The way Bela Karolyi sees the cyclical world of top-flight international gymnastics, this is preparatory stage, the time when coaches and federations are putting all the ingredients together to win gold in the next Olympics.

"Seoul in '88 will be fantastic," Karolyi said of the next Summer Olympics in South Korea. "Everyone is working in their kitchens. The Russians are working in their kitchen, the Romanians are working in their kitchen. All of us are working in our kitchens, and in '88 all of those cookies will come out of the oven."

It's a tad early to go searching for the potholders and a spatula, but this weekend's McDonald's American Cup invitational at George Mason's Patriot Center will offer people in the area an opportunity to turn on the oven light and peer through the glass.

Saturday's session begins at noon, and Sunday's finals start at 2:30. The format of competition is a bit unusual. On Saturday, all 38 competitors -- 19 men and 19 women -- will do their optional routines on all of the apparatus. The top eight men and top eight women, in terms of cumulative scores from all apparatus, will advance to Sunday's finals. The format will make it extremely difficult to reach the finals if a competitor makes a bad mistake in any one event.

Karolyi, in case you haven't seen his beer commercial, was the coach who guided Mary Lou Retton to the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. Before defecting from Romania with his wife Marta, he was Nadia Comaneci's coach.

Karolyi has 800 pupils at his club in Houston, and among the best of the 12 or 14 that he works with personally is 13-year-old Kristie Phillips from Baton Rouge, La. Phillips and 14-year-old Melissa Marlowe, from Salt Lake City, who are among the United States' hopes for the future, will be competing, as will 15-year-old Sabrina Mar, who may be the best of the group at the moment. Mar, from Monterey, Calif., works with the Southern California Acro Team (SCATS) and finished 14th in the all-around at the world championships in November in Montreal.

Heading the American men's team are gold medalist Tim Daggett of Los Angeles, Brian Babcock of Garden City, Kan., and Brian Ginsberg of Mobile, Ala. Daggett, a graduate student at UCLA, won a gold medal as part of the victorious 1984 men's Olympic team and a bronze on the pommel horse. He and Babcock were part of the U.S. team, with Ginsberg as an alternate, at the world championships.

This will be the second group of Soviet athletes to compete in the United States since the Soviet-led boycott of the Los Angeles Games. And 16-year-old Irina Baraksanova may be the one to beat.

Baraksanova was fourth going into the finals of the all-around at the world championships before she was pulled from the lineup because of an injury.

Karolyi will tell you that it is tough comparing Retton and Phillips, because there are differences in gymnastic style and personality. Since her performance in Los Angeles, Retton's bubbling, ear-to-ear smile seemingly has been spread over every product this country manufactures. Phillips, Karolyi said, is from a different mold.

"Mary Lou was very powerful, with tremendous strength and explosive moves," Karolyi said. "Kristi is a more coordinated, flexible gymnast.

"Her personality is not as explosive as Mary Lou, who could cry and laugh at the same time, never hiding anything. Kristi is more controlled."

Retton was 13 when she won this event in 1983.

"It's a fortunate situation to be introduced in an important competition like the American Cup," Karolyi said of Phillips, whose only prior international competition came during meets in Canada and France. "It can serve as a trampoline for the next few years, ending with the Olympics."

Tickets still are available for both sessions, although organizers are expecting a close-to-capacity crowd of about 8,000 Sunday.