In the last Olympics, American gymnasts won enough medals to decorate a small Christmas tree, 26 - six team golds for the men, six team silvers for the women, seven individual-event medals each.

In the 1988 Olympics, with gymnastics to be contested Sept. 18-24 for artistic and Sept. 28-30 for rhythmic, Americans aren't expected to win any more medals than they did in 1980, when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics.Oh, they could pick up a few. Both the men's and women's artistic teams say they're capable of team bronze. Salt Lake City's Melissa Marlowe could be good enough on bars to medal, and Phoebe Mills, Kelly Garrison-Steves, Charles Lakes or Scott Johnson could be medal material. But it would be a surprise. Were the rhythmic team of Diane Simpson and Michele Berube to win a medal, it would be a shock.

The Soviets, who boycotted 1984 in Los Angeles, will be in this one, and they are without question the best in both men's and women's competitions. They have the best teams and probably the best individuals.

On the women's side, the Romanians won the 1987 World Championship team title in the Netherlands by .45 point over the Soviets, and Romanian Aurelia Dobre beat Soviet Elena Shushunova for the all-around with Romanian Daniela Silivas third and Soviets Svetlana Baitova fourth and Oksana Omelianchik fifth.

But it has been rumored that Dobre broke a kneecap while training last spring. The Romanians haven't released any information about an injury to their first-ever female world champion, and the Romanian Gymnastics Federation has been demanding $75,000 for interviews.

"The Russians had some new kids at the World Championships," says University of Utah Coach Greg Marsden, who coached the U.S. women to sixth place at Rotterdam. "They will come to the Olympics much more prepared."

The Romanian women are expected to take second without problem, or to win if the Soviets beat themselves. Third is up to the East Germans, Chinese, Bulgarians and Americans.

The U.S. team, wracked by conflict just a few weeks ago, trained peaceably in Houston at Bela Karolyi's gym before heading to Seoul, and that, along with a good draw in the compulsory round, which determines the lineup for the team finals, is in the Americans' favor.

Marlowe is one of this country's best at compulsories, which count more heavily in the team scoring, and if she can do well there, she could help the Americans rise above sixth.

Marlowe has said she's hoping more for a team than for an individual medal. That attitude, along with her triumph in her last meet, the Olympic trials in Salt Lake City, could give her just the right relaxed feeling for the Olympics. She is coming off the best meet of her life, 39.189 in the trials, to move from 11th to sixth and make the team, Marlowe was 23rd all-around in the '87 worlds. That was not her best meet, but if she can place that high in the team competition, she would make the all-around finals, since the top 36 (but only two per country) advance to the all-around medal round.

Her next-best chance is on bars, her specialty. "It would be real rough," Marsden says; she'd have her work cut out to get into the finals." But she did tie for first in a dual meet with the Soviets last year in Denver.

With Don Peters having resigned as coach Aug. 8, the U.S. Gymnastics Federation will use a coaching committee for the Olympics. Bill Strauss of Pennsylvania's Parkettes (Hope Spivey), Becky Buwick of Oklahoma (Garrison-Steves) and Martha Karolyi (Mills, Brandy Johnson, Chelle Stack) have been given the "S" coaching credentials that allow a room in the Olympic village and listing as official coaching staff. Bela Karolyi and Salt Lake City's Mark Lee (Marlowe) received "FX" credentials, allowing competition floor access.

Little has changed in men's gymnastics since the World Championships when the Soviets swept the all-around and won the team title by nearly 11/2 points. Dmitri Bilozerchev, 21, is currently world champ, a title he first won at age 16, the youngest ever. Teammates Yuri Korolev and Vladimir Artemov finished right behind him, and then there is Valeri Lyukin, 21, the first to tumble a triple-back flip in competition.

American men finished ninth at the World Championships, although the team that was selected last month in Salt Lake City is very different than that squad. Wes Suter, Kevin Davis, Lance Ringnald and Dominick Minicucci have replaced Tom Schlesinger, Curtis Holdsworth, Jon Omori, Dan Hayden and the injured Tim Daggett on the national team only a year later. Lakes and Johnson are the only holdovers.

The Chinese, led by former Olympic all-around bronze medalist Li Ning, should take silver, with the East Germans, Bulgarians, Japanese, Hungarians, Romanians and Americans fighting it out for third.

The Americans have the worst draw possible for the compulsories, and that has worried Coach Abie Grossfeld all along. The Americans do, however, have a team that is good in compulsories.

GYMNASTICS NOTES - The USGF was criticized for not allowing a wine cooler company to pay traveling expenses to Seoul for team members' parents because the USGF felt the connection was unwholesome. The USGF paid expenses itself for two family members of each Olympian - cost is about $72,000 . . . Bilozerchev, like Daggett, suffered a leg injury so bad doctors nearly amputated, although his was four years ago and has obviously fully recovered. In an auto accident, his left leg was broken into 44 pieces.