It looks wide open

AN Olympic sport since 1896, gymnastics provides universal appeal.

A. VINOD

Daiane dos Santos will try to become the first black gymnast to win an Olympic title. -- Pic. AP-

AN Olympic sport since 1896, gymnastics provides universal appeal. Unlike the previous editions, the competitions this time are wide open as never before. The Eastern European powers, along with Japan in the men's events will be challenged by West Europeans, the Chinese or the Americans in virtually every event.

A noticeable transformation that could happen is the loosening of the vice-like grip enjoyed so far by barely pubescent girls with birdlike builds, ever since Nadia Comaneci revolutionised the sport with her string of brilliant performances in the 1976 Montreal Games. Athens will witness the staying power of Svetlana Khorkina of Russia, who will be out to defend her world all-around gold in Athens at the age of 25, and the presence of the ageless wonder in Uzbekistan's Oksana Chusovitina, the reigning world champion in vault, who at 29 is about 10 years past the typical retirement age for a female gymnast and is one of the few to return to competition.

In the men's section too, there are quite a few veterans. But given recent trends the Chinese should begin as the hot favourites for the team title, though the United States, led by the current world all-around champion Paul Hamm, has the potential to take the race down to the wire. The Chinese had painted the Sydney Olympic indoor hall red by winning the team title for the first time and in an attempt to retain the title have once again named Li Xiao Peng, Huang Xi, Yang Wei and Xing Aowei as their four torch-bearers to prove that their triumph Down Under and the subsequent victory at the 2003 Worlds in Anaheim, California, was no fluke. Japan with Kashima Takehiro in the lead and Russia boasting of its old warhorse Alexei Nemov, are the other two sides which should remain in contention while Romania, with the much improved Marian Dragulescu in its ranks, also has the required fire power to get into the medal bracket.

In the all-around event, though Paul Hamm as the reigning world champion should start as the top contender, the American is sure to be challenged all the way by Yang Wei, who missed out the gold to Alexei Nemov by just .113 of a point in Sydney and to Hamm by only 0.64 in Anaheim. Besides the two, the one other gymnast who should be fancying his chances is Marian Dragulescu, who with 10.0 start values in all six apparatuses could be aiming for perfect scores in Athens. Beyond this trio, the others who need to be watched are Tomita Hiroyuki (Japan), Yernar Yerimbetov (Kazakhstan) and Eric Lopez Rios (Cuba), all gymnasts with proven ability.

The race for top honours in all the six individual events is likely to see real tough battles for supremacy. On the floor, it could be between Jordan Jovtchev (Bulgaria), Dragulescu, Hamm, defending champion Igors Vihrovs (Latvia) and Kyle Shewfelt (Canada) while on the pommel horse there could be little love lost between defending champion Marius Daniel Urzica (Romania) and his compatriot Ioan Silviu Suciu even as they battle it out against the world champion Teng Haibin (China) and Takehiro Kashima. The Japanese who took the horizontal bar gold in the last World championship himself is likely to face some tough time in Athens as he searches for his first Olympic medal ahead of Aljaz Pegan (Slovenia), Vlasios Maras (Greece), Nemov and Philippe Rizzo (Australia).

Going for second gold

Li Xiao Peng certainly looks good for a second consecutive gold on the parallel bars. He would have to contend with his compatriot Huang Xu and Mitja Petkovsek (Slovenia) if the current world rankings are any indication. The Chinese also should be in line for the gold on the vault, an event which is the fastest and the most explosive of all disciplines in the sport. The current world champion, though, in his attempt to claim his third gold could be pushed to the distance by Dragulescu, Leszek Blanik (Poland), Evgeni Sapronenko (Lativia) not to leave out his compatriot Lu Bin. On his home turf, the Greek warrior in Dimosthenis Tampakos could be well in a position to send his legion of fans into raptures by taking the gold on the rings should he stave off the challenge expected from Jovtchev, Alexander Safoshkin (Russia), the 1996 Olympic winner and multiple world champion, Yuri Chechi and his Italian compatriot Matteo Morandi.

Alexei Nemov, the old warhorse, is still fighting fit. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

In the women's section, the fight for the top honours in the team event is very much likely to be between the United States, Romania, Russia and China. It could turn out to be an intense duel if the Ukranians, led by the emerging star Alina Kozich, and the Australians, the surprise bronze medallist in Anaheim last year, could hold on to their nerves.

Americans to the fore

At the 2003 Worlds, Americans tasted success with Carly Patterson, Courtney Kupets, Annia Hatch and Hollie Vise doing the star turn for the home side. Romania as reigning champion, in turn, would be looking forward to Catalina Ponor, Georgiana Alexandra Eremia, Mihaela Onana Ban and Daniela Nicoleta Sofronie to retain its stranglehold over the event. The Chinese challenge could be led by Fan Ye and Zhang Nan, two outstanding prospects, while Russia, though depleted in strength, would fancy its chances by pressing on its veteran Khorkina, Elena Zamolodchikova, Natalia Giganshina and Anna Pavlova.

Perhaps, the most shocking result to emerge out of this year's European championships in Ljubljana, Slovenia, was the fourth-place finish of Khorkina in the all-around event behind Kozich, Sofronie and Zamolodchikova. But in Athens, on her swansong from international competition, Khorkina could be well prepared to meet the challenge from her immediate European contenders as also from that of Carly Patterson and Zhang Nan, the World championship silver and bronze medallists respectively.

Even otherwise, the elegant Russian diva could be in line for all the glory with a third straight gold on the uneven bars, an apparatus in which she has been dominant over the last decade and more and again in which she has two routines named after her, a rare honour in the sport. With the five-time world champion expected to dominate this event, the fight for the minor placings could well be between Elizaneth Tweddle of Great Britain, Chellsie Memmel of the United States and Ioana Andreea Petrovschi of Romania.

Another veteran, like Khorkina, who is expected to dominate her pet event — the vault — is Chusovitina ahead of her Russian rivals, Zamolodchikova and Pavlova and Monica Rosu of Romania. On the balance beam, though Fan Ye should start as the prime contender, her ambition of landing the gold would depend on how she manages to stave off the challenge from Ponor and Postell. Daiane dos Santos, has been somewhat of an exception in the sport through the last couple of years, and the Brazilian is likely to emerge the first black gymnast to win an Olympic title if she holds on to her top billing on the floor, ahead of Elena Gomez (Spain) and her Chinese rival Zhang Nan.