Even in their own sport, male gymnasts take second billing to the Olga Korbuts, Nadia Comanecis, and Yelena Davydovas, who have become the crowd-pleasing TV stars of the last several Olympics. Yet once again, as in Montreal, it is one of these powerful and graceful athletes who has emerged as the top medal winner of the entire games.
Alexander Dityatin, surpassing even the great feats of his teammate Nikolai Andrianov four years ago, won medals in every possible category for a total of eight. And although the feat is somewhat diminished by the absence of the United States and Japan, it will still go into the record books as the most ever won by any competitor in a single Olympics.
Ironically, this was supposed to be the year when a strong US team, led by Kurt Thomas, brought the men's competition out of obscurity, but along came the boycott and it was quickly relegated again to its old secondary status. Thus Dityatin and his rivals had to go through their paces in the afternoons, leaving the prime evening hours for the much-publicized battles among Comaneci and her various challengers.
For those who did get a chance to see it, however, what a show the men put on -especially Dityatin.
In one of his performances on the horse vault, the Soviet star got the first perfect score of 10 ever awarded to a male Olympic gymnast. (Nadia, of course, had received the first one of all at Montreal.) After he had broken the barrier, four more 10s were awarded to various competitors in other events. Then, showing tremendous versatility to go along with his great strength and skill, Dityatin scored on each of the six apparatus events (one gold, four silvers, one bronze), won the all-round title, and got a third gold medal via the USSR team championship.
Dityatin's eight medals broke the record shared by US swimmer Mark Spitz, with his seven golds at Munich, and Soviet gymnast Nikolai Andrianov, who won four golds, two silvers, and one bronze at Montreal.
Interestingly, I happened to speak with Kurt Thomas just a few days before flying to the games, and he predicted all of this right on the button.
"Andrianov is still very good," Thomas said when I asked him about reports that the star of Montreal might be over the hill. "He'll still do very well in Moscow (he did, with two golds, two silvers, and two bronzes), but Dityatin is their top guy now."
With both the Americans and the always-powerful Japanese absent, those eight medals have to seem just a bit tarnished, for one can't help thinking that he would have been knocked out of the top three in at least one or two events had all his chief rivals been here.
One of the biggest surprises here has been the failure of the Soviet men's basketball team, which lost to Italy and Yugoslavia on successive nights and eventually had to settle for the bronze medal.
With the possible exception of the Yugoslavs, who always give them trouble and who beat them at Montreal, the Soviets were expected to have things pretty much their own way this year. They had the manpower, including 7 ft. 4 in. Vladimir Tkachenko; they had the homecourt advantage; and they didn't have to worry about the United States, which has won every Olympic basketball gold medal except for that still-debated USSR victory at Munich.
It didn't work out that way, though, starting with an 87-85 upset by Italy and continuing with a controversial 101-91 overtime victory by Yugoslavia in which the Soviets, for a change, came out on the short end of an officiating dispute. With the USSR down by two points in the closing seconds of regulation time, Sergei Iovay had apparently scored a tying goal and been fouled as well for a potenital winning free throw, but the referee said the foul had come before the shot, thus disallowing the basket. Iovay made his two free throws to tie the game, but Yugoslavia dominated the overtime.
The Soviets still had a chance, for according to the complicated tiebreaking system, they would have advance anyway to the gold-medal game and another crack at Yugoslavia, unless the latter could beat Brazil in its final preliminary round contest. That one, too, had a controversial ending. In fact, for a wild few seconds it looked all too familiar to Americans who remembered their loss to the Soviet Union in 1972.
Yugoslavia was leading 96-95 when the buzzer went off, but after the usual celebrations, the officials decided the clock had been wrong and Brazil had three more seconds. It was in just such a situation that the Soviets had scored too win at Munich, and now, of course, it was in their interest for Brazil to duplicate that feat. History didn't repeat itself, though, as a long shot failed , the buzzer went off again, and this time it was official, creating a Yugoslavia vs. Italy final for the gold medal.
The Soviet women also were heavily favored coming into this competition, but unlike their male counterparts they had no problems. Led by 6-11 Iuliyan Semenova, they crushed all opposition as expected (by margins of 35 to 66 points) in rolling into the final, then defeated Bulgaria 104-73 for the gold medal Wednesday night.
The basketball controversies were just two among many at these games. There was a big one in women's gymnastics, of course, when awarding of the all-around title to home favorite Davydova over defending champion Comaneci of Romania was nearly blown into an international incident. And there have been several others in a variety of sports.
The Mexicans have felt particularly short-changed. First they cried foul when a Soviet competitor was allowed to repeat a dive because of "crowd noise" and sound up taking the gold medal from Carlos Giron. Then when defending champion Daniel Bautista was disqualified in the 20-kilometer walk for allegedly running with one lap to go (though in fairness it should be pointed out that the Soviet leader at the time was similarly disqualified), they were beside themselves.
There have been several other track and field controversies, including one in the triple jump, where a 1-2 Soviet finish was followed by a vehement protest on the part of Australia's Ian Campbell. "I was robbed by the takeoff board judge," Campbell said after a leap that appeared to be good for the gold medal had been nullified.
With four full days of competition remaining, the Soviet Union had already set new records, with 55 gold medals and 137 overall. The previous marks (also both held by the USSR) were 50 golds at Munich and 135 overall at Montreal.
East Germany was a distant second this year, with 34 golds and 92 overall to date, with no other country anywhere near the big two. Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland , and Romania had the next four places, while the top Western nations were Britain (4 golds, 14 overall) and Sweden (3 and 12).