London may bring an end to the Chinese dynasty.
China has been on top of men’s gymnastics for much of this century, winning five straight world titles as well as the gold medals at the Sydney and Beijing Olympics. For much of that time, the Chinese had the meet won simply by getting off the bus.
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They were that much better than everyone else and not only did the competition know it, they freely admitted it.
But China looked — dare we say it? — vulnerable in winning the world title last fall. The Chinese finished qualifying behind Japan and the U.S. men, the first time since the Athens Olympics they had finished anywhere but first in any phase of a major competition. The reduction in team size, from six to five, figures to hurt China most, putting more of an emphasis on all-arounders, something the Chinese lack.
“It will be extremely hard for us to defend the team event title this time,” Chen Yibing, the Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion on still rings, said in a May story in China Daily. “We lack the all-around talent now, so everybody has to dig deeper and try to make up for each other’s weak event.”
Or pass the torch to somebody else.
Silver medalists in Beijing — albeit very distant ones — and runner-up at the last four world championships, the Japanese are
led by the otherworldly Kohei Uchimura. Stylish and precise, Uchimura has dominated men’s gymnastics so thoroughly since
Beijing the debate is no longer whether he belongs on the list of the sport’s greatest, but where. First? Third? Eighth? Does he get bonus points for that fabulous Beatles-like mop top?
Uchimura has won three straight world titles, and even his rivals — though that term is used loosely — acknowledge they’re chasing silver and bronze unless something stunning happens. Uchimura, however, insists he doesn’t care about upgrading his all-around silver from Beijing. It’s the gold in the team competition that consumes him.
“I’m fed up with being second in the team event,” he said this spring. “The team is a special event, and winning it is in many ways more rewarding than the individual event.”
That’s how the U.S. men feel, too.
The Americans have been insisting for years they can make a run at gold and, for the first time since 1984, they might just have the goods to back up the big talk. The Japanese sure seem to think so, sending a scouting party to this month’s Olympic trials.
“I think this is clearly one of the best teams we’ve ever, ever fielded,” said Peter Vidmar, a leader of the ’84 Golden Gang who is now chairman of the board at USA Gymnastics.
It starts with talent. Jonathan Horton has two medals from the Beijing Olympics, and Danell Leyva gave the U.S. men their first world title since 2003 last fall with his gold on parallel bars. John Orozco, Leyva and Horton had three of the top five qualifying scores at worlds on their way to the bronze medal. Jake Dalton, also a member of that world team, has the precise lines and polished elegance that international judges love.
And the lone newcomer, Sam Mikulak, is a precocious phenom who might wind up being the best of the bunch.
More important, however, is how the Americans are using that talent. For years, they were the indoor equivalent of the X-Games kids, packing their routines with the toughest tricks they could find. It was amazingly cool when they pulled them off. Too often, however, they didn’t.
But the Americans have matured. Oh, they still have some of the slickest skills around — Need an adrenaline rush? Catch Leyva’s high bar routine on YouTube — but the cover-your-eyes-and-hide-the-children uncertainty is gone.
“I don’t think we’ve toned down how crazy our gymnastics is, but I think we’ve made it look better,” Horton said. “We’ve really polished and cleaned everything up. We’ve fixed the rhythm of our gymnastics. It’s minor details that have made big differences for us.”
So, too, their mindset. The Americans have bought into the team concept, every single one of them. As proud as Leyva was to stand on top of the podium last year, he knows it could not compare to doing it with his teammates.
“Simply put, I think we have the talent, we’ve got the ability, we have the routines and the start values. The intangible part of it is we’ve got the spirit,” Horton said. “Every single one of these guys knows how to rise to the occasion. When we compete under enormous amounts of pressure, something special happens and we’ve all proven it.
“We just know that we have the same level of difficulty as any other team out there. Now we just have to go out and have a good time and showcase what we’re actually capable of.”
The sentimental favorite in London will be the British, naturally.
Four years ago Britain was barely an afterthought in gymnastics, with Louis Smith giving the country its first medal in nearly 100 years with his bronze on pommel horse. But the British have become a budding powerhouse since then, making regular appearances on the podium at the world championships and qualifying full men’s and women’s teams to an Olympics for the first time since 1984. This spring, the men won their first European title.
There’s been such a dramatic shift in their fortunes that not only could the British win multiple medals in London, led by Smith and three-time world champion Beth Tweddle, it will be a disappointment if they don’t.
“I’m not sure anyone ever expected such rapid development, and it’s such a positive thing for everyone involved in the sport,” Smith said. “Now we have a chance to really show how far we’ve come.”