Gymnasts draw crowd for practice

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - How giddy is Atlanta about the Olympic Games? Glad you asked. The American women's gymnastics team conducted podium training Tuesday afternoon before 22,373 spectators.

Podium training is Olympspeak for practice - no judges, no medals, no calculated bearhugs for the cameras - but it can no longer be regarded as routine. They counted the house at the Georgia Dome Tuesday because podium training has become a ticketed event for the first time at the 1996 Summer Games. People actually paid up to $22 cash money to see Dominique Moceanu's dress rehearsal. That, and the chance to chant, ''U-S-A. U-S-A. U-S-A.''

''When I first walked out and heard everybody cheering for the U.S., I was like, 'Whoa,' '' said Cincinnati's Amanda Borden. ''I felt tears would come if I would let them. Usually, for podium training, it's just our delegation and some of the other delegations (watching); no more than 100 people at the event.''

Workout proves good tuneup

This was something completely different, and altogether advantageous. The American women were able to simulate the sounds, the surroundings and even some of the pressures of the event that will shortly define their careers. They worked out Tuesday knowing that their performances could influence how they will be used in the upcoming competition. They were permitted a sneak preview of the Olympic experience.

They will get another one on Thursday. More than 30,000 tickets have already been sold for the women's last warmup session. Some of those seats are so high that spectators may need a radar screen to detect the movements of the 4-foot-7 Moceanu. Still, if you yearn for a glimpse of Olympic gymnastics, podium training is about as close as you're likely to get at this point.

Gymnastics was the first sport to sell all of its competition tickets for the Atlanta Games, and demand was so strong that organizers decided to stage the competition in the largest indoor venue available.

The Georgia Dome has been divided by a black curtain 80 feet high. The gymnasts will compete on one side, and basketball will be played on the other. While the two sports will not be staged simultaneously, it is a measure of gymnastics' expanding popularity that the sport can command as much space as the Dream Team.

''Over the years, people have learned to love gymnastics,'' said Jaycie Phelps, another of Mary Lee Tracy's proteges at Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy. ''I think a lot of people have become interested because the U.S. team has gotten stronger. There's so many more opportunities now.''

Two months shy of her 17th birthday, Jaycie Phelps is considering whether it's time to cash in. She is considering turning professional after the Olympics and forsaking a chance at a college scholarship in favor of ready cash.

Professional gymnastics is not yet as lucrative as the National Basketball Association, but a national tour is already scheduled for this fall to exploit the attention generated by the Olympics. The 14-year-old Moceanu, who has yet to win an Olympic medal, has already published an autobiography. So has five-time medalist Shannon Miller. Neither of these brilliant young competitors has anything remotely interesting to say, but both of them have become icons to many American girls.

They're not in it for money

The size of its competitors notwithstanding, gymnastics is a huge growth industry.

''Gymnastics is a very good money-making sport,'' said Tracy, who is serving the U.S. women's team as an assistant coach. ''But we're not there yet (compared to other sports). I think the girls work every bit as hard as the basketball players do, but I don't think they're really in it for the money.

''This is the Olympics. I don't think about what anybody's going to get paid. To be in the Olympics is such a dream, I don't care if I don't make a penny.''

That's the sort of thing you say in the heat of an Olympic moment. But when gymnastics starts packing them in for practice, a wise woman's instinct is to start inquiring about her cut.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 17, 1996.