IN the words of Patty Hacker, a United States Gymnastics Federation official, "All it takes is one Kim Zmeskal" to create a surge in the sport's popularity.
As the reigning world champion, Zmeskal of Houston could inspire Olympic watchers in Barcelona just as she did those at the US Olympic trials last month in Baltimore, where she received two perfect scores of 10 on the vault.
However, girls who sign up for high school gymnastics programs after the Olympics may find the doors closed. Many of these programs have withered in the past decade because of lack of coaches, expensive equipment, and rising insurance costs.
The number of gymnasts in high school programs has dropped by more than half since 1981, says Susan True, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations - from 58,800 to 27,265 in 1990.
The downturn hasn't hurt any future Olympic-caliber athletes, who usually begin private training as early as age 4 and are well beyond high-school-level gymnastics by age 14. Those affected have most likely been teenagers with no prior training who want to perform the sport for fun, but whose parents might not have the money or commitment for classes in a private club.
Some experts cite the difficulty of maintaining coaches as the root of the high school sport's deterioration.
"A person is more likely to go to a private club that can offer 12 months of employment and a 30- to 40-hour workweek than a high school where they work two months a year and 12 hours a week," says Steve Whitlock, director of education and safety for the US Gymnastics Federation (USGF).
Also, many of the programs are led by older coaches and as they retire, there is no one to replace them, says Ms. True.
Lack of coaches is one reason high school gymnastics in Pennsylvania may vanish soon, says Bob Lombardi of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. In 1980, the number of Pennsylvania high schools offering gymnastics was 139, he says, but the number has since plummeted to 42. Mr. Lombardi also blames the decline on insurance costs, lack of available gym space, and high equipment and travel expenses.
Travel expenses were never a problem when more high schools offered gymnastics programs. Now high school gymnasts from large states must sometimes travel hundreds of miles to compete. Wyoming, which covers 98,000 square miles, for instance, has only eight teams.
In their struggle to keep gymnastics alive, some high schools share equipment, while others make do with hand-me-down mats from the wrestling team instead of purchasing a floor-exercise mat, which runs in the vicinity of $7,000.
"It's a shame students and families can't participate easily and inexpensively through school programs," says Mr. Whitlock, who has helped design a program for beginning gymnasts and coaches that makes use of school equipment already available.
Instead of a balance beam, which costs about $1,100, gymnasts use a line on the floor. A single-bar trainer at $500 is substituted for the uneven bars, at a savings of about $1,500.
"Many people equate gymnastics with Olympic gymnastics that requires high-level intricate skills," Whitlock says. "But it's really a basis of movement and balance... that can be applied to all other sports."
Whitlock has co-written and edited the handbook for "sequential gymnastics," which he says shows how educators can include gymnastics in the curriculum in a noncompetitive way.
ELIMINATING the competitive nature of gymnastics could hurt rather than help the sport, says Amy Rager, regional judging director of high school gymnastics in Maryland. "The competition is what gets people going," she says.
But the competition can also discourage beginning gymnasts, says coach Jack Leonard, when girls who have had years of private-club training compete at high school championships.
"They can do everything I tell them, they can improve a lot from the time they started training, but all it takes is one kid on a private team to knock them down [in a competition]," says Mr. Leonard, a former national champion who coaches women's gymnastics at a Maryland high school.
Indeed, private gymnastics clubs appear to be thriving. The USGF listed 620 clubs in its membership in 1985; now it's up to 3,000, with an estimated 1,000 additional clubs that are not USGF members.
Despite this trend, gymnastics is not becoming elitist, says Whitlock, who ran a private club in Detroit before assuming his post with the USGF.
If the interest is high, he says, there are ways all kids can work around the high cost of clubs - by paying the fee in monthly increments or working part time at the club. (A year's worth of private-club training costs from $1,200 to $2,400. An eight-week session averages about $75.)
Although Jaime Gher, 16, of Gaithersburg, Md., has practiced gymnastics in a private club for the past seven years, she joined her high school team last year so she could "meet people and be with my friends."
Ms. Gher says while the quality of equipment is poorer, she enjoys the noncompetitiveness of belonging to the high school team.
"Everybody's really happy for you when you do well," she says.