…and I was watching the 1996 Olympic women’s team final.
Some people watch White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve. The gymnastics obsessed may opt to view the sport’s version of a happy/sappy old-time movie, like Stick It. Or the 1996 women’s team final. This year I opted for the latter.
If you’re a U.S. fan, the 1996 women’s final is the mother of all happy/sappy gymnastics sagas. Romanians and Russians probably watch this meet and feel depressed and/or enraged (and not entirely without reason. But that’s another post.)
Anyway, when viewed knowing everything that comes afterward, a piece of history is often more interesting. With that in mind, here are a few takes on gymnastics at the Atlanta Olympics, compared with gymnastics as we’re likely to see it at the London Games next summer.
Happy and sappy gets sort of out of control early on. Gymnastics at the Atlanta Olympics featured the commentating talents of John Tesh, whose Wikipedia entry makes him sound like Superman (Emmys, Grammy noms, $20 million raised for PBS and an award for investigative journalism from the AP!)
To his credit Tesh brought a lot of enthusiasm for the sport, but on the air he spouted a load of cliches, referring to the gymnasts as “little girls” (the average age on the U.S. team was 17.5) far too often during the first 20 minutes.
That, combined haphazard camera cuts, the Georgia Dome crowd screaming like The Rolling Stones were about to take the stage, floor music blaring in the background and Tesh breaking in on NBC’s Tim Daggett and Elfi Schlegel to yell each U.S. score as soon as it came up gave the broadcast the frenzied feel of a circus after the animals have broken loose from their cages. At least for the first half. It was fun once you got acclimated.
Everyone’s bangs are so fluffy! This was an improvement from the 1988 Olympics, when everyone looked like they’d been out flying kites in a lightning storm. Not just the gymnasts, either — have a gander at bottle blonde Martha Karolyi or thick-haired Octavian Bellu.
Random question: Was Dominique Moceanu the first person to do a full twisting double layout dismount off bars in Olympic competition?
1996 was the year of uprises on bars. That trickled into the next quad as well, but these days, you hardly ever see them. Also, random observation: Jaycie Phelps and Kerri Strug did almost the same bar routine.
Tradeoffs on beam and floor. Event to event, the gymnastics in 1996 was easier than it is today. But there are a few notable exceptions: Today, a full twisting double tuck off beam is very rare, but two members of the U.S. team used it in 1996 (and Dominique Dawes did it from two back handsprings).
Back in 1996, people were arguing that watching a back handspring followed by three layout stepouts was boring, but after years of front aerial to bhs, layout or even just the plain bhs, layout, those flight series look thrilling. On floor, I was amazed with the ease and grace Lavinia Milosovici, Lilia Podkopayeva, Jaycie Phelps and Kerri Strug did full in tucks as their closing passes. We don’t see that too often these days. Today, however, we see far more tiring second and third passes, as well as more complex leaps.
Kerri Strug did gymnastics like a Romanian. Her movements and choreography sent me straight back to Lavinia Agache. Small wonder, seeing who her coach was. I just never noticed it before.
The drama is amazing. All these years later, knowing exactly what happens in the last rotation, I watched the fourth rotation with baited breath. So many ways things may have been different come to mind: Why didn’t Dominique Moceanu vault a safe Yurchenko half for her first vault the way Shannon Miller and Amy Chow did? If she had, would it have taken the pressure off Kerri Strug? Or would Strug’s injury have happened anyway?
Best of all is that leading up to vault there are all kinds of commentators remarks about how well things are going for the U.S., how unflappable they looked, how vault was the best thing to end on because they got two chances to nail a landing. The foreshadowing — which wasn’t even foreshadowing — could not have been more perfectly scripted.
And then what happened — the defining moment of that Olympic Games — happened. At the end of it all, as the Americans stood on the top step of the podium with gold medals around their necks, Tesh said: “Tomorrow Kerri Strug will be on the cover of every newspaper in the world, her story an inspiration to every youngster, every adult who has ever had a dream to do something incredible.”
Yes. Indeed it was.
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