The coaches of the U.S. Olympic women gymnasts have settled on a team competition strategy that reduces Phoebe Mills' chances of medaling in the all-around championship - the centerpiece event of the sport.
Instead, Bela Karolyi explained Friday, he and the other three coaches have agreed on a plan designed to give more of the gymnasts - perhaps as many as five of the six team members - the opportunity to compete for individual apparatus medals.Their chosen tactics, which involve the order in which the gymnasts perform in each event, also may improve the United States' chances of winning a bronze team medal behind the favored Soviets and Romanians and over more highly regarded East Germany, Bulgaria and China.
"Her chances of medaling in the individual all-arounds are cut by our strategy," said Karolyi, the personal coach of Mills, Chelle Stack and Brandy Johnson. "But it was probably a good idea - as long as everybody agreed - because it provides more gymnasts with opportunities for medals."
The team competition, which begins for men Sunday and the women Monday, is the leadoff event in all gymnastics meets. It also serves as the qualifying rounds for both the individual all-around and apparatus competitions.
The top 36 scorers from the team competition, but not more than three from any country, advance to the all-around finals. The top six scorers on each apparatus during the team competition, with a limit of two representatives per nation, advance to the individual event finals.
Barring falls or other major errors requiring automatic deductions, judges typically award the lowest score to the leadoff member of each team and the highest scores to the fourth, fifth and sixth gymnasts.
"To have a strong overall all-around score, Phoebe has to compete last in all events, but another consideration was to help the individual event performances," Karolyi said. The coaches (each female Olympic gymnast was accompanied to Seoul by her personal mentor and there is no head coach) chose the latter consideration.
That means that Johnson, the United States' best vaulter, probably will go last in that event. Vault is Mills' worst event, and she probably will compete fourth or fifth in the team rotation.
"If they hit their routines, the last two gymnasts can get high enough scores to qualify," Karolyi said.
Under the chosen strategy, Karolyi believes Stack and Mills could qualify for the uneven parallel bars finals, while Mills and Kelly Garrison-Steves could qualify on balance beam. Mills and Johnson or Hope Spivey have the ability to qualify in floor exercise.
"This could also help the team competition," Karolyi said. "This way, we might get a couple tenths of points to add to our scores."
Karolyi said neither he nor the other coaches have watched the other teams practice so he declined to predict how well the U.S. women, who finished sixth in the 1987 world championships, might fare in the Olympics.
"But we have had very approving comments from FIG (Federation of International Gymnastics) officials," he said. "They are according us a very good chance to fight for the team medal."
The U.S. men, led by 1984 Olympic veteran Scott Johnson and top seed Charles Lakes, will be in a six-team battle for the bronze medal behind the Soviets and Chinese. The Americans are handicapped by their draw for the first round of team competition.
The male teams compete in three sessions Sunday, and the U.S. men were unlucky enough to draw into the morning session. Just as judges tend to award progressively higher scores to individuals, they are inclined to score very conservatively early in the day.