BARCELONA, Spain — So where does Kim Zmeskal go for a refund? Where does she go to get back the childhood she sacrificed for gymnastics, or the school she left to spend eight hours a day in the gym? Where does she go to get fresh bones, never broken or sprained, or fresh muscles, never pulled or torn? Where does she go for a fresh confidence, never shattered into a million pieces like it was Thursday night, in front of the whole world?

Tell me where. Then tell her. I love the sport of women’s gymnastics, it is breathtaking, like dance, the purest command of the human body. But I defy anyone to attend an Olympic gymnastics competition — at least anyone who loves children — and not walk out terribly upset.

Seeing Zmeskal, a tiny, 4-foot-7 creature who was a pre- Olympic favorite,

step awkwardly out of bounds during her very first event Thursday, hearing the crowd groan, seeing her face collapse into tears on the sidelines because she knew, instantly, that there was no way she could come back from that, her Olympics were dying in front of her, and she still had three events to go — seeing that, you wanted to leap the railing, grab her under your arm, and run out the door, yelling: “What’s the matter with you people? Can’t you see she’s just a child?”

And despite the glory that was showered on other gymnasts, despite the wonderful gold-medal performance by the Unified Team’s Tatyana Gutsu, the riveting final vault that launched 15-year-old Shannon Miller all the way to the silver medal, the overall impression you have leaving the building is simply this:

It is just not worth it. An age-old problem

There was a girl in this competition, perhaps you saw her, a North Korean named Kim Gwang-Suk. She had the body of a 9- year-old, no curves, no chest, no sign of puberty. Her face was grade-schoolish, with a little ponytail, and she was missing one of her front teeth. Some say it hasn’t grown in yet.

She is listed as 17 years old.

This is just one of the lies in this sport. Faking ages to enter competitions (the minimum age for the Olympics is 14) is quite common in certain countries. A bigger concern is why the sport has shifted its emphasis from grace and form — remember the older Russian gymnasts of the ’70s? — to lift, flight and power. And the fact is, a tiny, prepubescent body can bounce off a vault or flip though midair much better than one laden with the extra flesh of a blossomed teenager.

“The sport is for the little girls now,” says Bela Karolyi, the Svengali who coaches Zmeskal.

But at what price? At least half a dozen times Thursday night, I saw girls fall off the bars and land flat on their faces, or overshoot their dismounts and bounce onto their heads. And these are the best gymnasts in the world.

Did you know that many young female gymnasts never develop enough body fat to start a menstrual cycle? That they can go years in this unnatural stage, as if someone roped their hormones and held them captive?

And they are considered the lucky ones?

For this, parents send their children away from home. Have them live with foster families. Have them spend sunup to sundown with a guy like Karolyi, who

once said of the championship building process: “These girls are like little scorpions. You put them all in a bottle, and one scorpion will come out alive. That scorpion will be the champion.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to raise a scorpion. I don’t want my daughter’s wrists broken, her back aching, her knees operated on before her 16th birthday. I don’t want her in therapy for years, learning how to cope in the real world which she left so long ago. Fighting back tears

Which brings us back to Zmeskal. Just how normal do you think her life will be now? A world champion, a heavy favorite, the cover girl of Time magazine — and she slips in the first 10 seconds of her best event Sunday, barely qualifies for the all-around competition, then makes a beginner’s mistake Thursday and steps out of bounds during her floor routine. Shaken, upset, she follows with another little slip on the beam, and boom! That’s it. Bye-bye, glory. She finishes 10th, behind a Spanish girl who couldn’t manage a single 9.9 from the judges.

“I didn’t have the meet of my life,” Zmeskal said, fighting tears in the floor area after the competition. Her hair was pulled back in its tight blond ponytail. She came up to the waist of most of the reporters.

“It wasn’t the best night of my life.”

She looked like she wanted to fly to another planet.

Look, this is not picking on gymnastics. All sports require sacrifice. All sports have physical dangers. But few demand that young girls peak at age 14 or 15, that they be ready to take on the world by then and not slip even the slightest bit on a 4-inch beam or a pair of wooden bars. Few sports are so unforgiving of maturity.

There will be no next Olympics for Kim Zmeskal. At 20, she’ll likely be too old. If she doesn’t salvage a medal in one of the individual apparatus events — which are all that remain now — she’ll go down as one of the biggest busts of Barcelona, a terribly heavy burden to bear.

And where are the people responsible for this?

Well. There is Karolyi, the ex-Romanian turned American star-maker, who sneaked out of the gym to avoid reporters after Thursday’s competition. I caught him just before he got on the bus. This is what he said of his prize student’s collapse:

“Her nerves gave up. It was something I expected. She became a victim of her own success.”

And his feelings towards her now?

“I really feel sorry for this little girl. She could have been shaped into an Olympic champion. But the inside politics, all this dirtiness about the selection procedure, all this hocus-pocus, led to the destruction of her greatest ability: her confidence.”

Right. When in doubt, blame politics.

It may be good that Karolyi is quitting gymnastics after these Olympics. Fewer Americans will be tempted to race down to his Houston academy and hand their kids over on a leash — just because he once sculpted Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton. Last I saw, wasn’t Comaneci a bit of a dizzy defector, living in Canada? And Retton, now in her 20s, doesn’t seem to have advanced much beyond a Kewpie doll, at least from my conversations with her. Is that how you want your daughters to grow up?

As the arena emptied Thursday, Dave Zmeskal, father of the fallen champion, stood by the railing, looking out on the floor. He was asked whether he still felt it was worthwhile, the leaving school, the injured wrists, the screaming by Karolyi, the non-returnable hours of his daughter’s adolescence?

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I have no regrets.”

He ought to. Kim Zmeskal is too young to know any better. So is Shannon Miller. So is that tiny girl from North Korea who is being used in something that — when you consider the bandages, the bruises and the verbal lashings — is just shy of child abuse. We watch these Olympics, year after year, and this situation gets worse and worse, younger and younger. And ultimately, it must be the parents who put a stop to it.

“They’re just kids,” Dave Zmeskal said, looking at the floor where his daughter lost her dreams. “They’re just kids. They make mistakes.”

Right.

What’s your excuse?

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