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Just two slips was all it took

It was sweet as American pie. Georgia Dome rocked with "USA! USA! USA!" chants. Dominique Dawes had gone balance-beaming into first place. Shannon Miller bounced into a tie for second.

Gold? Silver?

Deja vu?

Heroic but hobbling Kerri Strug dropped her crutches to applaud. Balcony cheers came booming from Bill, Hillary and Chelsea, the ecstatic presidential Clintons.

At halftime in the women's all-around, the most prestigious gymnastics occurrence on Earth, the script was gushing red, white and blue. "We could be on our way," exuded Mary Lou Retton. "Looking real good."

One more time?

A gutsy, crippling vault by Strug had assured United States gold in Tuesday night's team competition. Quicker than Babe Ruth or Babe Didriksen, the straight-A student from Arizona had become a national hero, her face on newspaper front pages and famous magazines, her squeaky voice in unsubsiding broadcasts.

"I never thought there could be a Mary Lou moment for me," Strug said, "but now I'm seeing my picture and hearing my name everywhere. My ankle is bummed up but my heart is so full. I don't feel like a hero, but I guess America thinks I am."

But now it was Thursday. A new Mount Olympus to climb. New heroes to create. This was the climactic Olympics competition that had made five-ring legends of Nadia Comaneci (1976) and Retton (1984).

Dawes and Miller went flipping away to blistering beginnings. Hurrahs were deafening from a sellout crowd of 32,200. "It was so loud I couldn't hear the music for my floor routine," Lilia Podkopayeva of Ukraine said. More peachy magic for the Yanks? Another Atlanta episode of home-country Olympics ecstasy?

But then, the lights went out in Georgia. As suddenly as if Lucifer had flipped a power switch. Americans were floored. Bang-bang. Dead-dead in a sport that lives with a one-strike-and-you're-out mentality.

Miller barely avoided disaster on the beam. Her left foot nearly slipped off the narrow track, but Shannon showed extraordinary stability and continued an excellent patch.

But downfall was coming.

Miller went artistically flying across the dome, then stumbled out of bounds. Right there, her chance for gold turned to cinders. Barely a heartbeat later, Dawes would slip as if on some Georgia Dome banana peel. Both the Americans doing floor exercises. As if lightning had struck twice on the same rose-colored Atlanta carpet.

In this graceful game that permits no victorious rally and serious flaw, the two 19-year-old Yanks instantly tumbled like dislodged pebbles in some horrible, lonely Olympic canyon.

Miller, silver medalist in 1992 at Barcelona, plunged instantly from second to 10th place. She left the floor monster and crumbled in tears. Before gutting onward to her final act, the vault, the miniscule Oklahoman would sit a long, penal time with throbbing head in trembling hands.

Dawes, after her floor flub, suffered even more of a free fall, sinking from No. 1 to 20th. In a game where 10.00 is a perfect score, the kid from Maryland was slugged with a killer 9.00 number. Thousands booed the judges. There were red, white and blue sneers. Dominique also wept.

Dreams becoming nightmares.

Podkopayeva blew past the fallen Americans like an Olympic bullet train. She won a runaway gold. Nearest competition came from Romanians, silver-medalist Gina Gogean and bronze recipients Simona Amanar and Lavinia Milosovici.

"It's a little hard to take," said Dawes, who in two World Championships has been medal-bound only to suffer similar slippage. "You work so hard, you dream for so long, then a mistake "

With that, the Stanford sophomore lowered her head and sobbed. After their floor-exercise errors, Miller and Dawes grimly concluded Thursday night's work with vaults. Shannon lifted herself to eighth. Dominique wound up tied for 17th. Tuesday's cheers had become Thursday's tears.

There aren't many sports so cruel as to disallow even one ghastly fall. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey or soccer teams can rebound from ugly, lopsided starts to become rallying, adored victors.

Tennis players can come back from 0-6 whippings to win sets and matches. Golfers can be 4-down on the front nine and wind up celebrating. Motorsports drivers can lag a lap behind but eventually find the checkered flag. Jockeys can have a horse stumble from the gate but win by 10 lengths.

What else, except perhaps figure skating, is so cruel as gymnastics among Olympic sports? One slip and it's championship curtains. Even a 100-meter dasher in Olympic track can break fifth or sixth from the blocks but come sizzling down the stretch to win gold.

For the Americans, Miller and Dawes, destiny had fallen so quickly, so devastatingly and so unforgivingly on undersized shoulders. We must remind ourselves of Tuesday night and Strug. Heroic flip side of a most fickle of Olympic coins.

NBA Olympic ratings

A comparison of TV ratings for the first Wednesday night for the 1992 and 1996 Summer Games.

Ratings

1992 18.91996 22.4 Shares

1992 35

1996 41

Each rating point represents 959.000 households. A share is the percentage of televisions in use that are tuned to a particular show.

Source: NBC

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