US poised to end 20-year drought in men's gymnastics

Led by world champ Paul Hamm, the team battles powerhouses Japan and China Monday night.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Swimming phenom Michael Phelps may not be the only US athlete carving out space Monday night on a future Wheaties box.

After a string of disappointing Olympic competitions, this year's US Men's Gymnastics team has the best chance of winning a medal - maybe even gold - in two decades.

"This could be the best US team we've ever had, including my team in 1984," says Peter Vidmar, who won gold with a team that featured Bart Conner and Kurt Thomas at the Los Angeles Olympics. "They have a better track record going into it, and that's important for your confidence."

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The US men, who will compete Monday night in six events against eight other teams, including powerhouses China and Japan, won silver in the 2003 World Championships. At the same event in Anaheim, Calif., Paul Hamm became the first American male gymnast to win the world all-around title, receiving the highest combined score on the vault, rings, parallel bars, high bar, pommel horse, and floor exercise.

The success has infused the team with the confident determination missing in Sydney and Atlanta, both disappointing fifth-place finishes for the Americans. The team racked up a combined 230.419 points in Saturday's qualifier, placing them second behind the Japanese at 232.134 and ahead of reigning European Champions Romania, in third, and world champions China, who coasted into fourth.

"When I marched into the hall today, I felt I was in control and nothing was going to throw me off, and I think everyone feels the same way," says Morgan Hamm, Paul's twin brother and a specialist in the floor exercise, high bar, and vault.

Led by Blaine Wilson, the most dominant US gymnast over the past decade, the team boasts a combined 50 years of top-level competition experience. Mr. Wilson, who has endured three surgeries as well as the death of his unborn son in the past two years, is one of only four US male gymnasts since 1945 to compete in three Olympics.

In the past, teams were built around the Columbus native, a darling of the press for his bad-boy image. With young talents like the Hamm brothers and Jason Gatson, who has rebounded from knee injuries to become one of the team's most solid performers, US men's gymnastics has been able to mold an experienced team that has chipped away at China's dominance. In the 2003 World Championship, the team finished 0.08 of a point behind the Chinese.

"In the past we've had desire and determination to get the job done ... but our gymnastics wasn't as crisp as it is today," says Wilson.

Unlike the last Olympics, where teams could use more gymnasts and discard the lowest scores, teams are only allowed to enter three gymnasts in each event in the final, and every score counts. The change will favor the countries that have a few strong gymnasts in each event, like Japan, not necessarily those with the most depth, like China and the United States.

"[Japan] doesn't have great all-arounders, but the big guns in each event are fantastic," says Mr. Vidmar.

After Saturday's qualifications, Japan's Isao Yoneda and Daisuke Nakano turned in stellar performances on the high bar and occupy the top two spots in that event. Their strong team performance in the rings raised many eyebrows, as did Hiroyuki Tomita, the third-place finisher in last year's World Championships.

"We are still very nervous, but we feel quite satisfied with our achievement," said Japanese gymnast Takehiro Kashima, through an interpreter. "[The US] is a very strong team. But we feel that if we pull our strength together, we will win."

China, on the other hand, looked less like the world champions they are than a team biding its time. Built on a youth-development program that snaps up potential Olympians as young as 6 years old, the Chinese teams of recent years have redefined the word depth.

In Saturday's qualifying, they used it sparingly, allowing the minimum number of gymnasts to compete in some events when it was clear that they had made the team final. This year's team features three who competed in Sydney, including Yang Wei, the all-around runner-up and gold medalist on the floor exercise at the World Championships; and Li Xiaopeng, who won two gold medals in Sydney.

"They make very hard gymnastics look easy," said Wilson.

But so does Paul Hamm, who built on solid performances in Sydney to become the US team's shooting star. The clean-cut Ohio boy, 30 minutes younger than his twin, Morgan, is cherished on the team for his efficiency and his seeming lack of weakness in any event.

At the end of the Saturday's qualifying, Paul Hamm was in first place in the all-around rankings. The statistic is irrelevant in team competition, but sent a message that Hamm and his teammates are well-positioned for a podium spot. Maybe even the top one.

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