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USA takes lead in qualifying despite judging dispute

AARHUS, Denmark -- A dominating American performance. A nice
little judging dispute.

Game on. Now the world gymnastics championships really are in
full swing.

Led by Chellsie Memmel's fine all-around performance and a
stellar set on uneven bars from Nastia Liukin, the U.S. women did
exactly what was expected of them Monday, jumping to a 3.8-point
lead over China in qualifying and confirming their status as the
gold-medal favorite at world gymnastics championships.

"I think we're on the right track," team coordinator Martha
Karolyi said. "I think we'll be a factor."

It would have been perfect were it not for the score given to
Alicia Sacramone on the floor exercise. The defending world
champion on that event, Sacramone had half a point deducted for the
microsecond of a pause she made during a dance sequence as she
moved across the floor.

It dropped her from a score of 15.375, which would have tied her
for first and given her a chance to defend her title, to 14.875,
which left her out of the event finals altogether.

The U.S. team filed an inquiry seeking a clarification on the
rule, and the score, which took about five minutes to post.
Officials from the International Gymnastics Federation looked at
the replay and denied the protest.

"We didn't anticipate it would be interpreted that way," USA
Gymnastics president Steve Penny said. "But we can't argue their
interpretation. If we could, we would."

At issue was a rule in the Code of Points that says gymnasts
must string together two uninterrupted dance moves on one of their
passes across the floor. Sacramone's brief pause as she took a
quarter turn during the pass was enough to merit the deduction from
the difficulty value of her score.

"The United States made a protest and it was denied," FIG
secretary-general Andre Gueisbuhler said, not offering any more
detail than that.

"We're disappointed for Alicia because she's obviously got one
of the best floor routines in the world," Penny said.

And indeed, the biggest losers might be ticketholders for
Saturday's floor finals. They'll miss another version of
Sacramone's sizzling routine. You could almost see the Vegas neon
shining in the background when she took the floor. It was a
hip-twisting, saucy number full of big leaps and stuck landings,
and to the non-technician, it looked great.

"I actually was a dancer before I started gymnastics, but it
got a little boring, so I switched over," said Sacramone, who
didn't find out about the deduction until after she had left the
interview area. "I still love dancing. I dance all the time at
home. I get to use some of that out on the floor."

Of course, if the Americans dominate the rest of the week like
they did Monday, the Sacramone issue will wind up as a mere
footnote.

Led by national champion Nastia Liukin and defending all-around
titlist Chellsie Memmel, Martha Karolyi's group of girls were
nearly perfect, falling on only two of 21 routines -- both on beam,
the toughest apparatus in gymnastics. (Sacramone did an extra vault
to qualify for event finals and was in first place after Monday.)

The Chinese emerged as the team that might best challenge the
United States. But only, that is, if they stay on the equipment
better than they did in their qualifying round Tuesday.

After getting off to a strong start on the beam _ actually
scoring nearly two points higher than the Americans did the night
before -- the Chinese fell once on the floor and twice on the uneven
bars.

They finished with 239.525 points -- the only team within five
points of the Americans (243.325 points).

In third was Ukraine, which was 8.3 points behind, followed by
Russia, another .25 points back. The scores revert to zero for
Wednesday's finals and the format is different. Instead of throwing
away the lowest score as they do in prelims, three athletes go on
each event and all three scores count -- no room for error.

"The Chinese team is OK,' China coach Lu Shanzen said. "The
uneven bars were not very good."

The biggest surprise came when Zhang Nan, the Athens all-around
bronze medalist, fell from the bars. Li Ya, an 18-year-old former
Olympian, also wobbled at the top of a handstand and fell.

But Cheng Fei, whose double-twisting Yurchenko is the toughest
vault any woman tries, put up the highest scores of the meet on
both vault and floor. And Zhang led the way on beam. Those are
results that show the strength of the Chinese team and its ability
to scoop up some medals come event finals.

The U.S. women will challenge for those medals at every
position, though.

Karolyi bypassed the traditional red-white-and-blue look this
year for a bold blast of pink. She said it was a response to a
request from the International Gymnastics Federation to have the
women's sport look more, well, feminine.

"I think we pleased FIG," Karolyi said.

Indeed, there wasn't much to quibble about, save one technical
misunderstanding involving Alicia Sacramone's floor exercise.

Sacramone, the defending world champion on floor, was docked a
half point for an almost imperceptible pause she made during a
dance sequence as she moved across the floor. The error will cost
her a chance to defend her title. The Americans protested the
deduction, but were overruled.

"We didn't anticipate it would be interpreted that way," USA
Gymnastics president Steve Penny said. "But we can't argue their
interpretation. If we could, we would."

Elsewhere, there were two falls off the balance beam. Besides
that, pretty much everything was perfect.

"We're comparing with the highest level that we want to get,
not comparing with anybody else," Karolyi said. "I always try to
emphasize that."

Memmel jammed her ankle in training, but performed as if she was
in no pain.

"When it's 'go time,' she's ready," said her dad and coach,
Andy Memmel. "There are never any excuses."

Earlier in the day, Vanessa Ferrari of Italy put in an
impressive performance that made her someone to watch in the
all-around. But Memmel finished first with 61.35, .25 more than
Ferrari and .725 ahead of another strong American, Jana Bieger.

Liukin hurt her ankle in training earlier this month and was
limited to a single event when she could have been contending for
the all-around.

Her 60-second show on the bars didn't disappoint. It was filled
with nice tight lines, perfect angles, and a scary 180-degree turn
and grab of the high bar that was executed to perfection. She
stepped forward slightly on the landing, but her feet hit the mat
solidly.

"It's all right. A little sore, but you have to pull through
it," she said of the aching ankle.

She scored a 16.2 and will be the woman to beat in event finals.
Not that that was the point.

"The first priority is the team," Liukin said.

Memmel, meanwhile, also jammed her ankle in training, but the
injury wasn't nearly as severe. She performed as if she was in no
pain.

"When it's `go time,' she's ready," said her dad and coach,
Andy Memmel. "There are never any excuses."

Earlier in the day, Vanessa Ferrari of Italy put in an
impressive performance that made her someone to watch in the
all-around. But Memmel finished first with 61.35, .25 more than
Ferrari and .725 ahead of another strong American, Jana Bieger.

Memmel is still the most explosive woman in the gym -- her jumps
higher, her kicks more aggressive. Before her floor routine, the
public-address announcer introduced her as the defending world
champion -- "No pressure there," she joked -- and the entire crowd
clapped along as she twisted and jumped around the mat.

"I was really happy with the floor routine," she said,
acknowledging that's where her ankle could've given her the most
trouble. "Overall, it was good."

In fact, barring the Sacramone affair, which appears to have
blown over, the whole day was good.

"We always can get better, you know," Karolyi said.

The finals are on Wednesday.

Notes:
The emotional high point of the day came when
Oksana Chusovitina made her debut on the German team. Chusovitina
had competed for her home country of Uzbekistan, but changed her
citizenship to Germany after moving there for her son's successful
treatment for leukemia. "I had to repress my emotions," said the
31-year-old, four-time Olympian. "Before, I only competed for
myself. Now, I get to feel what it's like to compete for the
team." ... Memmel finished the day in the top six in three events.
... Liukin was the only woman to post a score over 16.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.