It was job done for Kohei Uchimura as the all-around genius of gymnastics finally filled in his Olympic gold collection with Japan’s first team gold since 2004. But there was mission failure for Great Britain, who had high expectations after finishing second to Japan in last year’s world championships, and ended up just out of the medals.
Earlier this week Nile Wilson admitted that the British men’s team are “adrenalin junkies” – apparently one of their favourite group activities is to watch horror movies – and this final was full of nerve-shredding moments that might haunt for them some time. While they stayed in contention throughout, mistakes cost them dear, and when Louis Smith fell from the pommel on their final apparatus, their challenge was over.
Smith, who afterwards spoke of his frustration and disappointment, had until shortly before stepping up to the podium been expecting to perform the easier of his pommel routines. He revealed afterwards that the coaches had changed their mind at the last moment. “After qualifications, [the coaches] said: ‘If it’s really close, do your easier routine.’ And it was pretty close to the wire, and actually the coaches turned around and said: ‘You know what, let’s be bold and go for the bigger routine.’ And that was the decision made literally seconds before I walked out.’
The 27-year-old, who had to wait until two hours into the competition before he could make his contribution to the team, admitted he might also have been affected by such a long wait. “I’m coming out and cheering for the guys, and after going back and getting in the zone it was a challenge. But the guys have been absolutely fantastic. I’m just very disappointed in my own performance.”
The evening was a particularly disappointing one for Max Whitlock, who has been hoping to challenge Uchimura in the all-around competition. The 23-year-old world pommel champion, who had to stop training last year when he suffered from glandular fever, and missed the European championships in May as he recovered from a virus, said he was not sure whether the illnesses might have contributed to his unusually low scores. “It’s very hard to say – it could have been, it might not have been,” he said. “I feel all right at the moment. I need to be more clever with my training and that’s what I’ve learned over the last year. I need to rest more, that’s the secret really.”
He remained stoic, however, about the British men’s generally upward trajectory. “It doesn’t mean that’s the best we can ever do. You’re never going to get it right every day.”
Britain’s challenge was already receding by the time that Smith, having made his late entrance, fell – and while they were finishing on what should have been their strongest apparatus, so were other contenders. In the end it was a trio of floor performances of extraordinary elegance from Japan – including Kenzo Shirai’s ability to twist through the air like a helicopter rotor – that stole gold from a ruthlessly efficient Russia.
Uchimura, a man who has 19 world championship and five Olympic medals – 11 of them gold – has made it very clear at this Games that the team title was the one big fish he was desperate to land. His team had started poorly on the pommel; but while they quickly regrouped, it was the home nation who began to steal the show. From the moment that Alex Zanetti took to the rings – on which he had won his country’s only Olympic medal four years ago – there was an ebullience about the Brazilian performances that was perfectly captured by Sergio Sasaki’s triple somersault on the vault. The young team members beamed with delight and punched the air like members of The Breakfast Club as they made their way around the apparatuses, and two-thirds of the way round, Mariano and Barretto’s contributions on high bar had Brazil in a highly creditable fourth.
If they had the energy and momentum, Britain seemed at times almost introspective. By this stage, a huge burden rested on Wilson’s difficult high bar routine to keep them in contention – and Wilson, who had also scored highly on rings, delivered a powerhouse performance for a 15.666 score.
By the penultimate rotation, with only three points separating the top five teams, the atmosphere was electric. Uchimura performed a high bar routine so sinuous he looked as if he were made not of flesh and blood but some futuristic form of graphene. And when the immensely popular local hero Diego Hypolito took to the floor – his sister also competes for Brazil – his every pass was greeted with a deafening cheer.
There was eventual heartbreak for USA, and especially for Danell Leyva, who along with returning team members Sam Mikulak and Jacob Dalton had finished a disappointing fifth in London four years ago. Here, they were redeeming a terrible start on floor and pommel, their supporters finding their voice as their team regained ground with some stunning vaults and parallel bar performances. By the time they reached their final apparatus, on high bar, they were only 0.01 points behind Great Britain, and they were pumped. The rest of the team jumped up and down in excitement as their high bar specialist Leyva performed his tricksy routine, only to see him fall to the ground with only a few skills left to go. He remained stock still, kneeling on the mat and looking at the ground, for a long time, before remounting.
China, meanwhile, had looked glum for much of the competition. After a strong routine on rings by You Hao, he over-rotated on his dismount and was penalised for a huge stagger as he landed. An inquiry was rejected and after the fourth rotation, the defending Olympic champions were in fifth place. “China, where are you?” called out a stadium announcer trying to gee up the crowd. There was only silence in response. Such is their depth of talent that they still managed to finish with bronze.
For Britain, there is still time to make up for disappointment in the individual medal categories. “We gave everything we had,” said the team captain, Kristian Thomas. “We came up just short today. But that’s sport, that’s gymnastics, it’s important that we reflect on our performance, just realise that we did everything we possibly could to be in this position.”
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