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Sunday, October 1
Barsukova wins rhythmic gold in an upset

SYDNEY, Australia -- Lose your hoop, and the gold medal goes right along with it.

Yulia Raskina
Rhythmic gymnast Yulia Raskina of Belarus performs her silver medal winning routine in the women's individual all-around final.
Alina Kabaeva of Russia learned that the hard way Sunday, committing an error the judges couldn't ignore. The overwhelming favorite finished third, while Russian teammate Yulia Barsukova performed flawlessly to win the gold medal and Yulia Raskina of Belarus took silver.

Having already posted perfect scores of 40.000 in competition this year, Russian Kabaeva, the world and European champion and the sport's superstar, had looked poised to add the Olympic title to her long list of honors.

Kabaeva was in the lead on the second rotation when she flipped the hoop skyward, but watched it land and skid well out of bounds. She scored a 9.641 on the routine -- well below the 9.925s she had been scoring -- and fell in a hole she couldn't escape.

"I could not understand what happened," Kabaeva said. "I relaxed my hand...I just didn't think I could make such an error."

In a sport where competitors are marked on their flexibility, Kabaeva literally bent over backward for judges, scratching the top of her head with her feet.

That helped the 17-year-old bounce back from her disaster with the the hoop to score top marks of 9.950 on both the ball and ribbon.

She also recorded the best score with the rope but even three-near perfect routines were still not enough to make up the lost ground.

Thus, a rare upset in the world of rhythmic gymnastics, where far more egregious errors have failed to cost past Olympic champions. It could be a sign that this sport is shaping up, in the wake of a recent scandal in which several judges were disciplined and not allowed to work the Olympics.

The beneficiary was Barsukova, a 21-year-old who has performed at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Her best previous finish was third at the world championships that Kabaeva won last year.

"It's hard to believe," Barsukova said of her victory. "I really didn't expect to win the gold. I had hoped to win but I never thought it was possible. I just wanted to be in the top three."

Her victory extended the eastern European domination of the sport.

Since rhythmic gymnastics was introduced at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, a gymnasts from Russia or the former-Soviet Union have walked away with three of four gold medals.

Canada's Lori Fung is the only other gymnast to claim gold, taking top spot on the podium in 1984.

The eastern European domination is even more profound at the world championships with all the places on the podium since 1975 having been occupied by gymnasts from just four countries, Russia, Bulgaria, Belarus and Ukraine.

Fourth place on Sunday went to Olena Vitrichenko, the 1997 world champion and a bronze medalist in Atlanta.

Vitrichenko was at the center of a scoring scandal at the European championships earlier this year when an apparent judging conspiracy placed her 19th in preliminaries and she withdrew in protest.

An investigation by the International Gymnastics Federation uncovered widespread incompetence and resulted in eight judges being banned from working at the Sydney Olympics while six others received one-year suspensions.
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