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Women's Gymnastics as Show Biz

The spotlight is on the popular Olympics sport to boost its appeal to a larger audience

Move over figure skating. Here comes gymnastics - on tour, on television, and even on stage.

The sport that wowed fans in Atlanta with its flips and double-layout dismounts is vying for a spot as the next icon of family entertainment.

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A Boston audience got a taste of things to come Friday night when the American women and men gymnastic Olympians (minus Kerri Strug), came here as part of a 34-city tour sponsored by John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company.

There wasn't a judge in sight - just a sold-out arena of screaming young girls (and some cheering moms and dads). No half-hearted smiles either. The gymnasts danced and gyrated to Janet Jackson's "Control," "Great Balls of Fire," and the Macarena.

It's a move the sport has been looking to make for years - nudged along in particular by veteran coach Bela Karolyi, who trained Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal, and Dominique Moceanu.

"I look at ice skating as our direct competitor," says Karolyi, sporting a big grin while still every bit serious. (Apparently ice skating does, too. One organization hawked its own figure-skating sponsored tour to passersby.)

Gymnastics has always had a handful of corporate-sponsored tours and semicompetitions in the past. But suddenly, promoters who created new competitions for skaters - the US vs. the World - are now wanting to do the same for gymnasts.

Already, a rival tour headlining Olympic heroine Strug and the husband-wife team of Bart Conner and Comaneci kicks off at the end of this month.

The tour has started a debate about how much these athletes should be paid, since they come from a sport that is virtually unheard of except during the Olympics. Each of the six women on the team of the Hancock tour will earn more than $200,000 - an upgraded deal enhanced after competition from the Strug tour. (Strug reportedly will do much better.)

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USA Gymnastics - the sport's national governing body - is expected to gross $1.5 million from the tour.

Although Hancock planned its tour a year ago, several factors make the timing ripe for this entertainment frenzy. For one, the women bringing home the gold and Strug's heroic vault in Atlanta have helped. Also, there is a growing interest in both women's sporting events and sports entertainment in general.

"We're seeing [sports entertainment] in Las Vegas," says Steve Nunno, Shannon Miller's coach.

Another factor that coaches and athletes stress is that these tours showcase the fun side of a sport that has been criticized as sometimes bordering on child abuse.

"You'll see a [fun] side of me," says Miller, who is usually quiet and reserved, but on this night struts her stuff in a solo floor routine.

Another reason for embracing professional tours is to prolong gymnasts' careers. "What used to happen is that a gymnast would go to the Olympics, do a quick tour, then disappear," says Kathy Scanlan, president of USA Gymnastics.

"Someone like Dominique [Moceanu, still in her early teens] is capable of doing this for years and years," Karolyi says.

Kim Zmeskal, who participated in the 1992 Games and is performing on the Hancock tour, has struggled to stay in the sport. She competed for two years after the Olympics, but then went back to school to get her high school diploma. She then realized how much she missed gymnastics and started training again. This type of tour, she says, "gives everyone an opportunity to look forward."

The tour hasn't been bad for recruiting future Olympians either. Gymnastics enrollment for boys and girls is up 30 to 40 percent, says Ms. Scanlan. That's the highest vault since the 1984 summer Olympics.

But whether gymnastics can follow in the footsteps of figure skating - which has been able to hold its own high TV ratings against the National Football League - is another question.

Unlike figure skating, gymnastics generally has a higher turnover of athletes because of the physical demands of the sport. And that will make it hard to create audience loyalty.

Also, skating already incorporates music and costumes, which makes for an easier transition into the entertainment arena. And some contend that gymnastics can't yet match skating's personalities and rivalries.

Karolyi is confident that gymnastics can make the leap. "We're a stronger asset to sports entertainment than ice skating," he says.

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