Spoiler alert: Superman survives.
The brilliant Kohei Uchimura retained his legend as the world’s greatest gymnast on Wednesday, but only after the most severe test of his powers in nearly a decade. The man who had led Japan to team gold two days ago was made to wait nervously until the very final routine of the competition as the young Ukrainian pretender Oleg Verniaiev finished 0.099 points behind him – and Max Whitlock became the first Briton to win an all-around medal in 108 years.
Whitlock’s performance was both a fillip and vindication for the men’s team, proof that they continue to take the sport somewhere it has never been before in Britain. “Me and my coach Scott Hann have been working so hard the last four years,” said Whitlock as he beamed with his bronze round his neck. “I wanted to prove myself as an all rounder and I think I’ve fulfilled that.”
It was an honour too to stand on the podium alongside his hero Uchimura, a man whose routines he watches compulsively on YouTube. “And Oleg, I’ve been competing with him for years, he’s produced phenomenal results, getting massive scores so I feel very honoured to come third to those.”
Uchimura is only the second gymnast in history to defend an Olympic gold all-around title, following the example of his compatriot Sawao Kato in 1972. When Uchimura’s story is made into a film – and after this dramatic victory it surely will be – you can only assume it will be anime. The 27-year-old already has the artfully mussed hair and winning smile of a manga hero; and as he proved here, once again, his action skills are unsurpassed.
Beauty in motion has been Uchimura’s lifelong pursuit. You might almost say his destiny: his gymnast parents gave him a name that means “peaceful flight”. At 5ft 3in, he is shorter even than the Russian women’s captain Aliya Mustafina. When his team-mates raised their arms to celebrate their gold on the podium earlier this week, they inadvertently lifted him off his feet – but he looks taller as he moves through the air, his body creating long lines and artful curves, his toes as en point as a ballerina.
The final here boiled down to a contest between Uchimura’s elegance and the strength of Verniaiev, the current European champion who had qualified here in first place. As Uchimura pulled out his usual tricks, the 22-year-old responded with performances of immense power, and a giant show of strength on the rings took him top halfway through the competition.
Between routines Verniaiev pulled the hoodie of his tracksuit up around his head, as if trying to keep out the expectations that were building around him. Uchimura, meanwhile, is not used to chasing after anything other than a few pesky Pokémon. He looked troubled as he moved to the parallel bars, a piece on which gives away a 0.3 point deficit in start value. Verniaiev’s strongest apparatus gave him a nearly a full point lead going into the high bar.
Whitlock, meanwhile, has not had the easiest week. Arriving here as a world silver medallist in the all-around, and despite his reputation as an unflappable competitor, his scores have failed to live up to his usual exacting standards. As the athletes were presented before the competition he kept his head down, staring at his feet rather than facing the crowd. But the focus paid off – when the world pommel champion began on his favourite apparatus, a classy double pirouette dismount helped him into a temporary first place.
He stayed in position for a medal throughout, his high-difficulty triple-twist Yurchenko paying off on vault despite a tough landing, his parallel bars score a full half point better than in the team final. But he began his final floor performance a touch frenetically, and something bothered him in his penultimate pass – before he made his final tumble, he visibly shook his head as if to clear it. “It wasn’t so much nerves, I don’t know what happened to be honest, there was a slight mistake but I’m glad I managed to recover it.” Whitlock had no idea of where his rivals were placing. “It just made it so much more tense at the end – it was really tough to be honest.” A score of 15.2 left his fate down to the high bar routines of Uchimura Verniaiev and the fourth-placed Russian David Belyavskiy.
If there is one thing Uchimura is not good at it is, by his own admission, “sensing pressure”. His routine took him above Whitlock into second place and Verniaiev mounted the bar knowing that he needed 14.899 for gold. He had scored 15.133 in qualification but in the end managed only 14.8.
The man his fans call “Supermura” is now unbeaten in all-around competition for a record eight consecutive years, cementing his place alongside all-time greats like Kato, Nikolai Andrianov and his personal hero, the Belarusian Vitaly Scherbo.
Even Simone Biles, the undisputed face of gymnastics at these Games, has admitted she is starstruck with admiration for him. And it is not over yet – there would be no better poster boy for Tokyo 2020, and Uchimura has already hinted he could go for an unprecedented third all-around title at his home games.
As for Whitlock, his immediate plans were to phone his fiancee Leah – she is currently on holiday in Spain – and ensure that his bronze kickstarts a medal campaign for the rest of the week’s apparatus finals. “Everyone’s still disappointed [about the team competition] but we have to move on and hopefully this medal can inspired the other guys.”
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