RIO DE JANEIRO — Trailing by nearly a point entering the final rotation and his chances of a second Olympic all-around title very much in jeopardy, Kohei Uchimura pondered what for the last seven years has been unthinkable.
He thought about losing.
“I felt really close to admitting that it might be really difficult,” Uchimura said.
It was. It just wasn’t impossible. Not for the greatest men’s gymnast of all time. Delivering a fearless high bar with a gold medal on the line, the Japanese superstar put all the pressure on Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev. And when Verniaiev’s routine minutes later ended with a small hop and an ever-so slight lean to the left on his dismount, Uchimura was back where he’s always been while Verniaiev shrugged his shoulders.
What are you gonna do? It’s Uchimura. Maybe that’s why Verniaiev couldn’t stop smiling even though Uchimura’s total of 92.365 was less than a tenth ahead of Verniaiev’s 92.266.
“I think this is really the coolest thing in the world,” Verniaiev said. “The very fact we can compete with him is amazing. Today we managed to put on an amazing show.”
One that ended the way it always has since Uchimura captured his first world championship in 2009: with the supremely elegant Uchimura standing atop the podium with a gold medal around his neck and the Japanese anthem playing over the loudspeakers.
“This really was the trickiest for me,” Uchimura said after becoming the first man in nearly 50 years to repeat as Olympic champion.
Max Whitlock earned Great Britain’s first all-around medal in 108 years by taking bronze, just ahead of Russia’s David Belyavskiy. American Sam Mikulak recovered from a fall on vault to rally to seventh. Chris Brooks finished 14th while capping a memorable rise through the qualifying process to make his first Olympic team at 29.
Really, though, the night belonged to Verniaiev and Uchimura. Their two-hour duel provided the closest call in Uchimura’s run of two Olympic crowns and six world all-around championships.
“There’s only the tiniest gap, a 0.1 gap,” Uchimura said. “I really have no confidence I should say, that I can beat Oleg.”
Verniaiev equated Uchimura to the gymnastics version of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, territory the ever gracious Uchimura shied away from immediately.
“Everybody in the world knows these names,” he said. “But Kohei Uchimura? Who is this man? I don’t think I’m well known in the world.”
There’s time. Uchimura will take a break following the Rio Games but has no plans to retire. The next Summer Olympics are back home in Tokyo. The opportunity to finish things off in front of his fellow countrymen — and his daughter — will be far too attractive to pass up.
“By then my daughter would be old enough so that I really hope I will be able to show her what her father can do,” he said.
Here’s the answer: pretty much whatever he wants.
Uchimura arrived in Rio as the overwhelming favorite to back up the all-around gold he won in London four years ago. Yet he stressed repeatedly the only thing that mattered was the team gold. That triumphant moment happened on Monday when Japan soared to victory.
While Uchimura was exulting in triumph, Verniaiev was basically just warming up. Ukraine qualified for the team final but basically gave up when Maksym Semiankiv couldn’t participate in the finals due to injury. Rather that put in a replacement athlete to fill in for Semiankiv, Ukraine instead just entered two athletes instead of three, dooming whatever medal chances they had.
Verniaiev shrugged off the decision and insisted his team did not tank on purpose so he could prep for the all-around.
“We never blew a single contest,” he said, calling it a “silly and unpredictable situation.”