Greg Marsden keeps looking smarter all the time. The University of Utah gymnastics coach who has won no less than six national championships and performed other feats of magic, like turning women's gymnastics into a revenue-producing sport, was supposed to have been the head coach of the United States women's team at these Olympic Games. But he resigned his position a year ago.After a brief taste of life in the international lane, Marsden decided he could live without it. He went back to life at the top. At least on the college level, gymnastics has been known at times to resemble a sport more than a John le Carre espionage novel.

Marsden saw firsthand the politics of the international sport and the deferential treatment that takes place. It was at the `87 world championships, for instance, that a Romanian coach introduced him to the sport's rather unique scoring-in-advance system.

He got out in the pre-Maalox stage. He got out before East met West at the Seoul Olympics.

You could say women's gymnastics reached new lows here, but that might not be fair for a sport that for years now has turned subjective judging into an artform.

The U.S. women placed fourth in the team competition, finishing just three-hundredths of a point behind the East Germans and out of the medals. A five-hundredths of a point penalty assessed against the Americans - by an East German judge - loomed large at the finish. The U.S. coaches, officials and gym nasts all reasoned that without the penalty, they'd have been bronze medalists.

But that was missing the point, not to mention the truth. The fact was, the U.S. had wiped out that .500 deficit after just one-fourth of the competition had taken place at Wednesday night's optionals. They'd moved in front of the East Germans with a strong opening floor exercise performance, and stayed in front through the next two events, the vault and uneven bars.

They had to hang on to a .125 lead on their last event, the beam. The East Germans' task was to make up ground, if they could, on the uneven bars.

East Germany proceeded to record its highest score of both nights, a 49.350, while the U.S. scored its lowest optional score, a 48.975, on the beam.

It didn't take a genius to see it coming, or even someone who knew a tuck from a layout. This one was as easy to call as a collision in the key between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a rookie free agent; or as a Russian election.

The socialist countries are the aristocracy of the gymnastics world. They get the calls. The U.S. Gymnastics Federation appealed both the .500 penalty and what it thought was "ridiculous scoring," but that was like arguing a speeding ticket in Boone County.

The situation is compounded because virtually all gymnasts are teenage girls who do nothing to aid their cause. If they hit a routine, they run and hug their coach. If they don't hit a routine, they run and hug their coach. If they get a score they don't like, they run and hug their coach. If they get a score they like, they run and hug their coach.

The sport is ruled by the coaches and judges, and there are powerful cliques among them.

It's almost comical that the United States tried to produce a medal performance with a coach (Bela Karolyi) who defected from Romania. He was as popular on the floor here, flanked by comrade judges, as Al Davis would be at a Rozelle family reunion.

East Germany was able to defeat the Americans even though one of its gymnasts, Martina Jentsch, was injured and couldn't compete in the optionals, meaning the GDR had to count all five of its gymnasts' routines without the luxury of throwing out the lowest score.

It wasn't pro wrestling or roller derby, but it was close.

** Another injustice that the Olympics underscored _ with Salt Lake's Missy Marlowe acting as an unwitting exhibit A _ was the practice of giving early contestants lower scores. A gymnast could do the identical routine on, say, the uneven bars, and get a 9.7 if she was the first competitor, and a 9.9 if she was the sixth. That was Marlowe's plight. As America's leadoff hitter, a.k.a. sacrificial lamb, she could have done the world's most perfect routines and never made a 10. But for Elena Chouchounova of the Soviet Union or Daniela Silivas of Romania _ who customarily went sixth _ 10s were commonplace, even when their routines were obviously not perfect. "You have to really love the sport to stay in it," Marlowe said after the competition was over. "You have to do your best and judge yourself, and if you're satisfied, that's what matters." "We showed them that even the capitalist countries can perform and do well," said Karolyi. As if being a capitalist should matter. Karolyi also said, earlier in the week when the controversy erupted over the half-point deduction, "That's gymnastics for you. What can you do? That's why we love it." Or leave it.