Li Xiao Peng excels with a double

A NEW world order is slowly but surely emerging in gymnastics. The waning supremacy of the Russians was evident in the 36th World championships in Debrecen, Hungary, in the last week of November.

Marian Dragulsecsu emerged as the worthy winner of the men's floor gold.

The five-day event which was exclusively reserved for the competitions in the individual apparatuses saw the Russians return home with only one of the ten golds at stake even as several events produced upsets. Particularly dismaying was the poor show which came from the Russian men as they left the Hungarian city, an alternate venue to the earlier designated Budapest, empty-handed.

In fact, it was only Nikolai Krioukov from among the Russians who managed to secure one of the 48 places up for grabs in the men's apparatus finals, before finishing outside the medal bracket on the pommel horse. That the Russians, who also failed to leave behind a lasting impression at last year's meet in Ghent, Belgium, need to get back to their drawing boards soon enough to regain their invincible touch was further evident when the seasoned Alexei Nemov, who had won six medals at the Sydney Olympics two years ago, exited from both the floor and the horizontal bars at the semifinal stage itself.

The Russian women, in comparison, fared only marginally better with Elena Zamolodchikova earning for her country its only gold in the championships, putting behind two seasons of poor form en route to the vault title at the expense of team-mate Natalia Ziganshina. This, after the peerless Svetlana Khorkina had lost her grip on a major uneven bars title for the first time in eight years much to the surprise of a stunned audience.

Szilveszter Csollany collected the lone title missing from his shelf by claiming the gold in the rings event.

In what turned to be the real shock of the championships, Khorkina, who had looked to be in fine form during the qualifying and semifinal rounds, could finish only a poor seventh out of a total eight finalists in the uneven bars with a lowly score of 7.387. The 23-year-old paying the price for her two falls off the equipment during the final which in the event was won by American Courtney Kupets.

While the Russians thus proved to be a total disappointment, the star attraction of the championship was China's Li Xiao Peng who underlined his credentials in fine fashion before emerging as the only gymnast to claim two gold medals. The 21-year-old, from the famous Hunan school, left the rest of the field in his wake as he demonstrated his superiority in the vault and parallel bars.

That Li would be the one to beat in the vault was evident right from the start. He was the leader of the pack at all stages of the three-legged competition before winning the final with a highly creditable score of 9.818 with a handspring 2 1/2 somersault in his initial attempt and a round off with a 1/2 turn on in his second. Leszek Balnik of Poland, who had run Li close in the semifinals, was the winner of the silver with 9.675 ahead of Yang Wei, also of China, who rounded off the medals tally even as Romanian Marian Dragulsecsu — the defending champion — slid down to the seventh spot with 9.375 after touching the floor off his second vault.

Marius Daniel Urzica retained his gold in the pommel horse event.

With defending champion Sean Townsend (United States) crashing out in the semifinals, Li had it easy in the parallel bars as well. Already the Olympic champion in this discipline, the Chinese gymnast was all class as he showed his mastery with stunning lightness and amplitude. Li had a score of 9.812 as he kept his territory safe beyond the reach of Slovenia's Mitja Petkovsek, who with some very interesting original connections, overtook Belarus' Alexei Sinkevich for the silver. The bronze for Sinkevich was his first medal at the world stage. He had finished fifth last year.

Marian Dragulsecsu, but for the failure in the vault, was a worthy winner of the floor gold as he came up with a convincing closing line — a full in, full out with a perfect landing. The Romanian, who had been tied with Bulgaria's Jordan Jovtchev at the top in Ghent last year, had a score of 9.712 as he pushed the 2000 Olympic champion Gervasio Deferr (Spain) to the second spot. The Spaniard, on his part, had a score of 9.700 after starting off the competition with a fluent and very cleverly structured routine before his Romanian rival stole the thunder. Jovtchev, left with the bronze, too had an excellent routine with impressive flairs and should have been in contention once again but for the slight hop on the landing from his last tumble.

Romania, apart from Dragulsecsu's triumph on the floor, won a second gold through Marius Urzica who topped the field in the pommel horse. The 2000 Olympic and 2001 World champion retained the gold with a score of 9.787 as he staved off the challenge from China's Qin Xiao with a near flawless routine and all skills performed with a perfectly extended body position. The show from the Chinese gymnast (9.750) was equally brilliant and especially notable was the fast tempo he maintained all through his routine. Takemoto Kashima was the winner of the bronze (9.687) with a variety of skills ingrained in his routine.

Li Xiao Peng showed his mastery by winning the parallel bars and vault with stunning lightness and amplitude.

The host Hungarians too had a lot to cheer as the veteran Szilveszter Csollany finally collected the lone title which had been missing from his shelf. The triumph for the 2000 Olympic champion in the rings came at the expense of the reigning champion, Jordan Jovtchev who though matching Csollany with a fantastic routine failed to control himself on the landing. Jovtchev for this fault could collect only 9.675 compared to the 9.725 tallied by the home crowd favourite. Matteo Morandi (Italy), took the third spot ahead of his own fancied team-mate Andrea Coppolino, who had been third at the end of the semifinal competition.

