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Japan, China lead way; Russians hurting after men's qualifying

STUTTGART, Germany -- Limping slowly on a severely wounded
knee, Nikolai Kryukov dragged himself up the stairs, stopped when
he reached the top and raised his hand to salute the judges on the
floor exercise.

All that work to get a 0.0.

A disabling injury to one of Russia's best gymnasts, along with
a similarly bad break for teammate Anton Golotsutskov, left the
Russians without a complete team in qualifying Monday and in danger
of missing team finals at the world gymnastics championships.

"No good," said Maxim Deviatovski, one of the few Russians to
make it through unscathed.

Russia finished the first day with 362.175 points, in third
place and a full 12.1 points behind defending champion China, which
got off to a nice start behind reigning all-around gold medalist
Yang Wei. Olympic champion Japan was in second, 3.550 points behind
China. The Americans, seeking to improve on last year's 13th-place
finish to secure a spot at the Beijing Olympics, go Tuesday.

Russia finds itself in an unfamiliar situation.

A team that won the 2006 European title and the silver medal at
last year's worlds has always taken a spot in team finals for
granted. But it will be a long wait to see if the Russians finish
in the top eight. That they're a mile behind China is not a great
sign.

The Russians did stay ahead of France, 10th-place finishers at
last year's worlds, by 2.275. Belarus was fifth, followed by
Switzerland, Great Britain and Puerto Rico -- three countries that
would be thrilled to finish in the top 12 and earn a spot in the
Olympics.

After this day, Russia might be thrilled simply to make it to
Beijing, too.

"I think we will," Golotsutskov said. "If not, then what I
did was worth nothing."

Kryukov, the 1999 world champion, jammed his left knee on the
landing of a vault in which he did a handspring with two
somersaults. The timing couldn't have been worse; it was Russia's
first event of the day.

And while he was applying ice to that wound, Golotsutskov landed
awkwardly, as well. He limped off the mat and started massaging his
right foot once he took a seat.

The rest of Kryukov's day was a study in determination and grit,
as difficult to watch as it was inspiring. He made it through
parallel bars and high bar, though his dismounts were cringe
inducing, clearly taking a toll on the injured knee that left him
walking peg-legged back to the bench.

Limping out of the arena wearing a huge ice pack, he was asked
how he felt about staying out there to compete when he knew he was
severely injured. His response: A hand gesture symbolizing someone
holding a pitchfork to his neck, basically Russian for "You know
you've got to do it, or else."

But everyone has their limits.

In qualifying, each team must send five athletes to each event,
though only the top four scores count. Floor was out of the
question, so Kryukov had to limp up there and raise his hand simply
to get his "0." Even that was an effort.

It made Golotsutskov's routine on floor essential and he was a
shell of the gymnast who won the 2006 European championship on that
event. Barely able to muscle through his flairs, landing
watered-down jumps in pain, he scored a 12.375, about three points
less than what he's capable of, but it counted on the Russian
scorecard.

"We have Anton Golotsutskov, one of the best on floor exercise,
with a 12.375," Deviatovski said. "It's not good. Not good. It's
very bad."

Asked if he might take an injection to alleviate the pain if
Russia makes it to team finals, Golotsutskov said it wouldn't make
a difference.

"It can't be much worse because I can't feel anything," he
said. "It's broken."

After floor, Kryukov got back up on pommel -- normally one of his
best events. He was doing well -- amazingly well considering the
circumstances -- but couldn't hold out at the end, falling backward
off the horse like a clumsy runner flailing off a treadmill. He
limped down the stairs after that and then could be seen carrying
his right arm at an awkward angle, too. He scored a 14.75, and if
the Russians miss team finals, that last fall might go down as the
difference.

The men's competition is widely regarded as a two-team race
between Japan, a perennial contender and defending Olympic gold
medalist, and China, led by Yang and gearing toward a big showing
in Beijing next year.

"At podium training, the training was not so good," said
Japan's Makoto Okiguchi. "We had a lot of misses. And it wasn't
that good. So we were a little frustrated and concerned. Today was
a really good day. Now we know we can have a good competition. If
we have one like today, I think we can beat China."

Twelve more teams are expected to vie for the final 10 spots in
the Summer Games, and the competition is thought to be so tight,
that not even Russia was assuming its spot was secure.

"He said, 'No, no, no, we just want to qualify,'" U.S. coach
Ron Brant said of a Russian coach's comments before worlds, when
asked if he expected to do well. "He can be out just as fast as
anyone else. That's why he's not even going to put an expectation
to win a medal. And you'd never expect that out of Russia."