TATIANA GUTSU is practicing her floor exercise. She whips into a tumbling pass at warp speed, tearing through the air with flips and twists. She stops, but her hair ribbon does not. Flung loose, it's still flying over the floor.This tiny Soviet is one of 500 gymnasts from 52 countries competing in the 26th World Gymnastics Championships here at Indianapolis's Hoosier Dome. The event began last Saturday and runs through this weekend. What you see here is what you'll get in the Olympics: In order to qualify for the 1992 Games in Barcelona, a nation's team must place in the top 12. This meet is "second to the Olympics in the public's eyes, but in the athletes' eyes this is the Olympics," said Olympic medalist Mary Lou Retton during a press conference. "The same competitors you see here you'll see in Barcelona next year.... You're going to see your Olympic champion here." No one expects any big surprises: The Soviet Union still holds the reins. Other top contenders include the United States, Romania, and China. Germany, Japan, Hungary, Spain, North Korea, and Italy are also strong. As with most international sport competitions, this one is not immune to political sidelights. The stadium was abuzz with talk of the new world order, how it is reflected here, and its possible effects on the future of the sport. This may be the last time the Soviet Union competes as a unified team. The Soviets have brought home more medals than any country - 237 - and have never placed lower than second as a team in both men's and women's competitions since their first world championships in 1954. The Soviet Union's breakup could yield unwelcome fallout for other gymnasts. Estonia and Lithuania, for example, have historically been strong in gymnastics. As Bela Karolyi, former coach of Olympian Nadia Comaneci of Romania and now coach of the US women's team, joked, "From now on, the Soviets are gonna come with 10 teams and that's gonna create more problems than before." This year brings a unified German team and a very happy South African team, competing on a world stage for the first time in 25 years. The International Gymnastics Federation announced its decision last week to allow the team to compete. "It's an amazing feeling," said an enthusiastic Marie Thickitt, 14, of the South African team. "We were just hoping all the time." Although their team this year is all-white, coach Piet Swarts says he expects that to change "within the next three years." Inside the sport, such longstanding issues as fairness in judging and what constitutes a perfect score are still in the air. "Judging is not always entirely fair," says Minot Simons, American representative for World of Gymnastics magazine. Sometimes judges are swayed by "what leotard you're wearing" (what country you're from), if they know you and you have done well in the past, and if you attract cheers from the audience, he says. "There will always be a certain amount of prejudice, but it's better now than it has been," he says. At first, one can only wonder how judges determine scores; so many of the gymnasts look beautiful and fluid. But a more discriminating look reveals the commanding performances - longer leaps, higher somersaults, perfect pirouettes, flawless landings, difficult and original routines that make good use of choreography and contain no awkward moments or mistakes. In a word, the distinction is artistry. There also seems to have been a pullback on awarding scores of 10 in recent years. Scoring values have changed every four years out of necessity, explained Mary Lou Retton, as equipment changed and routines grew much more difficult. "What Nadia [Comaneci] did then [in 1976] is elementary by today's standards," Mr. Simons says. Starting next year, the world gymnastics championships will be held every year instead of every two years. "It's going to take time to see what it's going to bring to the sport," says US coach Karolyi. "I hope it's going to be an improvement, but I'm not 100 percent sure about it. The more you see something, it's gonna get ordinary." "Ordinary" is no word for Indianapolis's efforts, from the 63 tons of state-of-the-art gymnastic equipment, 12 practice gyms, and 1,000 volunteers, to video screens, and in-house radio broadcasts for spectators (bring your own radio). The opening ceremony featured jets of water, bursts of flame, dancers, a magician, and Vice President Quayle. All the hoopla is a boost for the home team. "A good crowd makes you a better competitor," said Jarrod Hanks, the first US team member to be bombarded with autograph requests from young members of the crowd after the compulsory phase of his competition. Judging by practice, the US women's floor exercises - heavily accented with patriotic and nostalgic tunes - should be a treat for American viewers. What is the US women's favorite Kim Zmeskal thinking about? Just her routines, says the 15-year-old from Houston. Described by coach Karolyi as "power-packed" and "explosive," she says "We've had a long, hard summer of preparation and there shouldn't be any major surprises. ... If there are, I hope they're good ones."
ABC Sports will broadcast portions of the World Gymnastics Championships on Sept. 14 and 15. Check local listings.