In 1984, the American men won the gold medal and the women the silver in the Los Angeles Olympics. The Soviets weren't there. The East Germans weren't there. The Bulgarians weren't there.In 1988, the Soviets, East Germans and Bulgarians will compete in Seoul, Korea, along with the Chinese and Romanians and Americans.

While the men and women who leave Salt Lake City this weekend as the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team may in many ways be better than their 1984 counterparts - the athletes and the techniques keep improving - they will be hard-pressed to duplicate the success of L.A.

Many say, in fact, that Americans will be lucky to be in the top five.

But as the four-day Olympic trials approach - they're in the Salt Palace Wednesday through Saturday - there seems to be more hope glimmering than there was, say, six or eight months ago.

True, the only color anybody's really looking at is bronze, but bronze would be a coup for two all-new teams in an all-world Olympics far from home.

"We're going to have a very competitive team," says U.S. women's team Coach Don Peters of Huntington Beach, Calif. He's heard doomsayers proclaim sixth as realistic; he says, "I don't buy that. I think we're going to contend for a team medal."

The Soviets and Romanians are certainly the best teams, but Peters says, "I don't see anybody else stronger than we are, other than those two."

Part of Peters' optimism comes from the overall depth he'll have. Going into the trials, which will select a six-woman team, are 13 performers good enough to make it, Peters says.

Every meet has had a different winner because so many are strong. "In 1984," says Peters, "Mary Lou Retton won every meet for 18 months. It was pretty clear-cut. This year, it's

more balanced.

"In many ways," adds Peters, "it's better this way. You compete as a team, and your score is often influenced by your teammates.

"Right now, 13 people are very much alive," Peters says. No. 13 Joyce Wilborn of the Parkettes (Pa.) is less than a point out of sixth, and 11th-place Melissa Marlowe of Salt Lake City is only .4 out of sixth.

"It's good to be strong top to bottom. I'd rather have a balanced team," Peters says.

The men's team is somewhat like the women's, having lost most of the 1984 personnel, although Scott Johnson and Tim Daggett are bidding to repeat.

The men, however, are at quite a disadvantage to begin with, since they drew the worst session of the compulsory rounds in the Olympics and are up first. It's better to be up last in a sport with subjective judging.

Though he's unhappy with the draw, Coach Abie Grossfeld of Southern Connecticut State University sees bronze as a possibility.

Like Peters, Grossfeld was the 1984 American Olympic coach.

The Soviets and Chinese are by far the best men's teams, but Grossfeld places the U.S. in the next level with the East Germans, Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians and Japanese. "But they go in later sessions," he says.

"Our coaches are going to use that to their advantage," says men's program national administrator Robert Cowan, saying the "nothing-to-lose" approach can work wonders. "I've seen Greg Marsden do that with his college team," he said of the University of Utah coach.

Cowan likes the men's chances for a bronze after checking team scores in the World Championships from 1985 and 1987. They scored 9.8 more points in '87 than in '85. Taking the top scores from the Houston Championships of the USA two weeks ago, the qualifier for the Olympic trials, the team improved another eight points over the '87 Worlds. "That's 17.8 points in 31/2 years, which is phenomenal," he says.

The Soviets and Chinese improved four or five points in the same time. They started out higher and are still ahead, but not as much.

Grossfeld says his team depth isn't as good as the women's, and that could be a concern. He bases that on the qualifying scores from Houston, which show a 2.15-point spread between first-place Dan Hayden (116.85) and the two men currently tied for sixth place, Lance Ringnald and Wes Suter (114.70). There's a full point gap between third-place Charles Lakes (116.0) and fourth-place Curtis Holdsworth (115.0).

Because of depth, "One of our objectives in Seoul," says Grossfeld, "would be to get three guys into the all-around finals." That's the max.

With five men petitioning into the trials because of injuries, depth could improve. Johnson and Daggett have the best chances to make the team without the benefit of qualifying scores, which count 40 percent toward the total. Because of that, their scores would have to be .2 or .3 higher to equal it out.

For the women, only Sabrina Mar has petitioned in due to injury. Peters says Mar's lower-back problems flare up at random and give her leg pains.

In both the men's and women's competitions, the order of finish in Houston provided no real surprises, particularly considering the depth on the women's side.

Of top finisher Phoebe Mills of Bela Karolyi's Houston club, Peters says, "Phoebe looks very strong, very ready, very much at the top of her game and should make the team, barring unforeseen disaster." Mills is a 15-year-old National Merit Scholar living in Houston now but hailing from Northfield, Ill.

"Kelly (Garrison-Steves) looked good in compulsories, and Hope Spivey looks strong," Peters said of the Nos. 2 and 3 Houston finishers.

In the top nine, there are five Karolyi Kids - Mills, Chelle Stack, Brandy Johnson, Rhonda Faehn and Kristie Phillips. There are two SCATS (plus Mar) in Stacey Gunthorpe and Doe Yamashiro, and one Parkette, Spivey.

Dan Hayden, if he hits his routines, should be the all-around winner Friday night, Cowan says. Lakes is inconsistent but outstanding when he hits. Second-place Kevin Davis is the most consistent.

And the man everyone's talking about is 18-year-old Ringnald, who could be the youngest American male gymnastics Olympian since Bart Conner first made it. "Some were raving about him," Grossfeld says of Ringnald's performances in Houston. "It's nice to see a guy that young come up. He's aggressive, and that encourages the older guys."

Adds Cowan, "That Ringnald is in the top six is a great reinforcement of what we believed in him."