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The two electronic scoreboards flashed the startling standings, and the East German meet director fairly flew out of her seat.

That's when the trouble began, and the Americans say that's when they learned how hard it can be to penetrate the upper echelons of the Communist bloc-dominated gymnastics world.With the U.S. women trailing only the Soviets after two compulsory rotations Monday, East Germany's Ellen Berger caught the Americans violating a little-known rule.

Team alternate Rhonda Faehn, who had stepped up on the podium for the parallel bars to remove a mounting board after Kelly Garrison-Steves began her routine, stayed there to watch.

"After the second round we were in second place after the USSR and that was frightening for everybody," said U.S. coach Bela Karolyi. "It was shocking to those people, who woke up and said `We've got to do something about that."'

The rules committee is dominated by Soviet bloc members, and what it did was dock the U.S. team a half-point for having someone on the platform during an athlete's performance. That left the final U.S. mark at 194.450, good for fourth place behind the Soviets, Romanians and East Germans.

The American delegation called the move sabotage, a Communist assault on those all-American values of sportsmanship and team spirit.

The worst of it wasn't that the penalty dropped the Americans from less than half a point to almost a full point behind East Germany and only a fraction ahead of fifth-place Bulgaria. And it wasn't that the confidence of the U.S. gymnasts has been shaken going into Wednesday's optionals.

The Americans say it was the disregard for the spirit of the Olympics and fair play that makes the penalty for violating a seldom-enforced rule hardest to swallow.

"It just seems to us that it isn't in the true spirit of Olympic competition to penalize the efforts of our kids because of something so mediocre and something that people had to search for a rule for," said U.S. coach Bill Strauss.

Tuesday morning Berger refused to respond to shouted questions about the controversy while she was at the gymnastics venue.

Strauss said U.S. gymnastics officials intended to write a letter to international gymnastics competitors protesting the severity of the penalty and what they claim was selective enforcement.

Karolyi, who defected from Romania in 1981 and led the U.S. women to seven gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, called the incident dirty and outrageous.

In 1984, the Eastern bloc was absent and didn't see the Americans' medal harvest as any reason to circle the wagons. That is, until Karolyi's kids rode up behind the Russians.

"In front of the fact that there is a new country appearing, they just got together and formed a close bunch, which yesterday proved to be unbeatable," said Karolyi during a practice Tuesday in which the Americans shared a cramped gym with his former compatriots.

Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, said there was no chance the ruling by the Technical Committee would be reversed.