Women's Gymnastics A Key U.S.-China Rivalry

Forget basketball. The real China-U.S. rivalry at the Beijing Summer Olympics is in women's gymnastics. The two women's teams are the best in the world, but each is facing a different set of challenges.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

To Beijing now, and one of the most anticipated events of the Olympics. The U.S. and Chinese women's gymnastics teams face off tomorrow, and they're expected to fight hard for the gold. That's because the teams have split the last two world championships. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

Unidentified Man: It's going to be exciting to see for the Olympics. Hey, there you go. Sacramone with a 15.325, the United States will lock up the gold medal.

FRANK LANGFITT: That was the scene in Stuttgart, Germany last year. Alicia Sacramone had just completed her floor routine and edged the Chinese by less than a point to win the team gold medal at the world championships. But the scene Monday in Beijing was different. It was the Chinese who won the preliminaries against a battered U.S. team.

Mr. BART CONNER (Olympic Gold Medalist, Gymnastics; Analyst, Universal Sports): The Chinese women are spectacular. They're masterful technicians. They're very clean in execution and they do very high level of difficulty, even higher than the Americans.

LANGFITT: That's U.S. Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner. He's here doing analysis for Universal Sports, a year-round Olympic TV network and Web site. Two U.S. gymnasts have suffered ankle injuries in the last week. One, Chelsea Memmel, was world all-around champion in 2005. Conner says those injuries may keep the Americans from putting their strongest lineup on the floor.

Mr. CONNER: The U.S. Team is certainly much more beat up than the Chinese team. They're going to need to hold it together.

Ms. MARTH KAROLYI (Women's National Team Coordinator): When things like that happen, you just have to regroup.

LANGFITT: Martha Karolyi is the Women's National Team Coordinator. At a news conference, she said she's just been trying to calm her athletes.

Ms. KAROLYI: And make sure that nobody is freaking out and step up, and they all will be even more important to step up in Chelsea's place and do those events, what she's not able to do.

LANGFITT: Bella Karolyi is Martha's husband and the coach of the 2000 U.S. women's team. He's questioned the age of some of China's diminutive team members. Female gymnasts must be 16 to compete in the Olympics. China's smallest member is just 4'6". The Chinese team has produced passports saying the girls are of age. Martha Karolyi says she doesn't worry about the competition.

Ms. KAROLYI: We're ready to face any team, over age or under age.

LANGFITT: The competition is scheduled for the 18,000 seat national indoor stadium, before what is sure to be a heavily Chinese crowd. U.S. head coach Liang Chow, who's from China, said performing here might help the home team -or not.

Mr. LIANG CHOW (Head Coach, U.S. Women's Olympic Gymnastics Team): I think it turns both ways. You know, it can be a very advantage for being at your home court, but also on the other hand, there's lots of more pressure on the Chinese team.

LANGFITT: It's a good point. The Chinese team faces enormous expectations here. Government leaders in Beijing see the Olympics not just as sports, but as a ratification of the country's remarkable economic rise. The Chinese have spent a huge amount of money gunning for as many gold medals as possible. They're goal: knock off the United States. In team gymnastics, Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner gives the edge to the Chinese. But he says the teams are so close, it could go either way.

Mr. CONNER: Coming into the final for the women's team, it's going to come down to the final athlete on the final performance, the final dismount, because the teams are so evenly matched.

LANGFITT: That was not the case in men's gymnastics yesterday. The Chinese team won gold easily. But the U.S. team, badly damaged with its own injuries, beat expectations and won a surprising bronze.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Beijing.

MONTAGNE: And you can see a photo gallery of events in Beijing at the Olympic section of npr.org.

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