Khorkina makes a grand exit

Sports Views

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2004

The diva does not warm up before her performance. Not much, anyway. That is something that other gymnasts do, and Svetlana Khorkina will never be confused with one of those.

The diva does not acknowledge defeat, either. She does not share the stage or hang around to see her opponent's final routine, if that's how she feels at the moment.

The last of a kind exited the Olympics for the final time Thursday without the one thing she considered almost her birthright: a gold medal in the women's all-around. Being Khorkina, she simply ignored that little fact, instead taking a seat in the interview room afterward and promptly announcing, ''I am still the Olympic champion.''

And then she paused.

Sitting next to the Russian was the real Olympic champion, a 16-year-old American sprite named Carly Patterson. She was the last competitor on the floor, and after four tumbling passes with the kind of elevation that Khorkina could manage only in her dreams, leaped all the way to the top of the medals stand.

But Patterson didn't say a word. She simply sat there with her chin propped up by both hands and a bemused grin creasing her lips that seemed to say, ''Whatever.''

Like everybody else, she wanted to see how Khorkina would talk her way out of this one.

''If somebody doesn't know,'' the Russian started over, ''I was the Olympic champion in Atlanta and in Sydney. The title of Olympic champion means the title of Olympic champion.''

It's true, she won gold and silver at the last two games, but not in the all-around, the event that defines the sport. That fact didn't faze Khorkina, either. She became the most decorated gymnast of her generation by ignoring whatever displeased her and she wasn't about to stop now.

She is an artist in a sport that doesn't reward artistry anymore, old in a sport that worships youth, tall and languid in a sport where pixyish and athletic are all the rage. And the diva said she is tired of fighting.

''Actually, I feel I'm capable of competing still, but I believe it's high time for me to finish. As any other woman does, I'd like to have a family. I'd like to have kids. I'd like,'' Khorkina said, ''to be loved.''

That was never her problem.

Khorkhina had no predecessors, at least not in the way that Nadia Comaneci paved the road for Mary Lou Retton, forcing the judges to shift their sights from artistry to athleticism. Speed and power soon supplanted grace as the prized elements in a program, sending gymnastics coaches scrambling to find ever-younger, ever-smaller sprites who would launch themselves fearlessly farther and farther off the floor.

That made Khorkina a throwback even before she started. She was a lithe, long-legged, 5-foot-5 performer who had to rely on a regal presence and a fluid combination of moves, playing to the public every bit as much as the judges. In any case, it didn't take her long to woo both.

In 1997, she won the first of an unprecedented three all-around world titles as an 18-year-old, then segued into the pages of the Russian edition of Playboy. Naturally, she was the centerfold, grabbing the sport's spotlight and never really letting go.

On Wednesday night, she played the artist and exhibitionist one final time. Even Olympic boss Jacques Rogge stopped by. Asked to name his favorite gymnast, he replied, ''Khorkina. She's a real woman.''

She pouted, preened and performed in high style, staring down judges when she didn't like the scores, challenging reporters when she didn't like the questions, even doubting the outcome when it didn't fit her view of the events.

After her own routine on the floor was finished, Khorkina ducked out a side exit as Patterson took the mat and didn't reappear for a few moments. When she finally returned, Khorkina had already traded her black sequined costume for an equally dazzling blue leotard. No sooner had Patterson finished than Khorkina grabbed a Russian flag and began behaving like a champion.

She saluted the crowd and walked toward the uneven bars, unfurling the banner and waving it over her head, then draping it across the lower bar. The real champion was somewhere else on the floor, being carried around in a bearhug by her coach, forcing the cameras to make a tough choice.

Ultimately, the sport's historians will have to do the same. Khorkina won medals in every major competition on just about every apparatus and just as she had no predecessors, it's unlikely anyone will follow in her footsteps. It's hard to imagine anyone else blending bravado with such a unique set of skills, going against the grain every chance she gets.

''Where do you think you rank in history,'' a reporter asked.

''It's up to you to decide,'' Khorkina said, flashing a coy smile.

''Can you tell us your opinion?''

''No,'' she replied, ''this opinion is very valuable. It costs a lot.''

Now the smile became a laugh.

''That's just a joke. But frankly,'' Khorkina said, ''I think everything is clear and I do not want to share my opinion with anyone.''

And with that, Khorkina headed out of the room and into the night to do whatever it is that divas do to make the rare disappointment disappear.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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