GYMNASTICS fans in the United States are in for a treat: The 1992 Tour of Olympic and World Champion Gymnasts is rounding the country.
Here in Worcester, Mass., the gymnasts kicked off a 25-city tour that promises to give audiences an up-close view of some of the world's best gymnasts, including Olympic medalists Shannon Miller and Trent Dimas of the United States, and Tatiana Gutsu, Vitali Sherbo (the top medalist, with six golds), and Grigori Misutin of the Unified Team.
Special appearances will be made by other champion gymnasts - some well-known, some not so well-known - during the course of the tour.
The tour is, in part, an attempt to capitalize on post-Olympic interest in the gymnasts, much the way ice-skating tours showcase Winter Olympics skating stars.
For audiences, the appeal is simple: Live gymnastics are much more exciting than gymnastics on TV. It also gives the sport more visibility.
"The more gymnastics in the public eye, the better," comments Allison Melangton, director of special events for the United States Gymnastics Federation.
The tour idea is not new: There were gymnastics tours after the 1984 and 1988 Olympics as well. But this one is the most extensive to date.
Although the exhibition centers on medal-winning gymnasts and their routines, the show aims to entertain as well as to display athletic talents.
"Because it's an exhibition, we do our best for the [audience], not for the judges," said 1989 World Champion Svetlana Boguinskaia through an interpreter in a pre-exhibition interview. "It's much more fun for the audience," she said. Billed as "the swan from Byelorussia," Boguinskaia performs floor-exercise and balance-beam routines in the show.
The tour is good exposure for the athletes, some of whom may rather do gymnastics for a living than TV commercials for batteries or cereal. "Unfortunately, for all the work they do, they don't have that many opportunities to exhibit," notes Stan Feig, the producer of the tour. He adds that for "those who are finished competing, there are even fewer opportunities."
The recognition involved in such a tour is also good for Unified Team members, adds Mr. Feig. Take Vitali Sherbo: He won six gold medals at the 1992 Olympics. "That's unheard-of," says Feig: "If he were American, he'd be extremely wealthy."
THE Unified Team athletes typically like to tour, explains Ms. Melangton of the US Gymnastics Federation. "The American public embraces gymnasts more than others do. Tatiana Gutsu is a `little darling,' along with Shannon Miller. [The exhibit] allows them to perform for people that always support them the best."
"We're basically one, big, happy family. We're here to please the crowd," sums up Trent Dimas during a pre-show interview. This is also a good "friendship-building time" for the athletes, he added. "I hope it's beneficial to everyone."
Promoters and others involved with the exhibition want the tour to be viewed as family entertainment and grow the way skating tours have. But gymnastics has a ways to go. "It's young, in terms of public perception of exhibition," says Cindy Burke, director of marketing and publicity for the Worcester, Mass., Centrum.So what can one expect from the exhibition? Naturally, the opportunity to see the gymnasts do some of the same routines they performed in the Olympics.
But with more of an entertainment focus, rather than competition, the show makes gymnastics more audience-friendly. Music adds a nice touch to events that usually don't have music, such as the men's events and the women's uneven parallel bars and beam. The exhibition offers even more in the way of theatrics and amusement than one might expect: a gymnastic clown, some simple tumbling by a dozen very small gymnasts who call themselves "tumble tots," and a young, non-gymnast audience volunteer who is helped
to learn a back flip. The most theatrical of all were the group segments. Acrobatic couple Jan Burns and Sonny Brown performed two numbers, looking a lot like skaters without the ice.
The real dazzler was a co-ed group number set to Janet Jackson's song "Control," choreographed by two-time world champion Kurt Thomas. Wearing fluorescent leotards and indulging in some MTV-type dance moves, the champions burst out with some spectacular tandem tumbling to the delight of the audience.
* The gymnasts are scheduled to tour until Nov. 15. They are in Charlotte, N.C., on Oct. 3, then travel to the following cities: Pittsburgh; Orlando and St. Petersburg, Fla.; Dayton, Ohio; Cleveland; Chicago; Minneapolis; Milwaukee; Lincoln, Neb.; Salt Lake City; Las Vegas; Denver; Oakland, Calif.; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; San Diego; Phoenix; Albuquerque, N.M., and others as yet unscheduled. Check local listings.