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The Big Event // TEAM GOLD AT STAKE

WHAT: Women's gymnastics team final (optional round).

WHEN: TV coverage begins at 7:30 p.m.

A NEW ERA: The Soviet Union dominated women's gymnastics, winning every team gold medal from 1952 to 1988, except in the boycotted Games of 1984. After the country's breakup, former Soviet gymnasts competed as the Unified Team in 1992 and won again. But in Atlanta, teams such as Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are competing against each other _ and the biggest beneficiaries are the United States, China and Romania.

THE LEADERS: The Russians still are in the lead, though, by .127 of a point _ roughly the equivalent of two tiny wobbles on the balance beam or a misstep on a landing. The United States never has had a better chance at a team gold.

Even in 1984, when the U.S. team won a silver medal, the Romanians were clearly better. The best the Americans have finished in a non-boycotted Olympics is third, in 1948 and 1992.

This year's U.S. team has been billed as the "Magnificent Seven." With good reason. It is the strongest, most experienced U.S. team ever, led by two individual medal hopefuls (Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu) who performed well Sunday despite recent injuries. Kerri Strug was a surprise, finishing third on the U.S. team and receiving theloudest cheers of the night after scoring 9.825 on the floor exercise.

The Romanians, in third after the compulsories, are the world champions and aren't likely to fold. They had the misfortune of having to compete at 9:30 a.m. (judges usually score early rounds lower) and protested afterward that they were scored too low.

Injuries have reduced Romania's team to six, and they can't afford to slip up in tonight's optionals.

China, which won the silver medal at the 1995 World Championships, fell to fifth place during the compulsories.

_ SHARON GINN

Top teams

The top eight after Sunday's compulsory exercises:

RUSSIA: 193.796.

UNITED STATES: 193.669.

ROMANIA: 193.138.

UKRAINE: 192.308.

CHINA: 191.933.

BELARUS: 191.569.

SPAIN: 189.458.

HUNGARY: 188.520.

Past

winners

1992: Unified Team, 395.666.

1988: Soviet Union, 395.475.

1984: Romania, 392.20.

1980: Soviet Union, 394.90.

1976: Soviet Union, 390.35.

1972: Soviet Union, 380.50.

1968: Soviet Union, 382.85.

1964: Soviet Union, 380.89.

1960: Soviet Union, 382.32.

1956: Soviet Union, 444.80.

Gymnasts

to watch

LILIA PODKOPAYEVA: Ukraine.

SHANNON MILLER: U.S.

DINA KOCHETKOVA: Russia.

ROZALIA GALIYEVA: Russia.

DOMINIQUE MOCEANU: U.S.

ALEXANDRA MARINESCU: Romania.

LAVINIA MILOSOVICI: Romania.

KERRI STRUG: U.S..

MO HUILAN: China.

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