November 19, 2005

Changes in the air at world championships

By Greg Stutchbury

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Beijing will be on the minds of many
of the gymnasts at next week's world championships, when the
sport's 10-based scoring system gets its final outing.

The leading gymnastics nations, including China and the
United States, are rebuilding their squads in the wake of the
2004 Athens Olympics and will use the Melbourne event as a step
on the road to the 2008 Beijing Games.

Many expect the U.S. women's team to dominate in Melbourne
and possibly provide the new golden girl of the sport in Nastia
Liukin now that Carly Patterson, who won the Olympic all-round
title in Athens, is busy making a career in entertainment.

The 16-year-old Liukin, who was born in Moscow, has an
impressive pedigree. Her father Valeri won two gold and two
silver medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and her mother Anna
was the 1987 world rhythmic gymnastics champion.

"I am not really setting any huge goals to win," said
Liukin, the 2005 U.S. all-round national champion.

"If I could come first that would be really nice, but right
now my goal is just to have good trainings right up until the
competition and when we get there do the routines like I have
been training them all week."

The decision to dump the 10.00 format, which has been in
place since the 1920 Antwerp Games, was sparked by two major
controversies at least year's Athens Olympics.

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) admitted that
American Paul Hamm had been awarded the men's all-round crown
in error after South Korea's Yang Tae-young had been
incorrectly docked a tenth of a point from his parallel bars

The system came under further attack when chaos erupted
during the men's horizontal bar final. The competition was held
up for almost 10 minutes as fans forced the judges to change
the score of four-times Olympic champion Alexei Nemov of

Former Olympic gymnast Nellie Kim, who is president of the
FIG's women's technical committee, said the controversies
showed the system needed to be replaced.

"We are changing the code radically...because the old
approach to gymnastics has become obsolete," Kim said. "Now the
final score could be beyond 10. It could be 12, it could be 17
or whatever."


Hamm will be missing this time, having taken a year off
competition to concentrate on his university studies, though
the U.S. men's team expect to be competitive.

"The main goal is to do our job. The guys are strong and if
we go out there and nail our routines it'll be the most
exciting thing ever," said team member Jason Gatson.

"We are looking forward to not only doing well here but
going on in the next couple of world championships and Olympic
Games and maintaining our status as one of the top teams in the

As is the case after an Olympic year, most of the women's
teams have undergone total revamps and the competition, which
begins on Tuesday, will not include a team event. Gymnasts will
compete in the all-round or on individual apparatus.

The individual format is a blessing for Romania, who have
been beset by problems since winning their second successive
women's team title at Athens.

The team were disbanded in August after triple Olympic
champion Catalina Ponor and team mate Floarea Leonida went to a
Bucharest nightclub without the permission of coaches Octavian
Belu and Mariana Bitang, who then resigned.

Their fellow team gold medallists from Athens -- Daniela
Sofronie, Monica Rosu and Oana Ban -- quit, were excluded for
being overweight or banned from training because of health
problems and only Ponor and Leonida will compete in Melbourne.

The Chinese have selected several veterans including Li
Xiaopeng to provide guidance to a young men's team.

"This is a good opportunity for them to gain some
experience in the international arena and to prepare for the
2008 Beijing Olympic Games," said the 24-year-old Li.

Li, who strained his back in training on Thursday, is
seeking to pass Li Ning as the highest medal winner for his
country. Li has 10 world championships medals, one less than
his compatriot.

Championships' organizers have adopted the slogan "It's
Spring Time in Melbourne," delighting one American competitor
-- Justin Spring.

"I thought that was pretty cool," the 21-year-old
University of Illinois student said at a news conference. "My
coach John told me about it...and I was like 'what?' I've got
to get a poster before I leave."

Officials obliged, presenting Spring with a promotional
poster after the news conference.