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THE TOP 50 gymnasts in the country come to Salt Lake City this week for a gymnastics meet that's much more than a gymnastics meet.The U.S. Olympic Gymnastic Trials.

Rhythmic competition begins on July 29 and 30, men's and women's artistic gymnastics Aug. 3-6. Some 17 of these fine young athletes will go from here to the Olympics in Seoul. For the rest, their stay in Utah will be a bittersweet time, the end of a four-year dream.

If anyone understands how those gymnasts are going to feel, their pride and their disappointment, it's Greg Marsden. He is the coach of the University of Utah Women's Gymnastics team and the man who was instrumental in bringing the Trials to Salt Lake.

Win or lose, Marsden says, they'll be showing us their best. We've got to show them our best, too, he believes. "Whether they make the Olympic team or not, they should feel like this is much more than just another meet."

That's where the festival comes in.

"It's an international festival. It's free. It's open to the public. It will be in and around the courtyard of the Salt Palace," explains Catherine Owens, the festival director.

With food, music, and booths from two dozen different countries, the festival will bring an Olympic feeling to the competition.

The Korean booth will take center stage. The Korean consulate, Hee Kang Hyon, is coming from San Francisco to oversee the booth, which will sell unique Korean souvenirs and food.

"The festival opens at noon so that, every day, people who work downtown can come over for lunch," Owens says. "It'll be the best lunch in town," says Bruce Beers, Salt Palace Arena Coordinator. Owens adds that the food booths are being run by the various cultural groups themselves, not by local restaurants.

All afternoon and into the evening, different music and dance groups will perform on the outdoor stage, at the north end of the plaza. There will be music from the Andes, South Seas serenades, Scottish bagpipes and more. Owens has scheduled the biggest bands for 9:30 p.m.

"Every night when the competition is ending, people will walk out and hear one of the big bands," she says. Loud. Festive. Fun.

Beers was the director of the first Salt Lake arts festival (before it became the Utah Arts Festival). He is anticipating a similar festival feeling ("moderate-sized, closely tied to the community") but with more pageantry.

Beers says they'll be closing West Temple between First and Second South from 6:30 p.m. on Aug 5 to noon on Aug 6, for opening and closing ceremonies surrounding the men's and women's finals.

Beers says those rituals be something to see, with 280 girls from drill teams around the state performing with colorful ribbons (similar to the ribbons used by rhythmic gymnasts) in a routine devised by Jackie Fullmer.

ABC television will be on hand to bring the Women's Finals live to the rest of the nation. They'll tape the Men's Finals and show them in two weeks.

The festival is probably what gave Salt Lake City the edge in attracting the trials. Greg Marsden and Rainer Dahl agree on this.

The two men tried to get the trials four years ago. Dahl was chairman of the U.S. Olympics Committee for the state at that time. "We put together a bid fast," says Dahl. "We were naive," says Marsden. "We went back to Chicago and didn't get it," says Dahl.

Since 1984, the two men have been thinking about getting the trials in 1988. People from the U.S. Gymnastics Federation told them Los Angeles and Cincinnati looked like better cities.

Undaunted, Dahl formed the Utah Sports Federation. He found corporate sponsorship and support for the festival and trials. State, county, and city officials wanted the trials, too. "The USGF was impressed with what we were willing to do to promote the event," says Dahl.

Since nabbing the gymnastic trials, the nonprofit Utah Sports Federation has won a contract with the State of Utah to try to promote more sporting events in the state. The USF also brought in 130 teams for the National Open Volleyball Championship in June.

The Olympic Gymnastic Trials are going to be bigger and more exciting. "The most exciting thing you could see next to the Olympics," is the way Marsden looks at them.

Dahl says,"The Olympic Gymnastic Trials are bringing a lot of people into the state. Between 2,500 and 3,000 athletes, their families and gymnastic people, including the president and executive secretary of the Olympic Committee. We will get a lot of media attention with ABC covering it live. CBS will have their team here too, including Mary Lou Retton, to do background work for their coverage of the Olympics.

"Most trials last for two days. We are going to have a week's worth of competition," Dahl says. He talks about tourist dollars and hopes to make a profit on this event.

"In raising funds for the Olympic Trials," he continues, "I wanted to get some money into the state and keep it here. Any excess money after the trials will be used as an endowment for young athletes in the state, through competitions in their various clubs. We want to support track and field, archery, swimming.

"We will pattern ourselves after the Southern California Foundation, which has been able to raise a great deal of money for kids to travel and compete in some rather obscure sports."

Dahl predicts Utahns are going to go wild over the Olympic Trials. "We already love women's gymnastics _ now we are going to get a chance to see and learn more about men's gymnastics. And I think the kids especially are going to love the rhythmics _ with hoops, ribbons, and balls. It's a sport that has only recently come to the United States."

Marsden also mentions the money that could be raised for amateur athletics and touches on the number of hotel rooms and meals the visitors will buy. "All this is a nice sidelight," he says. For him, the real excitement comes in the opportunity to bring his favorite people together.

And about this he can't quite decide what pleases him most.

"I am going to love to show Salt Lake off to the best coaches, judges and gymnasts in the country," he says.

"And I am going to love showing the athletes off to this community, which has been so supportive of local gymnastics."