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Russians start world championships on the wrong foot

GHENT, Belgium (AP) _ With lots of spills and few thrills, the Russians made a bad start to the men's team competition at the world gymnastics championships Sunday.

Olympic champion Alexei Nemov and defending world champion Nikolai Krukov both fell off the parallel bars and few of Russia's second-tier stars made it through the six apparatus cleanly.

``Unfortunately, we made quite a few mistakes,'' Nemov said afterwards, blaming a slew of injuries which have hit the team and the early-morning start of their qualifying session.

Russia still took a comfortable lead in the preliminary standings but all major title contenders still had to compete in the qualifying competition which stretches into Monday.

Russia totaled 212.384 points, 9.299 ahead of Britain. The Czech Republic was third.

Alexei Bondarenko proved Russia's best performer. After falling off the opening pommelhorse, he was steady throughout and led the individual standings with 55.074, for a lead of .839 over Israel's Pavel Gofman.

The new point scoring system added another imponderable to Russia's early performance. Nemov, for example, had a spectacular high bar routine but was only rewarded with 9.425, while it would have earned him close to 10 a few years earlier.

The Chinese, team gold medalists at the Sydney Olympics and winners of the last four world championships, are in Ghent with a young, experimental team. Their team session is set for Monday.

Ukraine, the silver medalists in Sydney, and the United States compete late Sunday.

The Russians were hesitant from the start. After Bondarenko fell off the pommelhorse, Evgueni Krylov had to interrupt his exercise midway because of a faulty scissors movement. They earned such meager scores of 8.337 and 8.725.

Krukov was himself at fault on the rings, totally missing his landing.

``Our performances missed the finishing touch,'' said Nemov.

To make amends, Nemov and Bondarenko came through with clutch vaults on the new Pegases apparatus.

For the rest of the morning, mediocrity reigned supreme.

``We have a Russian saying: 'When we are down, we have to cheer up,'' said Nemov.

Nemov and Krukov did not participate on all six apparatus and will not be competing for the all-around gold medal.

Russia's problems had been seen coming.

Evgueni Podgorni ruled himself out after falling badly on his elbow in training Thursday. Defending world all-around champion Krukov has been nursing a nagging back injury, and Evgueni Krylov sustained a foot injury in training.

``In all, we only had three healthy gymnasts,'' Nemov said.

Japan, fourth at the Olympics, pulled out for safety reasons after the terrorist attacks on the United States, but the U.S. team is here.

The Americans are in a position to pull of some surprises, even without their best performer Blaine Wilson, out with a shoulder injury. Paul Hamm has a real chance of individual glory, if he's recovered from the leg injury that's kept him out most of the season.

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