Sanders finished 15th

Updated: August 27, 2004, 6:44 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Mary Sanders is taking her ball and going home.

America's only rhythmic gymnastics representative failed to make it out of qualifying Friday, finishing 15th out of 24 gymnasts. Only the top-10 advanced to Sunday's all-around final.

Defending world champion Alina Kabaeva of Russia was first with 105.875 points. Fellow Russian Irina Tchachina, third at last year's world championships, finished second. Anna Bessonova of Ukraine was third.

"Overall, I'm really happy with all of my performances," Sanders said. "I decided to go out there and do two consistent routines with no drops. It was a little harder for me today, but I'm glad I got through the circumstances."

Though Sanders was ninth at last year's world championships, she had little chance of making the final after a questionable score on the first day of qualifying.

Her technical score -- the measure of difficulty -- for her hoop routine was a 4.6, lower than she's ever scored in competition and lower than everyone in the field except competitors from Australia, South Africa and Cape Verde.

The Americans protested, but it was rejected by the International Gymnastics Federation. That left Sanders in 18th place after half of qualifying, too far down to make any kind of meaningful move.

"I really didn't think about it," she said. "I'm not here for scores."

Good thing, too. Rhythmic gymnastics is a lot like ice dancing in figure skating -- right down to the garish eye makeup, mystifying technical requirements and costumes in colors not even seen in Crayola's box of 64. The standings rarely change until someone at the top retires or joins Cirque du Soleil, and the favorites get all the breaks.

Just look at the qualifying. Kabaeva, a two-time world champion, lost track of her ribbon and had a club bounce off her hand Friday. Thursday, she dropped her hoop. The only clean routine she had was in ball.

Yet she still finished first.

"I am satisfied," Kabaeva said. "As far as Sunday's final, only God knows what will happen. I am very positive."

And better for Kabaeva to get her slippery fingers out of the way now. She was the overwhelming favorite for gold in Sydney, but she had to settle for bronze when her hoop went skittering off the mat in the finals.

Her mistakes weren't that glaring Friday. In her first routine, with the clubs, Kabaeva tossed one club high into the air and then the other. The goal was to catch them both, but one bounced off her hand and dropped onto the floor, drawing a gasp from the crowd.

In her routine with the ribbon, Kabaeva threw the kelly-green strip up, twirling as it fluttered back down. She was supposed to catch it in her left hand, but it didn't even come close.

That should have been enough for Tchachina, who looked like a matador as she pranced around the floor, whirling and swirling her deep red ribbon.

But Tchachina had a blunder of her own. In her second routine, she was flipping her clubs in her hands, a move easier for rhythmic gymnasts than picking out their eye shadow. But one slipped out of her hands, and a look of surprise crossed Tchachina's face.

While rhythmic gymnastics is widely popular in Europe -- the Galatsi Olympic Hall was packed with raucous fans -- most in the United States don't quite get it yet. All that dancing and twirling with ropes, hoops, balls, ribbons and clubs is a little confusing to people used to seeing gymnasts flipping and tumbling.

But Sanders is trying to change that. Her finish at worlds last year was the best ever by an American, and judges no longer lump the United States in with the also-rans from, say, Cape Verde.

So when Sanders finished her final routine, she thrust her right hand skyward and a huge grin crossed her face. She blew a kiss to the crowd and then waved to her family in the audience.

"I don't know about the next Olympics," Sanders said. "Right now, I'm just happy to be done."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press