They had such high hopes, the Americans and the British. The US men qualified in first place going into the team finals, and the Brits were third. Not bad for countries where men’s gymnastics isn’t exactly a spectator sport. Not like in China, where promising gymnasts are plucked from elementary schools and start to hone their skills in a regimented program, or in Japan, where male gymnasts have earned medals in every Olympics except five Games since 1932.
The fans in London’s North Greenwich Arena certainly thought so, unaware that all scores are wiped out and the competition starts anew in the team event. But maybe that was for the better. The cheers for every stuck landing and British routine were deafening, almost making the remaining gymnasts, working through their routines simultaneously, after-thoughts. China, the reigning champions from Beijing, had a chance to redeem themselves, which, of course, they did, beginning with the first rotation in definitive fashion. And then they never looked back.
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But while China and Japan were expected to take two of the podium spots, the US men had a decent chance at breaking the Asian domination for the last position. Three men on the US squad were part of the bronze-medal world championship team in 2011, behind China and Japan, and had hopes of doing so again.
But in two surprises for the home crowd, after all six rotations, the British men leapt up to the second spot on the scoreboard, drawing a cheer of appreciation from the crowd. Within 15 minutes, however, that elation was tempered somewhat by a protest filed by the Japanese, who had finished fourth, over a mis-scored dismount by Kohei Uchimura on his pommel horse routine; the judges had mis-calculated the difficulty of his routine, and agreed that it deserved 0.7 points more. That was enough to leap-frog the Japanese past the Brits, and push the Ukranians out of a bronze medal to fourth place.
“We deserved the medal, but this is the decision of the technical committee. It is difficult but life is life,” Yuliy Kuksenkov, the Ukranian coach, said, speaking for his disappointed squad. “Sometimes when you think of athletics, 100m is 100m, but in gymnastics, sometimes 100m is 95m, sometimes it is 105m.”
For the British gymnasts, however, even the bronze medal finish was a delightful surprise, and they were happy to take any place on the podium. “Realistically, a year ago we always ranked Japan and China above us, and we knew we would be fighting for bronze,” said Eddie Van Hoof, the British men’s coach. “Silver would be nice, but bronze – we’ll take that any way.”
Not exactly a powerhouse in the sport, Great Britain has not won an Olympic medal in the men’s team event since 1912 (that one was also a bronze). They haven’t qualified to compete in the men’s final, in which only a select number of teams make the rounds of the six apparatus, since 1992, when they finished 12th (back then, more teams were invited to the event; now only eight compete).
But Van Hoof said that six years, ago, the country and the national sports federation made an effort to develop a strong program, which helped Louis Smith win the country’s only individual Olympic medal ever, in pommel horse. “There have been ups and downs, and trials and tribulations, but [the road] ended here with amazing results, and all that hard work was rewarded,” said Van Hoof.
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“Our results over the last few years have been getting better and better, and we are starting to get recognition from the outside world that gymnastics is a fantastic sport,” said Kristian Thomas, who earned the highest score of the night, a 16.550, on his vault. “Hopefully today this will put gymnastics in the front with sports like athletics, swimming and football, and show that we are a force to be reckoned with.”
For the US, it wasn’t quite as happy an ending, as the team that came in as the leading point scorers occupied the next to last spot after several rotations. What a difference a day makes. At the qualifying round, the Japanese were in fifth place, and the Chinese in sixth, after an off-day of messy landings and imperfect technique. For the team finals, it was the US’s turn.
“We didn’t do exactly what we planned to do,” says Danell Leyva. “Peronsally, I don’t think it was nerves. I mean, it is the Olympic team finals, but we definitely knew how to handle it. We just had an off day.”
From the start, the five-man team left points everywhere, beginning with the first rotation when Sam Mikulak of Ann Arbor, Mich. under-rotated his tumbling run on floor exercise and stumbled to his knees on the landing. John Orozco, of Colorado Springs, Col., who will go on to compete in the all-around final, struggled on the pommel horse and lost his balance on his landing for the vault. “When I started really messing up [on the pommel horse], I thought I should just try to stay on, get through my routine the best I can, and not try to make it absolutely perfect, but to just get through the routine. I didn’t do as well as I hoped today, but as a team, we just kept fighting.”
Jonathan Horton, of Houston, Tex., and the only Olympian on the squad, threw a crowd-pleasing routine on the high bars, but missed a connection and received the US’s lowest score on that apparatus for the night. “I thought I would have scored a little bit higher, but it’s not anything I’m upset about,” he said.
The deductions added up, and by the end of the afternoon, the US found themselves in fifth place, far from the bronze and silver medals they earned at the last two Olympics, respectively.
And they won’t have long to wallow in their disappointment. In two days, Leyva and Orozco will represent the US in the all-around final, in which individual gymnasts now go head-to-head for the all-around title, and after that, each member of the team competes in at least one individual event final.
“We’re going to use this as fuel over the next couple of days,” said Leyva. “Because none of us are done. We have all-around finals and event finals, and those are going to be a lot of fun.”
Let’s just hope that the men’s results aren’t also an omen for the women’s team; the US women also finished first in qualifying for the team final, which occurs on Tuesday.