- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Quick now, who won the men's all-around gymnastics gold at the Atlanta Games in 1996? You have five seconds …

Time's up. If you said Li Xiaoshuang of China, you win a year's supply of fortune cookies and soy sauce.

The point is that men's gymnastics creates about as much excitement in the United States as a three-hour speech by Bill Bradley. But maybe, just maybe, that might change next month when our guys start attacking the pommel horse, rings and parallel bars in Sydney.

A man named Peter Kormann thinks so. As coach of the U.S. men, he's about as impartial as George Bush the Elder in the presidential election. And without much prompting, he turns into a latter-day version of Joe Namath at Super Bowl III.

"Write this down," Kormann commands. "Nobody expects us to win a medal, but we can be the surprise team of the Olympics. People think I'm crazy, but it will happen. We're not the most talented team, but we're gonna do it with good old-fashioned American hard work."

If Kormann sounds like he spent too much time watching the political conventions, that's OK he's entitled to blather a bit before the Games. The key question is whether he will be doing so afterward, and whether anybody will care.

Traditionally, gymnastics has meant the grace and pluck of women to American TV watchers. We remember Mary Lou Retton's ferocious grin. Nadia Comaneci's athleticism, Kerri Strug's courage.

The men? Well, there was Kurt Thomas and … Koji Gushiken, Vladimir Artemov and Vitaly Scherbo? They won the three all-around golds in the Olympics before Xiaoshuang's widely overlooked breakthrough in Atlanta. The last U.S. medal winner was Peter Vidmar, who tied for pommel horse honors in 1984. That drought is almost as long as the Orioles have gone without winning a pennant, for heaven's sake.

There's a reason, of course. Men's gymnastics programs have all but disappeared from college campuses in the wake of Title IX and the growing cost of such non-revenue activities. Kormann says there were 128 such programs in 1976, the year he won a bronze in the floor exercises at Montreal. Today, he says, the number is 23. Scratch one feeder system.

Fortunately for those who consider men's gymnastics important, Texaco has come to the rescue in recent years by pumping a substantial amount of financial gas into the sport. Now there are proper training facilities and other amenities to nurture the athletes.

"What's your full-time job," a man asked Blaine Wilson, a 26-year-old Ohioan who emerged as the top male finisher at last weekend's Olympic trials in Boston.

There was a moment of silence over the long-distance telephone, as if Wilson hadn't quite understood the question. Then: "My full-time job is gymnastics."

Let's size up that man for a Wheaties box. Hey, it's possible.

"We have a really unique team," Kormann said, and that might not be blather. In addition to Wilson, there's John Roethlisberger, an ancient 30 by gymnastics standards who failed to medal at the 1992 and '96 Olympics. When Roethlisberger learned in Boston that he would have a third try, he broke down and cried and nobody on the premises considered it a sign of weakness.

At the other end of the age spectrum are Paul and Morgan Hamm, teen-age identical twins from Wisconsin who became the first set of brothers since 1956 to make the team. Their poise and ability astounds people who know the sport.

Said Kormann: "To be 17 and that good …"

And Roethlisberger: "Thank God I'll never have to compete against them again."

Wilson, though, is the best U.S. hope this time around. "We're going to have a breakthrough month for men's gymnastics in this country," Kormann said, "and Blaine Wilson is the reason. He's going to be a superstar."

Pressure anyone?

"I'm used to it," Wilson said. "I feel pretty good. Winning a medal is very possible."

Even if he grabs the gold, it's unlikely that Wilson will celebrate any more dramatically than he did after mastering all he surveyed in Boston. On the spot, he proposed marriage to girlfriend Makare Desilets, a 6-foot-1 professional volleyball player who towers over the 5-4 Wilson.

Desilets accepted Wilson's proposal with appropriate shedding of tears. Now we'll have to wait and see if the American sporting public will accept him and men's gymnastics in general.

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