ATLANTA — Television audiences fell in love with a tiny Olympic gymnast 24 years ago, and the sport, it's safe to say, has never been quite the same since, a fact clearly felt at Atlanta's Centennial Games.
The woman who started the wheels turning, young girls flipping, and viewers tuning in, was Olga Korbut, a spunky athlete from the Soviet Union who took the 1972 Munich Olympics by storm. She now lives in the Atlanta area.
What Korbut wrought by the force of her endearing charm and electrifying performance was an elevation of women's gymnastics to high theater. While helping to thaw the cold war, she revealed the potential that gymnastics held as a global entertainment medium and a creator of superstars.
Enter Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, and others. The latest Shirley Temple of the somersault set is Dominique Moceanu.
The 14-year-old American has yet to win an individual Olympic medal, but she has already been identified in the media as the gymnast with genuine star quality.
She has appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair perched on the shoulder of 400-pound weight lifter Mark Henry, been profiled in countless print and electronic contexts, made TV ads for Olympic sponsors, and told her life story - what there is of it - in a recently published autobiography.
The public's fascination with such precocious sports celebrities partly explains the vast amount of television coverage NBC Sports is devoting to gymnastics.
It also is a major factor in why 35,000 tickets per session have been sold to the Georgia Dome, where even with a curtain dividing gymnastics from basketball, gymnastics is filling more seats than at any time in the sport's Olympic history.
The anticipation surrounding the women's competition was so great, in fact, that Games organizers decided to sell tickets to team practices, known as podium training. An incredible 30,000 spectators forked out as much as $20 to watch these sessions.
What excites people about Moceanu is her ability to combine the qualities of Comaneci and Retton, who preceded her as star pupils of famed coach Bela Karolyi. Moceanu looks like the ponytailed, 14-year-old Comaneci, but has the effervescence of Retton. It makes for a small but dynamic package. She is only 4 ft., 6-1/2 in. and 72 pounds. When seated alongside Karolyi, who towers over her, she appears almost doll-like, with her feet dangling above the ground.
As much as Moceanu is flattered by comparisons to gymnastics' golden girls, she's eager to carve her own niche. "It's nice to be compared to Nadia," she says, "but I have my own personality. I want to show my own side, show what I can do. Maybe then people will remember me in the same way they remember Nadia."
Moceanu was delivered to Karolyi's gym in Houston by her parents when she was 9. The coach had refused to take her in earlier, but her father, Dimitry, was determined that his daughter would have the opportunity that partly escaped him. As a young man, he had been taken out of the Romanian national junior program when his coach suggested to his mother that it was either gymnastics or school.
The Moceanu-Karolyi alliance is a natural, an American-immigrant success story. Karolyi and his wife, Martha (the coach of the US women's Olympic team), defected to the US in 1981 while touring with the Romanian team. Several months later, in Hollywood, Calif., Dominique was born to the Moceanus, who had defected the year before.
When Bela Karolyi took her in as a nine-year-old, he instantly saw crowd-pleasing potential. "There was no doubt in my mind," he says. "I saw that little kitten-type of playful way she has of expressing herself. That caught my attention right away."
At 10, she became the youngest athlete ever to make the US national team. She won the junior national championship in 1994, then outscored Shannon Miller, a two-time world champion, in 1995 to emerge as the youngest national senior titleholder ever.
At last year's world championships, she won the only individual medal for the US, tying for second on the balance beam, and finished fifth in the all-around, where a physically subpar Miller wound up 12th.
The women's Olympic team event, completed after press time Tuesday, is the first of three competition stages. After the compulstory round of the team event on Sunday, the US team was second to the Russians, but by little more than a tenth of a point. Romania was third and Ukraine fourth. Only those four teams were to compete in the optionals on Tuesday.
The next stage of competition, the individual all-around on Thursday, determines who will reign as the queen of the gym. This is the big one, the Olympic title that has taken its place alongside that of women's figure skating as among the most coveted and glamorous in all of sport.
Ironically, it escaped Korbut, who won golds in two individual apparatus finals, the balance beam and floor exercise, but finished out of the running in the all-around, which was captured by teammate Ludmila Turischeva. Korbut nevertheless emerged as an icon, with her combination of daring and emotion, smiles and tears.
At 17 she was the original pixie. Moceanu, some believe, may be the last. With a trend toward smaller, younger gymnasts causing concerns and prompting criticism, the sport's international governing body has decided to raise the minimum age for competitors from 15 to 16 at the next Olympics in Sydney.
Many in the gymnastics community suspect that this will encourage older, more physically mature gymnasts to compete.
Moceanu has slipped under the wire age-wise, making the Olympics because she turns 15 before the year ends, as the current rules require.
Of course she would like to go home with a gold medal, if not in the all-around, then in one of the individual apparatus events contested July 28 and 29. Despite the media hype, however, she is only one among a number of amazing gymnasts, including Miller, in contention for the medal.
Ukraine's Lilia Podkopayeva actually came to Atlanta as the world all-around champion. She will be competing against gymnasts who once would have been united under the Soviet banner.
One of these, Svetlana Boguinskaia, is a five-time gold medalist competing in her third Olympics, this time as the "Belle of Belarus," as labeled by an Atlanta newspaper that pictured her in a "Gone With the Wind" type setting.
In some ways, Central Europe remains a gymnastics assembly line that just keeps spitting out world-class athletes. Limited information on these gymnasts can make it hard to assess the field, but among the other Europeans to watch are Russia's Svetlana Khorkina (second in the '95 world all-around) and Dina Kochetkova, as well as Romanians Gina Gogean, Simona Amanar, and Lavinia Milosovici.
China, meanwhile, has its own contenders, lead by Mo Huilan. "Little Mo" was first in the world all-around last year until she fell off the beam and finished sixth.
Shannon Miller brings her own drama to the finals. She missed winning the all-around gold in Barcelona by a scant .0012 of a point. And on Sunday, she steadied the US team, which got off to a wobbly start, with her strong performance.
With all the attention focused on a more outgoing Moceanu, Miller has sometimes seemed a bit overshadowed, even though she is the 1996 national champion. Her routines incorporate more difficulty than ever and her physical growth (nearly five inches and 30 pounds since '92) give the 19-year-old from Edmond, Okla., more power for her tumbling.
If the Olympic motto "swifter, higher, stronger" plays out on the padded mats of the Georgia Dome, then the Millers may keep the Moceanus of gymnastics waiting until the new millennium for their Olympic rewards.