By PETER JESSUP
Meet Smiley. Few outside the world of gymnastics have heard of Alina Kabaeva. By the time the Sydney Olympics are over, 17-year-old Smiley will be as familiar as Olga Korbut was after Munich or Nadia Comaneci after Moscow.
She is a likeable personality - hence the nickname. But it is her contortionist tricks that will make Kabaeva a household name by the end of the month.
She can tie her legs in knots around her neck. She can jump through the hoop with her feet touching her forehead, she can stand on her hands then drop her legs to the floor in front of her and pick up a ball between her feet.
Kabaeva is as good a bet as you get in sport to win the Olympic gold in rhythmic gymnastics and there is every possibility that she will do it the way Korbut and Comaneci did in artistic, with perfect scores.
The Russian has recorded five perfect-score 40s in competition in Europe in the past five months, leading her team to the gold medal at the European championships and winning the individual title for the second time. She had perfects 10s in the ball, hoop and ribbon for golds and took bronze in the rope.
Kabaeva was born in Tashkent and began rhythmic gymnastics when 6 years old. Her early coaches could not help but notice the incredible flexibility, the unusual angles to which she could twist her back. But she was considered too big, fat almost.
The family moved around Russia, her father Marat a professional soccer player now back at Tashkent, but it was while they were living in Moscow that her mother, a former national league basketball player, took her to the Olympic Preparatory School to perform for respected coach Irena Viner.
"She has the very rare combination of flexibility and jumping ability. All the rest could improve, I thought," was Viner's impression.
"With better food, better lifestyle and better training the results would come. So I said to Alina's mother, 'Goodbye Mama, your daughter stays with me'."
Kabaeva was 14. The year after, she competed overseas for the first time, in Japan, then went to the European championships in Portugal and shaded her internationally recognised team-mates to take the gold.
Viner now trains Kabaeva for six hours a day, six days a week. She describes her charge as intelligent and hardworking, very competitive, yet easy-going in training and relaxed at competition.
There is plenty of criticism of Kabaeva's routine from the sport's purists. They mark her down because she is not always "en pointe" when she turns and because she teeters on the edge of balance, but mostly because they do not agree that the freakish body bending is a points-scorer.
Some fellow competitors quietly agree. But it was they who dubbed her Smiley, as much for a universally sunny nature and her graciousness towards them as for the grin she always wears when competing.
The judges that have marked her perfect have been criticised for being overawed by the unusual movement in her routines and the smile, for forgiving errors they had put others down for.
But Kabaeva ignores the undercurrent and continues to wow every crowd she performs in front of.
When she faces her biggest television audience, in Sydney, she is sure to ride a wave of awe-induced popularity to instant international stardom.
By PETER JESSUP