Gymnastics officials in the United States are certain that spectators at the 1984 Olympic Games will witness two major changes in the sport: the exercises will be more spectacular and conducive to error, and the U.S. will have an impact on the medal competition.
For years, the dominant figures in gymnastics have been Eastern European women like Larissa Latynina, Vera Caslavska, Ludmila Tourischeva, Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci. Now the men, including some in the United States, are attracting attention.
Mitch Gaylord's horizontal bar trick, called the Gaylord Flip, is one of many difficult new moves that have gained attention of fans and judges. Gaylord, for example, received a 9.95 on the bar during the recent dual meet with the Soviets.
"I think the men are really coming on," said Abie Grossfeld, coach of the U.S. national men's team. "The difficulty has risen a lot and the exercises are very spectacular. It's been sensed by the public; it's quite exciting to watch. The women have always been more artistic. Now they are sort of copying the men in certain types of exercises."
Rich Kenney, a spokesman for the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, noted that "the tricks they're using now are science fiction from the way it was just two years ago.
Tougher tricks, of course, frequently mean falls and failure. It has been especially traumatic for some of the women, particularly on the balance beam.
"The men are doing harder work without so many errors," said Don Peters, the U.S. Olympic women's coach. "The women in general are younger and they tend to make more mistakes . . . they are making many more mistakes now.
"In the last World Championships, half the Russian team and half the Chinese fell off the beam.
"There is tremendous pressure in international competition and it takes years to deal with that pressure. In recent years, there has not been the opportunity to repeat that gymnasts once had. Latynina in the '60s went on for years. But now the average gymnast is going into her first Olympics, and that is tough."
It has been tough for Americans in just about any Olympics, with the Eastern European countries and Japan dominating the sport for years. U.S. women have won only one Olympic medal, a bronze in the team competition in 1948. The U.S. men, who earned seven medals at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, did not win another until Peter Kormann took a bronze in floor exercise in 1976.
Despite the recent defeat by the Soviets in Los Angeles, both Peters and Grossfeld found reason to be optimistic about the upcoming World Championships in Budapest, which include Olympic qualifying, and the 1984 Games.
"The Russian women are still No. 1 in the world," Peters said. "We lost the competition by 1.7 points and I was not real pleased with our performance. However, using it as a barometer to see where we stand, we're improved. We had been hanging around sixth place for 20 years and five years ago we couldn't have been anywhere near 1 1/2 points behind the Soviets.
"I think we have a good chance for second place in the team competition, and we've never been that high before. (Tracee) Talavera won a bronze medal on the beam in the '81 World Championships, (Julianne) McNamara is strong on the bars and in the all-around, and (Mary Lou) Retton is an excellent vaulter, although she missed the Russian meet with an injury. You can be sure: Americans will win medals in 1984."
The men's competition was even closer, with the Soviets winning by nine-tenths of a point, largely because of an incredible performance by 16-year-old Dima Bilozerchev.
"They had all their big guns, and only beat us by nine-tenths," Grossfeld said. "We had more misses and they're more consistent, but it was encouraging.
"The Russians rank first and the Chinese second, but we're very close. It's not impossible for us to get silver or even gold. A year ago, we were aiming for third place, but now our goals are higher. We have a lot of depth and our fifth and sixth men are close to our top guys, which is the way it's been in Japan and Russia for so long.
"The Japanese men were the best for about 20 years; now we've caught them. They didn't change with the times and stayed old-fashioned."
Peters sees the fact that the Olympics will be held here as a plus and a minus.
"The crowd should be a bit of a benefit to us, because a vocal crowd tends to keep the judging more honest," he said. "Western crowds are very vocal and if they voice their opinion, it will affect the judges.
"On a negative note, though, there is added pressure competing in your own country. It will be a problem in women's gymnastics because of the age factor. Every country has very young girls, although we are starting to see older competitors--Kathy Johnson, at 23, is doing well--the way it was 15 years ago, before the '70s saw so many young girls rising quickly to the top.
"We are feeling the effects of the (1980 Olympic) boycott in the reduced number of kids moving into our programs," Peters said. "It has not affected the team now, which was drawn out of the Nadia boom, but our youth programs are suffering and you will see the effect in 1988."
"Girls' programs do well in private clubs, because gymnastics enhances girls' femininity and is still athletic," Grossfeld said. "But boys play other sports and most of their contact with gymnastics is in the schools. There had been an upsurge in that area, but now it has leveled off and many schools don't have an expert in gymnastics.
"Many high school programs have been dropped because of the cost. Los Angeles had 100 schools competing in gymnastics; now the number is zero."