- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia The end for the 1996 United States women's gymnastics team in Atlanta was magnificent, with the image of a gutty, injured Kerri Strug being carried off the floor by coach Bela Karolyi after the Americans had clinched the gold medal.

It wasn't quite the same last night in Sydney.

This time, the American team had to rally from a lackluster sixth place in the preliminary rounds to finish fourth Tuesday night in the team event at the Superdome in Olympic Park. This time, Romania won the gold medal, with a score of 154.608, with a silver for Russia (154.403) and a bronze for China (154.008). The United States' final tally was 152.933 the first time since 1988 they had failed to win a medal in team competition.

No, this was not 1996, not by a long shot. This time, Karolyi was not carrying anyone off the floor.

Instead, he was burying them, in a post-competition scene that had all the makings of a boxing press conference, with Karolyi and the coaches and gymnasts in a verbal war against each other. Karolyi no longer the coach, but hired on earlier this year as a team coordinator by the United States Gymnastics Federation to be the "team coordinator" made himself available to anyone who had a camera, microphone or notebook and ripped into these young women led by local gymnast Elise Ray, the team captain out of Columbia, Md., and including Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, Md., part of the 1992 gold medal team who had failed to live up to the legacy that he believes he created for American gymnastics.

"This generation does not have the backbone, the strong work ethic that the generation before did," said Karolyi, who was not allowed on the gym floor because he was not officially a coach. "Hopefully the next generation will have it."

It was clear that Karolyi was laying the groundwork for himself to be the one leading the next generation, because he also blasted the American coaches, led by Gaithersburg's Kelli Hill. "There was too much confusion, too many people down there, which was ugly," he said, referring to the team's performance at the preliminaries Sunday night. "There was no team spirit."

What he saw was better last night, he said but only slightly. "They were more of a team tonight," Karolyi said.

Of course, he credited the improvement to a pep talk he gave the team the night before. When asked what he said, Karolyi said, "You can't print it. There was some progress made," he said. "Small progress, but there is still much work to be done … they did the best they could do, under the circumstances."

When the team and coaches met with reporters, they were swamped with questions about their "work ethic" and "backbone." Some, like Ray, tried to be diplomatic in her answers, but defended the team's character. "It's a two-way street," she said. "He had something to do it with. But all of us and our individual coaches, it wouldn't have happened without our desire to succeed."

Jamie Dantzscher, who had been criticized by Karolyi after the preliminary round, was not as diplomatic. She compared Karolyi to a "puppeteer. He takes the credit when we do good and blames everyone else when we do bad … it's not really fair."

Hill rolled her eyes and laughed when she was told of Karolyi's comments. "Bela is a knee jerk reactor," she said. "I like Bela as a person, and have a lot of respect for him. But I know how to do my job. I have been a coach for 20 years and been to three Olympics. At this point, we have to roll with the punches."

There were a lot of punches to roll with. Karolyi indicated the outcome might have been different if he was on the floor, instead of forced to sit in the stands. Hill disputed that. "I don't think it would have made a difference," she said. "Steve and I did our jobs just fine."

The most bizarre moment came when Karolyi was asked about the gold medal performance by the Romanian team his homeland. While he was disavowing any connection to the American team that had finished without a medal, he managed to find a way to take credit for Romania's victory. "It is my proper country and I am very proud, especially since I had a little part in their road to success," he said.

Around all the hoopla, Ray handled herself with the dignity and responsibility that comes with being the team captain. An 18-year-old who graduated from Wilde Lake High School and hopes to go on to the University of Michigan, Ray, who had hurt her left shoulder in the preliminaries, was determined not the let the attacks by Karolyi take away from the Olympic experience. "It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks," said Ray, who had clutched a small stuffed Cookie Monster for good luck during parts of the competition yesterday. "It's what we feel. I'm very proud of what we did. It's been a long journey for all of us. This is an experience we will never forget."

Karolyi's criticisms may have some validity. The women showed more vitality and spirit than they had in the preliminaries. Even they acknowledged that. "After Bela and Kelli talked to us after that, we all went to the gym and talked about it," she said. "We came out a lot more pumped up tonight."

And there were questions about the direction of the American team after dismal showings in international competitions one of the primary reasons that the federation asked Karolyi, who had officially retired, to come back as team coordinator. "He was hired to coach the coaches," said federation president Bob Colarossi. There was too much opposition among the coaches of the top gymnasts in the country, like Hill, who coaches both Ray and Dawes, to the lengthy gymnastic camps that Karolyi prefers for him to officially be the coach and still keep a team intact.

A whole new team will likely be fielded for 2004. Dawes is already pushing the age barrier at 22. Dantzscher indicated she had no plans on returning. Ray doubts she will be back as well. "I'm looking forward to moving on," she said. "But you never know."

The women are still not done. They have the all-around finals tomorrow, and Ray, the only one to qualify to individual competition, will try for a medal in the balance beam on Monday.

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