jade Barbosa of Brazil tied for the all-around bronze at the World Championships, and tonight they both have a realistic chance of earning their country’s first gymnastics medal.

The combination of Johnson, Liukin, Yang, Jiang, Ferrari, and Barbosa makes it possible that women representing Eastern European countries could be shut out of the individual all-around medals. But while the rest of the world has caught up with the Eastern European gymnasts, a few athletes from that part of the world still have a shot in the individual all-around. Two representatives from Romania’s bronze medal-winning team, Sandra Izbasa and Steliana Nistor, have the best chance of making it to the podium tonight in the all-around. Nistor won the silver medal at the 2007 World Championships, finishing 1.25 points behind Johnson, and Izbasa, who at 5 feet 5 inches towers over the competition, won the bronze at the 2006 World Championships.

Olympic gymnasts from the Soviet Union long dominated the sport, but Russia’s gymnastics team has declined in recent years, and yesterday was the first time ever that the Russian women have failed to win a team medal. But Russia’s Anna Pavlova and Ksenia Semenova both have a chance at achieving some redemption with an individual all-around medal tonight. If they don’t, Semenova’s specialty, the uneven bars, may be the Russians’ only chance of winning any women’s artistic gymnastics medal at all this year.

The Russian, Romanian, Brazilian, and Italian women make tonight’s event a global affair, but it will most likely come down, again, to the Americans and the Chinese competing for the gold. Unlike the team competition, this event is likely to go the Americans’ way, ending with the “Star-Spangled Banner” playing and Johnson wearing a gold medal around her neck.

Mr. Smith is a writer for

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