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GYMNASTICS: MEN

PEEKING DOWN UNDER

The darling of the U.S. gymnastics team in 2000 has tattoos, a tongue ring and rippling muscles. So please don't call him darling.

For once, American women may be upstaged by their male counterparts in Olympic gymnastics. And Blaine Wilson could have a lot to do with it.

While the women's team seems to be in between stars, Wilson has all the ingredients to grab the public's attention. He is charming, irreverent and he has a chance to make some noise.

Wilson finished fourth in the all-around at the 1999 world championships, the only American _ male or female _ to even come close to a medal.

As for the rest of the men's team, their prospects appear better than they did in 1996, but they are still far from returning to the glory days of 1984 when they won a team gold.

"This is the best men's team since 1984," coach Peter Kormann said. "When this team wins a medal at this Olympics, this will be the first men's team medal in a non-boycotted year. And that's going to happen this summer."

Stephen McCain is heading to the Olympics for the first time, four years after nearly quiting the sport in disgust. McCain finished 12th in the 1996 trials and was so distraught by his performance that he could not stick around and watch the Olympics in Atlanta. Instead he visited Africa for six weeks and came back determined to make the team in 2000.

U.S. OLYMPIC ROSTER

Name Age Residence Career highlights

Morgan Hamm 17 Waukesha, Wis. 2nd floor exer. 2000 natls

Paul Hamm 17 Waukesha, Wis. No. 2 qualifier at trials

Stephen McCain 26 Colorado Springs Won 2000 Winter Cup Challenge

John Roethlisberger 30 Falcon Heights, Minn. Three-time Olympian

Sean Townsend 21 Houston 1997 U.S. junior champion

Blaine Wilson 26 Colorado Springs Five-time national champion

THE HEAT IS ON

This is the end of the road for John Roethlisberger. One of the most respected gymnasts in U.S. history, he will be competing on his third Olympics team. And he has yet to win an Olympic medal.

Just to increase the pressure, there are some who believe Roethlisberger does not belong on the team. And that would include his father, Fred, a 1968 Olympian. Roethlisberger did not finish in the top six after the trials, but officials decided to add him to the team and bump Jamie Natalie to alternate.

The reasoning was that Natalie's best event was the high bar and several other team members were strong on that apparatus. By adding Roethlisberger, the United States has a veteran performer who is solid in every event, giving the team a better chance to compete for a medal.

But even Roethlisberger, who wept when his name was announced on the team, felt guilty about the way it happened.

"It's a hard situation to be in seventh and still get in," he said. "I've always been a proponent of going on the floor and going by the rankings."

DID YOU KNOW?

The Hamm brothers made history simply by reaching Australia.

They are the first set of twins to make the Olympic gymnastics team, and their story is just beginning.

The teenagers from Wisconsin turned heads by getting better throughout the summer. And at their age, they can expect to dominate at the national level for years to come.

It doesn't hurt that they look like they were sculpted from the same stick of butter, with a fresh Midwestern look that should send advertisers into a gymnastics tizzy.

"The Hamms are amazing," teammate John Roethlisberger said. "They're like one of those viruses that multiplies. Their progress multiplies like a virus. It's unbelievable, because from one competition to the next, they get so much better. It's mind-boggling, and I thank God that I never have to compete against them again."

As it currently stands, Paul is much more accomplished than his brother. He may even make some noise in the all-around competition in Australia. Morgan's best chances for a medal will come in the floor exercise.

Despite the difference in their competitive levels, the brothers stick together. Paul had already clinched a spot on the senior national team this year while Morgan was struggling to make the cut. To help his brother along, Paul withdrew near the end of Winter Cup in Las Vegas in February so Morgan would finish higher.

THE WORLD VIEW

China has won the past two world championship meets, but fell short of beating Russia in the 1996 Olympics. They are expected to correct that mistake in Australia.

Russia and China will be the class of the field with Belarus, Japan and possibly the U.S. fighting for the bronze.

Russia's Aleksei Nemov was a two-time gold medal winner in Atlanta and won the floor and pommel horse at the 1999 world championships and could be an all-around contender in Sydney.

Naoya Tsukahara of Japan is hoping to emerge from the shadows cast by his father, Mitsuo Tsukhara, who won nine Olympic medals, including five golds, from 1968-76. Naoya finished 12th in the all-around in '96, but has since won bronze and silver in the world championship meets of '97 and '99.

ATLANTA RECAP

It was a good thing the Magnificent Seven did so well in women's gymnastics because it took attention away from a weak performance by the men's team.

It was not that big a surprise. The men had finished ninth in the world championships in 1995, so a fifth-place team finish at the Olympic Games was actually a major upgrade.

The big disappointment was in individual events. Jair Lynch won a silver in the parallel bars, the only apparatus that the United States managed to crack a top six in. John Roethlisberger finished seventh in all-around competition.

_ Compiled by John Romano.

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