The Greeks as they prepare themselves to host the next Olympic Games could well look forward to a gold in 2004 through Vlasios Maras in the horizontal bars. The defending champion coming up with an impressive display combining stunning flight elements and a stable landing off his triple twist dismount to earn a winning score of 9.725. In the semifinal, Maras had been pushed to the second spot by Japan's Isao Yoneda with a dramatic last-gasp effort. But in the final, Yoneda was nowhere in sight as Maras proved his supremacy beyond doubt to take the gold. Ivan Ivankov of Belarus and Alijas Pegan (Slovenia) shared the silver with an identical score of 9.700, both performing great routines and rounding up their efforts with spot-on-landing. The Slovenian, interestingly, was the last among the eight qualifiers for the final but proved to be quite a specialist in this apparatus as he tied with his great rival.

The 2000 Olympic champion in vault, Elena Zamolodchikova, as she helped Russia to its lone gold of the meet was an easy winner ahead of the 2002 European champion and team-mate Natalia Ziganshina. Elena (9.443) sealing the title with a double twisting straight Tsukahara on her second attempt backed with a steady landing and an improved difficulty over her similar first attempt. Ziganshina performing a Yourchenko straight with a double twist and a round off half-on — straight front somie half out — had a score of 9.393 as she pushed Oksana Chusovitina (Uzbekistan) to the third spot. For the veteran 27-year-old, the bronze itself was quite an achievement as she was competing after her lone child was detected of leukemia only a week earlier. The iron-willed lady fighting back this personal tragedy had a very strong first vault (handspring pike with one and a half twist) and then took a step forward to the bronze with an equally well-executed 1 1/2 twisting straight Tsukahara with a score of 9.387. For someone who had looked unfazed all through the competition, Chusovitina could hardly control herself during the medals presentation.

Elena Gomez executed the triple twist twice to win the women's floor final.

Khorkina had looked well in control to retain her uneven bars gold until her two falls from the equipment forced her to the seventh spot. In the event, the surprise winner was Courtney Kupets of the United States who displayed very spacious flight elements, good rhythm and a nice bodyline throughout her routine. The American had a score of 9.550 (well below the scores recorded by the Russian queen in both the preliminaries and the semifinals) as she won her first World title. Ioana Petrovshi (Romania) with a stunning dismount — full in full out in tucked position — took the silver ahead of Lioudmila Ejova (Russia) who performed successfully for a score of 9.375.

With both the Chinese Asian Games winner Zhang Nan and the Romanian reigning champion Andreea Raducan (who since announced her retirement from the international stage) suffering an ignominious exit at the semifinal stage after two falls each, the beam provided the American team with yet another unexpected success. Ashley Postell performing last among the finalists had one visible wobble in her routine but managed to stay on the beam as she took gold with a score of 9.537. Oana Ban somewhat made up for the failure of Raducan as she gave Romania the silver with a strong acrobatic series in a traditional style, while the bronze to Irina Yarotska was a well deserved compensation for the Ukrainian gymnast particularly after courting disaster (like Khorkina) in the uneven bars final.

The floor final too threw up an unexpected World champion in Elena Gomez of Spain after the Sydney Olympics winner Elena Zamodlodchikova failed to make it to the final and thus missed out the chance to be in line for a possible golden double. The Spaniard was the only one who executed the triple twist twice in her routine which was choreographed on the popular Rock and Roll. Elena, then again, was also the lone gymnast who never strayed out of the line before picking up a winning score of 9.487.

Courtney Kupets the surprise winner of the uneven bars, on the podium.

Verona van der Leur, the young Dutch gymnast, was second with 9.350 while Samantha Sheehan boosted the American tally by taking the third spot with a score of 9.325.

The success of the American women in Debrecen only suggests that they will give a tough time to their opponents, on their home turf, when the 37th World championship (which incidentally will also serve as the qualifiers for the 2004 Athens Olympics) takes place in Anaheim, nine months from now. Will the Russians be ready to take the rest of the world by then? Indeed, only time will tell.

The results:

Men: Floor: 1. Marian Dragulsecsu (Rom), 9.712, 2. Gervasio Deferr (Esp), 9.700, 3. Jordan Jovtchev (Bul), 9.675. Rings: 1. Szilveszter Csollany (Hun), 9.725, 2. Jordan Jovtchev (Bul), 9.675, 3. Matteo Morandi (Ita), 9.650. Pommel Horse: 1. Marius Daniel Urzica (Rom), 9.787, 2. Qin Xia (Chn), 9.750, 3. Takehiro Kashima (Jpn), 9.687. Horizontal bars: 1. Vlasios Maras (Gre), 9.725, 2. Ivan Ivankov (Blr), 9.700, and Aljaz Pegan (Slo), 9.700. Parallel bars: 1. Li Xiao Peng (Chn), 9.812, 2. Mitja Petkovsek (Slo), 9.787, 3. Alexei Sinkevich (Blr), 9.712. Vault: 1. Li Xiao Peng (Chn), 2. Leszek Blanik (Pol), 9.675, 3. Yang Wei (Chn), 9.631.

Women: Floor: 1. Elena Gomez (Esp), 9.487, 2. Verona van der Leur (Hol), 9.350, 3. Samantha Sheehan (U.S.), 9.325. Beam: 1. Ashley Postell (U.S.), 9.537, 2. Mihaela Ban Oana (Rom), 9.350, 3. Irina Yarotksa (Ukr), 9.212. Vault: 1. Elena Zamolodchikova (Rus), 9.443, 2. Natalia Ziganshina (Rus), 9.393, 3. Oksana Chusovitina (Uzb), 9.387. Uneven bars: 1. Courtney Kupets (U.S.), 9.550, 2. Ioana Petrovschi (Rom), 9.525, 3. Lioudmila Eyova (Rus), 9.375.