Gymnastics' Tiny Toy Champion
By Dave Anderson
New York Times, March 1, 1982 When he was small, Bart Conner was always doing handstands or cartwheels around the house. And as a fourth-grader in Morton Grove, Ill, near Chicago, he discovered tumbling mats. One day his gym teacher, Les Lange, took him to nearby Niles West High School, where he gaped at the gymnastics equipment.
"Mr. Lange tossed me up on the parallel bars," Bart Conner remembers, "and I swung around and up into a handstand. I was just a little toy, 10 years old, about 60 pounds, but I was able to do it. The coach there, John Burkel, started letting me work out with his team. Nothing pushes you like a little success."
Success is still pushing him. When the seventh American Cup championships are held at Madison Square Garden this Saturday and Sunday, he'll be defending the men's all-around title, against gymnasts from the Soviet Union, China, Japan and East Germany, as well as Jim Hartung of Omaha and Peter Vidmar of Los Angeles.
As he approaches his 24th birthday, blond Bart Conner is still a toy. He's only 5 feet 6 inches tall and 122 pounds. But he's a toy tiger who's thinking about competing even beyond the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
"From the time I started thinking about the Olympics," he says, "I wanted to make the team in '76, '80 and '84 so the Moscow boycott wasn't as much a tragedy for me as it was for some others. I'd been on the '76 team and I was looking ahead to '84 anyway. I'll be 26 then. In women's gymnastics that's really old. But for men, it's about right. You need that time to develop your upper-body strength."
When the 1980 Olympics were being conducted in Moscow two years ago, Bart Conner was at the White House.
"President Carter had assembled some of our athletes. I was there as the gymnastics representative," he recalls. "After all the press had left that day, some of the athletes asked the President about what the Federal government would do for Olympic sports in the future and he said, 'We will look upon the amateur athlete with increased sensitivity.' Whatever that meant. You should have heard the groans."
That week Bart Conner naturally checked the Moscow Olympic gymnastic results.
"I remember reading about the 10's that were being awarded by the judges," he says, referring to the mark for a perfect score. "Until then, there had never been a 10 awarded in men's Olympic gymnastics. Of course, in Moscow the Russians were the ones getting the 10's."
Long before Bo Derek played the title role in the motion picture of the same number, Nadia Comaneci of Rumania popularized 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
"As soon as Nadia got her 10's," Bart Conner says, "the judges should've rearranged the whole scale. But they haven't. Nadia did so much more in her routines, she was really an 11 or maybe a 12, she made the judges look closely at rewarding originality and difficulty. But the other girls were still getting 9.85 or 9.9, which wasn't that far behind her."
Bart Conner wonders is a 10 should be an unreachable star.
"I don't know if a 10 should be possible," he says. "That's what you shoot for, a 10, but I don't know if it should be attainable. It might be better if it wasn't. The problem is that the scores start from such a high base now in both men's and women's gymnastics. If the worst guy is a 9.7 and the best is a 10, the judges have to squeeze 150 guys in between. Maybe they should judge it with a base of 8 instead."
In the world championships at Moscow last November, three men were awarded a 10 in the pommel horse.
"And on the high bar," Bart Conner says, "a Japanese named Goto got a 10 an didn't even get a medal. He finished fourth. That's what I mean about maybe a 10 shouldn't be possible. The way it is now, a 10 is becoming too common. One of the responsibilities of the judges is to control the direction of gymnastics. It'll be interesting to see how the judges in the American Cup assess some of the new elements."
At the Garden event, which is sponsored by McDonald's, judges from the Soviet Union, China, Japan and East Germany will join those assigned by the United States Gymnastics Federation.
"The pommel horse has always been a horizontal event," Bart Conner says, "but now some guys are experimenting with a handstand. If the judges like it enough to go to a 9.9, fine, but if they give it a 9.4, I won't do it anymore. Same thing on the high bar. Some guys come down out of a handstand and let go into a one-armed giant swing that's breaking the event wide open. But if the judges don't reward it, some guys won't do it."
At the world championships in Moscow, the United States men's team finished fifth.
"We might've paid the price there for boycotting the Olympics," he says. "I won the world title on the parallel bars in 1979 but at least year's championships, I didn't even make the final. I sat there in my street clothes watching it. The judges were pretty subtle. We couldn't really complain about our scores. One of us would get, say, a 9.8 but then an East German would slop through a routine and get a 9.9."
Bart Conner lives in Norman, Okla., where he works as an academic fund-raiser at the University of Oklahoma.
"I've still got about 18 credits to go before I graduate. I'm taking classes in journalism and public relations," he says. "My job lets me work in the morning and train in the afternoon."
He's also been officially adopted by the town of Paul's Valley, Okla.
"They felt sorry for me, a gymnast in a football state," he says with a smile. "They had an official adoption ceremony for me. They invited my parents and the university president, Bill Banowski, and they had a horse for me to ride in the parade. But they made Bill Banowski ride the horse instead. They were afraid I might fall off and get hurt."
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