2000 Summer Olympics
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Night of the diva
Russia's notorious Svetlana Khorkina eats the scenery at the women's team gymnastic finals.

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By Gary Kamiya

Sept. 19, 2000 | SYDNEY, Australia -- Thank God for Russian divas! Making like a heroine out of a Dostoevski novel -- self-absorbed, brilliant, sexy and completely untrustworthy -- Russia's notorious Playboy-posing gymnast Svetlana Khorkina crashed and burned and moped and glared and flirted her way through the women's team finals Tuesday night, almost single-handedly taking her team down with her and then bringing them almost all the way back. By the end of her Maria Callas-like performance, you weren't sure if you loved her or hated her -- but you couldn't take your eyes off her.

And this was only the team competition. What's she going to do at the individuals -- taunt her rivals by piling a million dollars' worth of rubles on the balance beam and lighting it on fire? Announce her marriage to an epileptic mystic? Perform bottomless? Stay tuned.

Khorkina's first-we-make-love then-I-kill-you then-I kill-myself antics wouldn't have seemed so extreme anywhere except in the sexless, zombie-like atmosphere of an Olympics women's gymnastic competition. After years of miniaturized vulcanized-rubber girls bouncing off the walls like identical high-scoring superballs, this year the rules have been changed so that the athletes must be 16 years old to compete. Big deal. Now they're just slightly larger miniaturized vulcanized-rubber girls. Khorkina is just 21, all of 5-foot-5 and far from Rubenesque, but compared to the ironing-board-physique ant-girls who crawl about next to her, she looks like Mamie van Doren on growth hormones. (This is a good thing: Where is Ludmilla Tourischeva when we need her?) And in a sea of innocuous little personalities, her high-maintenance, libido-laden posturings stand out like a lipstick smear on a nun's habit. No wonder that half the gymnastics world loves her, half hates her.

Khorkina's melodramatics began on her signature apparatus, the uneven parallel bars. Her Russian team was locked in a tight race with Romania for the gold medal -- a medal, of course, that Russian women used to own the way Americans own basketball, but which they haven't won since gangster capitalism replaced gangster communism in the land o' Lenin. Khorkina is the world champion on the unevens, and she is spectacular to behold on them: She has a dazzling, fluid line and gets tremendous height, which accentuates the flashing, scissors-like grace of her movements. (Asked what made her uneven bars routine so special, she replied, in typical Khorkina fashion, "Technique and legs.")

Khorkina looked around her with lordly disdain, milking the drama of the moment, and mounted the bars. The crowd was ready for a knockout performance, a 9.8 or better. And then the unthinkable happened: Khorkina fell off. Down the arrogant diva tumbled, landing with an ungainly flop. The crowd gasped. Khorkina got on again and completed her routine, and even a routine in which Khorkina falls off is more interesting than a perfect uneven routine by most other gymnasts, but of course she got a terrible score -- 9.0 -- and dropped Russia down dramatically in points.

Khorkina looked shell-shocked, and so did her teammates. The next apparatus, as ill luck would have it, was the balance beam -- a nerve-wracking torture log that I would imagine is the last thing you want to face when your concentration has been shaken. Sure enough, the first Russian onto the beam failed to complete a move and scored very low -- and that was just the start. The next Russian, Elena Zamolodchikova, one of the best all-around gymnasts in the world, actually fell completely off the beam, landing scarily and awkwardly on the mat. Two knowledgeable American women fans sitting next to me couldn't believe it. "This is unthinkable," one of them said. "It's not how you win a gold medal." She got 8.862 -- the gymnastics equivalent of an F-minus. The next Russian started strong, but suddenly and almost inexplicably she touched the floor with her hand. The wheels were coming off the mighty Russian tank.

Elena Produnova, one of the world's best on the beam, managed to stop the bleeding with a clean routine. Now it was Khorkina's turn. Would she crack? Her nerves proved as cold as her cut-glass face. She went through a flawless routine, including several amazing back flips -- but what do I know, anything that the worst world-class gymnast in the world does on any apparatus is utterly mind-blowing, they're obviously all freaks who have sold their souls to the devil -- and stuck her dismount. Then, as she stood rooted on the mat, she glared, absolutely glared, glared daggers, dirks, epees, broadswords, halbeards -- at who? I have no idea. Probably she saw a camera.

Khorkina would be a nice place to visit, I began to think, but you wouldn't want to live there.