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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mates Turn Rivals In Gymnastic Split

ATLANTA -- The Soviet Union is gone and its successor, the Unified Team, is a thing of the past after one Olympics.

Now countries that once were part of the Soviet gymnastics machine have their own teams, making rivals out of former teammates and giving squads that once were also-rans a shot at being the best.

"Instead of having one really powerful Soviet team, we still have a pretty powerful Russian team, a powerful Belarus team and a powerful team from Ukraine," U.S. men's coach Peter Kormann said. "I don't think it makes it easier."

With the exception of the boycotted 1984 Olympics, Soviet women won every team gold medal from 1952 on, while the men took four straight. The men also won every all-around title dating back to 1976, except for 1984.

Belarus, Russia and Ukraine still have some of the best gymnasts in the world, but they lack the depth needed for the team competition, where scores of five of the six team members determine the standings.

At the 1995 World Championships in Japan, none of the three former Soviet teams earned medals in the team competition. So who will fill the void?

The Romanian and American women, who finished second and third behind the Unified Team in 1992, have the best shot at team gold. China, second to the Romanians in Sabae, also could be a contender.

"I think the breakup of the Soviet Union produced a number of separate teams that are going to be competing against us with a vengeance," said Steve Nunno, who coached American Shannon Miller to five medals in Barcelona. "Ukraine has been right on our tail."

China and Russia both have strong men's squads and are favorites for the team gold. The American men, whose last team medal was a gold in 1984, have an outside chance at a medal.

"Compared to other countries, we have a pretty well-rounded team," Kormann said. "We have a much better blend of guys from bottom to top who don't have many weaknesses."

When it comes to the individual events, the former-Soviet gymnasts are still the ones to beat, though the United States, Romania and China all have gymnasts with a shot at the all-around and event finals.

For the U.S. women, there's Miller and Dominique Moceanu, who last year at 13 became the youngest national champion ever. Now 14, Moceanu has drawn comparisons to both Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton for her talent and personality.

Many had counted Miller out, saying that at 19, she was too old to keep up with younger and younger competitors and their increasingly difficult tricks. But she proved the skeptics wrong by winning the nationals, and Nunno has no doubt she'll do it again in Atlanta -- if she stays healthy.

"It was somewhat of a motivator for us for awhile, we joked about it," Nunno said.

And Miller is not the only older competitor. When 1988 double gold medalist Svetlana Boguinskaya competed in Barcelona at 19, she was considered over the hill but still took home a team gold.

Now most of the top gymnasts are in their late teens, and starting in 2000, competitors must be 16 to participate in the Olympics. In accordance with the trend toward older gymnasts, the 23-year-old Boguinskaya will be competing in Atlanta for Belarus.

In addition to Miller, the United States will have 18-year-old Kerri Strug and Dominique Dawes, 19.

But Lilia Podkopayeva of Ukraine, and current world mania's top gymnasts -- Lavinia Milosivici and Gina Gogean -- both are Barcelona veterans.

Just as the U.S. women hope to make gains in Atlanta, so do the men. John Roethlisberger is a four-time national champion and Blaine Wilson is the current U.S. and NCAA champion.

But it's going to be tough for anyone to top Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus. He won a record six gold medals in Barcelona and is the most decorated gymnast in history after picking up a gold, silver and bronze at the world championship event finals in April.

His gold and bronze were for the floor exercise and high bar -- the only events he didn't win in 1992. And if Scherbo, 24, needs any other motivation, he's retiring after Atlanta.