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No excuses for Liukin after silver medal

By John Powers
Globe Staff / August 18, 2008
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BEIJING - What was most troubling, Nastia Liukin said, was that she didn't lose - and yet she still lost. "I'm a little disappointed, knowing that I tied," the US gymnast said Monday night, after China's He Kexin won the Olympic gold medal on uneven bars on the second tiebreaker after they'd tied to the thousandth - 16.725. "I had the same exact score. That's what made it a little harder to take."

Liukin said she had no problem with the scoring system, which was revised two years ago after the Athens controversy surrounding her countryman Paul Hamm's victory in the men's all-around. "Scoring is scoring, and that's our sport," said the 18-year-old Liukin, after she'd been given the silver medal in her best event based on her having a higher average deduction (.966 to .933) from the middle three judges. "That's what we've been going through our whole lives and we just have to accept that."

Nor did Liukin have a quibble with Australian judge Helen Colagiuri, who marked Liukin three-tenths of a point lower than He for a routine with the same start value (7.7) and similar execution. "One judge liked her better than me," Liukin said with a shrug.

Nor did it bother her that she lost to a tiny rival whom several Chinese sources have indicated is only 14, two years younger than the minimum age for Olympic competition. "It's been going around for so many days, weeks, and months now," Liukin said. "She's an excellent athlete, no matter how old she is. She's done her hard work and preparation and she deserved the gold medal."

Had Liukin won it, the all-around champion would have equaled the two golds that father/coach Valeri won in Seoul in 1988. Were the rules of that time still in place, Nastia would have shared the gold with He, as her father did with Soviet countryman Vladimir Artemov, when each scored 19.90 on high bar in the apparatus finals.

For Liukin, it was the second time she lost a gold medal by an eyelash. At the 2005 world meet in Melbourne, she took second to teammate Chellsie Memmel in the all-around by a thousandth of a point - 37.824-37.823. Winning here, though, more than made up for that.

"I feel like I got my redemption," said Liukin, who also has earned a team silver and a floor bronze here, with a chance at another medal in today's balance beam final. "I got the gold medal I missed. If this had happened in the all-around, I would have been more upset."

As it was, Liukin and her father conceded her routine, which was marred by a flawed Pak salto between bars, wasn't her best, even though she nailed her dismount. "She got what she deserved, as far as I'm concerned," Valeri said.

Liukin, who went up second after He, wasn't sure what score her rival had gotten. "I heard 16.7 something," she said. Later, when she saw the '2' next to her own name on the scoreboard, Liukin assumed He had received a 16.750.

It wasn't until later, when she checked the board again, that Liukin realized that she and He were tied. "I thought, am I that tired?" she said. "I know it's been a long week, but there's a 1 next to her name and a 2 next to mine. I said, Dad, we got the same score."

Though the start values were the same, the routines varied markedly. He, the Princess of Mid-Air, had spectacular release moves. Liukin, who has the longest and most elegant line in the sport, offered lovely swings and deft handstands.

The most notable differences were Liukin's error on the salto and He's crossed leg on her dismount. He won the top mark from three judges, Liukin from two, and they tied on the sixth. "Human being judges," said Valeri. "That's what it comes down to."

Was it fair, Nastia was asked? "I play by the rules," she said. "In my opinion, I would have to say yes. The Chinese girl did an excellent routine."

The difference was that He heard her national anthem Monday night, as Liukin had Friday. "At the end of the day, I have the most important medal," she said, "and that's the all-around gold."

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