Queen dethroned by teen

It takes guts, or perhaps girlish innocence, to dethrone a queen. But that’s just what 16-year-old American teenager Carly Patterson accomplished Thursday evening over Russian veteran Svetlana Khorkina at the Olympic gymnastics hall, as she nailed a final performance on the floor exercise to put the seal on the first of what will likely be several Olympic medals and, far more surprisingly, only the second ever in this event for an American gymnast, and the first since 1984. The sign pasted in the front row across the cavernous hall announced «Queen Khorkina» and the subject’s gazelle-like body, magisterial presence, haughty manner and glittering record in international competitions marked her as the one to beat in her signature event, along with the uneven parallel bars. The all-around features 24 gymnasts grouped by six, who rotate on the four disciplines: balance beam, pommel horse, uneven bars and floor exercise. To achieve flawless scores throughout the evening is virtually impossible, and sure enough there were quite a few falls or near-spills, but just as many perfectly landed, twisted dismounts and double flips to prove that top-flight athleticism is on display here in Athens. All eyes may have been on Khorkina – at 1.64 m (5 feet 5 inches) she’s at least half a head taller than most of the other competitors, and draws a gaze like moths to a candle – although she hadn’t won the individual all-around at two previous Olympics. She did take the world title last year in Anaheim, California, her third successive in this event (and ninth world title in all) with Patterson the runner-up; and expectations were for a similar result this time, which would bring her career to a triumphant close. This event also featured a Greek, Stefani Bisbikou, who was 12th after three disciplines before falling off the balance beam to finish a respectable 15th out of 24. But it was the athletic Patterson, all 1.52 meters (5 feet) and 44 kilos (97 pounds) of her, who came on strongest and won the competition outright. Khorkina was ahead after two disciplines, following a typically excellent routine on the uneven bars, the event she has won at the last two Olympics. Placed just fourth at the halfway stage, Patterson put on a sterling balance beam routine as the first in her group, earning 9.725 out of 10. Perhaps slightly rattled by Patterson’s success, Khorkina, placed in the same group, wobbled twice on the beam before dismounting superbly to score a 9.462. Then it was Patterson’s turn to wait, being the last in her group on the final exercise, the floor routine. Khorkina wowed the far-from-capacity audience with a graceful and athletic routine whose score, 9.562, was roundly booed, and which opened the door to her younger American competitor. Needing around a 9.3 to win, Patterson confidently nailed three double flips (now de rigueur, even for female gymnasts), including one in the pike position to end her routine, set to a saucy jazz routine. She scored 9.712 to win handily. The packed news conference afterward was vintage Khorkina, who dominated proceedings even as the runner-up. «Well, frankly, I don’t get the question» was the answer to one rambler. «The judges should comment on these points» she received, was another. «I don’t want to discuss these kinds of issues,» she said in response to a query about her shaky balance beam routine. «Minor mistakes, barely noticeable,» was her second attempt at an explanation. She was, however, gracious to the hosts, saying; «Greeks organized these Games perfectly… It’s a wonderful people, a wonderful country.» It was as good a setting as any for a swan song by a graceful if imperious swan. Almost unnoticed was Nan Zhang of China, also in the same group, and who moved stealthily up the standings as the evening progressed, finally taking bronze with a strong floor exercise. Her presence afterward was equally modest. She said, «I’m happy with my bronze medal.» Rest assured that China will not be content with gymnastics bronzes in Beijing 2008. Perhaps it is the lingering memory of Nadia Comaneci at Montreal in 1976, perhaps the first-week focus on gymnastics, perhaps the presence of IOC President Jacques Rogge at the competition on Thursday. For my money, gymnastics define the Olympics as much as any single sport. And after having made the short walk from the pool, where American Michael Phelps and other future legends were lighting up the scoreboard, only to walk onto the gymnastics floor to see Khorkina (who we surely have not heard the last of) swirling on the uneven bars, I knew I was truly at an Olympic Games.

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