Their reign isn’t over yet. As the Chinese went into the men’s team gymnastics final having placed an astonishingly poor sixth in the qualifications, naysayers began to whisper: did a squad that was the reigning Olympic champion and world-title holder for five consecutive years finally lose its luster?
Not so fast. On July 30, with rowdy Chinese fans yelling “add oil,” a term of encouragement in Mandarin that has a meaning similar to “step on it,” the Chinese squad tumbled and flipped to a resounding victory, more than four points ahead of silver medalist Japan. “All those people who said maybe we weren’t going to win, all they were using were words,” says Zou Kai, the fresh-faced, 24-year-old anchor of the Chinese squad whose horizontal-bar routine all but cemented China’s lead. “What we used were actions. And our actions were to win, so I think people should stop saying things about us.”
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Bronze was the night’s biggest surprise, as Great Britain claimed its first team gymnastics medal in a century. True, the British finished third in the qualification round, but they had only managed an 11th-place finish in last year’s world championships. The ecstatic crowd on Monday night, which could scarcely believe the home team might be in medal contention, sent waves of cheers bouncing around the packed North Greenwich Arena. Princes William and Harry were in attendance too, putting a royal imprimatur on the noisy proceedings. “When I was on the floor, every time I stayed on my feet after a tumble, I could hear the crowd getting louder and louder,” says Kristian Thomas, whose 15.433 on the floor was the team’s final effort and locked in Team GB’s bombshell third-place finish. “The crowds definitely made a difference. I’m really grateful to them.” (Thomas’ vault score of 16.55 was the top result of the night.)
The night was marred by a judging snafu that initially put Great Britain in silver position and Ukraine in third place. But the Japanese lodged an inquiry into the pommel horse score awarded to all-around champion Kohei Uchimura after the Japanese team’s final rotation. For more than 10 minutes, the judges deliberated and then delivered the verdict. Japan, once relegated to fourth place, would actually finish the night as the silver medalist.
As might be expected given the sudden British demotion, the Japanese collected their silvers at the victory ceremony to a scattering of boos from the crowd. But Thomas still seemed shocked to have a medal of any hue around his neck. “Honestly, I still feel like it’s a bit of a wonderful dream, really,” he says. “We kept on telling ourselves that we had to just relax and have fun because this was the Olympics, but I’m not sure we actually were enjoying ourselves, really, because there was so much pressure.”
Going into the men’s team finals, the field boasted three contenders considered equally poised to strike gold: the Americans, the Chinese and the resurgent Japanese, who had last won team gold at the 2004 Athens Games. But the Americans, who had topped the qualifications on Saturday with a team mostly composed of Olympic ingenues, faded quietly into fifth place. They were never in medal contention. Mistakes on the floor and pommel horse cost the Japanese, who were runners-up to the Chinese in 2008 as well.
In Beijing, the Chinese men scooped up seven out of eight gymnastics gold medals on offer. Their five world titles were equally daunting. But even as China won its fifth team world championship in Tokyo last year, the gymnasts’ routines no longer felt quite so flawless — some might say robotically perfect — as they had a couple years before.
The Chinese squad has profited from a system that culls pliable tots from kindergartens nationwide and deposits them in state-run sports schools where they live and breathe gymnastics year-round. But the gymnastics assembly line has slowed in recent years. After the retirement of Yang Wei, the all-around veteran with the lopsided smile, no one on the Chinese team has been quite able to replicate his range.
A change to the Olympic rules also had the potential to undercut the Chinese. Previously, each team could field six athletes, meaning that squads could cultivate specialists in individual apparatuses (the pommel horse, the rings, the vault, the parallel bars, the horizontal bar and the floor), as well as fielding one or two all-around athletes. But in London, teams were limited to five competitors, meaning that athletes who can perform well in more than one event are needed.
China’s chances were further dented by a mid-July knee injury to 2008 gold medalist and team captain Chen Yibing. Then came a last-minute pullout of 2004 pommel-horse gold medalist Teng Haibin, because of a forearm injury suffered during pre-Olympic training. He was replaced by rookie Guo Weiyang, whose mistakes on the floor, parallel bars and pommel horse helped send the Chinese into sixth place during qualifications.
But none of that mattered on Monday. Clutch performances on the vault by Zou, Feng Zhe and Zhang Chenglong sent the Chinese from sixth to first place after the second rotation. They never relinquished the lead after that. There were no major mistakes by any of the Chinese, just a consistent racking up of points. Even substitute Guo resisted further embarrassment, turning out respectable performances on the pommel horse, rings and parallel bars.
The Japanese squad was anchored by Uchimura, the only male gymnast in history to have won three all-around championships. But the 23-year-old, with his rock-star looks and technically jam-packed routines, has looked distracted in London. In the qualification round on Saturday, the reigning all-around champ spun off not one but two apparatuses. During the final, however, he competed in all six apparatuses and churned out solid results — until he got to the pommel horse, the Japanese squad’s weakest event. Uchimura botched his dismount and was left shaking his head and wincing.
Uchimura’s vault mishap wasn’t the only Japanese accident of the night. Early in the competition, Koji Yamamuro bounced off the vault and straight onto his face and knees, injuring his right foot in the process. He was forced to leave the arena by piggybacking on a coach and only returned, limping, to collect the silver medal with his teammates.
Two of the five places on the Japanese squad were occupied by a pair of brothers, Kazuhito and Yusuke Tanaka. Their sister Rie is also competing in the London Games, the first time, it is believed, that three siblings have graced the same Olympics. Older brother Kazuhito, 27, is the captain of the Japanese men’s squad, as his sister, 25, is for the women’s team. But his younger brother Yusuke, 22, was the one who shined in London on Monday night, particularly with a stunning horizontal bar routine. Meanwhile, Kazuhito’s blunders on the floor and pommel horse (which he competed in to replace the injured Yamamuro) earned him the Japanese squad’s lowest marks of the night.
For the Chinese, the night simply underscored what they already knew. “We are the best in the world,” says Li Xiaopeng, a double gold medalist in both Beijing and Sydney, who has since retired and was covering Monday’s competition for state broadcaster CCTV. So how come even Chinese pundits were downplaying the team’s potential before the finals? “Who cares what people predicted,” retorts Li. “What matters is now. We won. That’s the story.”