GHENT, Belgium (AP) _ Some of the Russians are hurt, all the Chinese are inexperienced and the whole Japanese team is absent, leaving the World Championships starting Saturday wide open. A new scoring system will make it even more unpredictable.
It seems only the Romanians have come to this medieval city without major worries. They have brought their traditionally strong women's team, with Andreea Raducan seeking the gold which was taken from her at the Sydney Olympics, the unwitting victim of a doping scandal.
Even the Romanian men have been performing strongly during practice this week, making them a palpable threat in the team competition, which starts on Sunday.
The men's team event has come to be the domain of the Russians and Chinese, but both are seriously under-strength.
Russia's greatest star and multiple world and Olympic gold medalist, Alexei Nemov, is scheduled to skip the all-around and team events to center only on the apparatus finals.
Normally, Russia's strength in depth would cushion that blow, but his no-show is far from the only mishap hitting coach Leonid Arkaev.
On Thursday, Olympic team gold medalist Evgueni Podgorni fell badly on his elbow during training, further endangering Russia's chances.
Defending world all-around champion Nikolai Krukov is also uncertain because of injury and will likely center of a few apparatus finals only. To make matters worse for Arkaev, Evgueni Krylov is also nursing an injury sustained during floor training early this week.
It leaves Arkaev in a bind for the team competition, with severely limited options. ``I'm left with only four gymnasts,'' he said.
Normally, defending champion China would step in and win the men's event easily. But not this year. The Chinese are effectively sending a B-team with little international experience to Ghent, with all their top stars centering on the national championships one week after Ghent instead. The pressure is also not that intense since the Athens 2004 Olympics is still three years off.
Japan decided to skip the championships because of security concerns in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The difficulties leave open the way for Ukraine and even a collectively-strong France to challenge for medals.
In the women's events, which start with team qualifying on Monday, Romania and Russia are poised to dominate.
Romania is the strong favorite to retain its title in the team event but most eyes will be centered on Raducan to see whether she can put the disappointment from last year's Sydney Olympics behind her and replace compatriot Maria Olaru as world champion.
At last year's Olympics, Raducan became one of the most captivating stories of the games when she was stripped from the all-around title for taking a cold medicine which contained a banned substance. Although the doctor was blamed for the error, Raducan was not reinstated. Now, at 18, she aims to pick up her golden career again.
She already won two golds at the last world championships, as part of the Romanian team and in the floor exercise. Her ambitions are conservative though, especially because of the new rules.
``First, I want to help the team, as I did in 1999. Then I will seek a personal medal,'' she said Friday. ``Because of the rules it is impossible to be sure now.''
Under the new system, used for the first time in a major competition, artistic performance is upgraded compared to acrobatics, with the confidence, delicacy and entertainment factors taking central stage. Yet it remains to be seen how the judges will react to the new impositions.
Audiences will have to adapt too. For years the top gymnasts flirted with perfect 10 scores, but this year's winning performances could be a .5 points lower, said Octavian Belo, Romanian women's coach.
``Everything can happen, everything is possible,'' Belo said. ``This world championships is 100 percent in the hands of the judges.''