Hartford, Conn. — No one is likely to confuse Hartford, Conn., with Moscow -- least of all the gymnasts from the United States, China, Japan, and eight other countries gathered here for an international meet this weekend.
"There is no alternative to the Olympics," said an emphatic Marcia Frederick, who would have been one of this year's top gold medal threats if not for the boycott.
"This doesn't take the place of the Olympics," echoed Ron Gallimore, one of the leadmale competitors. "I don't think anything can do that."
Similar sentiments were expressed by the other gymnasts and their coaches in an effort to keep this weekend's meet in perspective. A "substitute Olympics" it most definitely is not -- despite the attempts of some to put that appellation on it. But taken on its own terms, it promises to be an exciting competition involving many individuals and teams that could reasonably have been expected to make their marks in Moscow under happier circumstances.
The Japanese, of course, are perennial powers in the men's events, and were in fact the defending Olympic team champions as well as silver medalists in the most recent world championships. The United States, led by the spectacular Kurt Thomas, had finally achieved the status of a world power and appeared to be peaking for Moscow -- as evidenced by its third-place finish in those same 1979 world championships at Fort Worth, Texas. But perhaps the biggest threats of all were the fast-rising Chinese, who had come from nowhere to capture fifth place at Forth Worth -- and perhaps should have been even higher.
"They had two things going against them," explained US men's coach Francis Allen. "First, nobody knew them -- and like it or not, the way the judging goes in this sport, if you don't have the name you don't get the score. Second, they were inexperienced and didn't perform as well as they can. Either they were too pumped up or else they weren't ready yet to handle it mentally. I know they can handle it physically. I saw them at one practice out there and I thought, 'there goes the gold medal!'"
As for the US team, this was surely one of the saddest ironies of all in the boycott situation, for after years of obscurity this was to be the Olympics when the Americans finally arrived and put the sport on the map in their country. That team will never exist again. Thomas, the first Us male to win a gold medal in international competition in nearly half a century, has already turned pro. And who knows how many of today's other top stars will stick at it long enough to compete in 1984? But Allen refuses to be discouraged -- or to give in.
"It's still coming," he said of the strides made by the US men of late. "We're there physically now. But in this sport you have to establish credibility too -- and that takes time.
"Right now we're going through a period where some of these younger guys gain experience. But we've still got a diamond in the rough here. Moscow would have polished it, sure, but it's still here all the same."
So whether you call them alternative games or not, it has to be a bit intriguing when three of the sport's top five men's powers find themselves going head to head just a few weeks after the Olympics they all boycotted.
"Any one of us would have had a chance -- even for the gold," Allen said. "The Soviets had the edge, being at home and being the world champions. But they could have been beaten."
And in addition to any team prospects, of course, there were various individuals with good chances in their specialties -- such as Gallimore.
"Ron's the best vaulter in the world," Allen said of the 21-year-old Iowa State senior whose late father, Willie, was a pro football star for the Chicago Bears in the 1960s. "He has the potential for a 10 any time he's out there."
Four years is a long time in a sport lke gymnastics, though, and right now neither Gallimore nor Frederick, who was the first American woman to win an international gold medal when she captured the world uneven bars title in 1978, wants to look as far ahead as Los Angeles.
"I'm taking it year by year," was the stock reply by each to the inevitable question. And the same holds true, of course, for the others -- some of whom will undoubtedly fall by the wayside via injuries, boredome, family pressures, finances, or the beckoning of other careers.
Even here, so soon after the Olympics, the teams representing the United States in this major international competition looked quite a bit different from the ones that would have been in Moscow. Not only is Thomas out of the picture permanently, but several other well known names of both sexes are missing from this particular meet for one reason or another -- Bart Conner, Peter Vidmar, and Tracee Talavera, to name a few, plus 14-year-old Julianne McNamara, who exploded on the scene by winning the all-around title at the last US championships.
The US team has plenty of depth, though, and according to Coach don Peters the competition here is between them and the Chinese, whose women have come along by leaps and bounds to reach world power status just as their men have.
An interesting sidelight to this tea struggle will be the individual duel between Frederick and Yanhong Ma on the uneven bars. It was Marcia, then only 15, who knocked off Nadia Comaneci and the rest to win the world title in this event two years ago only to be dethroned herself last year by Ma. Not surprisingly, though, Marcia plays down the "rematch" angle.
"I'm just going out there to do my tricks the best I can and to help my team win," she said. "I'm not thinking of it as me against the world champion."
Most people feel that, unlike the men's situation, the Eastern European women would have dominated at Moscow in any event -- and Peters agrees up to a point.
"The Russians and Romanians would still have been 1-2," he said, "but I feel we and the Chinese would have been battling East Germany for third. And certainly some individuals had medal chances."
That's all in the past now, though, and athletes traditionally look only at the present and the future. So for Gallimore, Frederick, and all the others, the goals of the moment are simply improving one's own routines, keeping up in international meets like this one, looking ahead perhaps as far as the 1981 world championships in Mexico City, and leaving anything beyond that for decisions later.