After Japan's Kohei Uchimura became the first man to win a third world all-around title last October, the question arose as to whether he was the greatest gymnast in history. But without an Olympic title to his credit, some experts were hesitant to claim he was the best ever.
Uchimura effectively ended that debate today. After he cruised through the all-around final and built an insurmountable lead after five events, even one botched tumbling landing couldn't prevent him from taking his first Olympic gold of any kind. The Nagasaki native, who grew up in the sport at his parents' gym, needed to forget his disappointment in the team competition, where Japan finished second—once again—to China. And he was partly to blame for his team's collapse, since he had spun off the pommel horse in the team final in the closing moments. Only an inquiry to the judges to raise his score 0.70 lifted Japan from fourth place to silver-medal position.
Uchimura needed no such help today, although most in is wake had at least one blunder. He began on the event that had thrown him two days ago, and he swung through with silky ease. After a strong rings routine, Uchimura stuck his Yurchenko-2.5 twist and allowed himself a smile. He maintained his momentum on parallel bars and high bar, sticking his layout double-double off the latter. Only a complete meltdown on floor would prevent him from tumbling further into gymnastics immortality. After a slick opening of a 3.5 twist to barani, Uchimura had to put his hands down on a randi. But that would be his only mistake on the day, and his 92.690 was well clear of silver-medalist Marcel Nguyen of Germany (91.031).
Nguyen also began on pommels and survived his weak event with a 13.666. Then he hit five difficult, if untidy, routines with plenty of difficulty to spare. He dismounted parallel bars with a tucked full-out and mounted floor with a stuck layout double-double. His medal marked a significant shift among the German team, which had long relied on Fabian Hambüchen and Philipp Boy to challenge for all-around medals. Hambüchen was not on his game today, dropping off high bar on his Winkler from a Rybalko, and Boy, runner-up to Uchimura in the last two world championships, was hobbled by a crunched ankle from prelims and failed to qualify to the all-around final.
The top-seed from qualifications was Cuban-born American Danell Leyva, who had led the U.S. team to the top of the standings on day one. But team finals was a disaster for the Americans, and Leyva could be seen sobbing beneath his lucky towel afterward. To get his stepson in the right frame of mine, Yin Alvarez told Leyva, "Do what you know [how] to do, have fun. You don't need to prove nothing to anyone. Go to the arena with pride and confidence. You already did what nobody believed that you could do …."
Leyva gave it his best shot, but one miscue on pommel horse, where he double-clutched his flair handstand dismount, might have cost him one notch in the standings. But he rallied on his final two events with the highest scores on p-bars (15.833, tied with Nguyen) and high bar (15.700) to climb from sixth to third.
"To win an Olympic medal is a dream come true," he said.
Added Alvarez: "Danell has always been coming from the bottom to the top. He's done it many, many times in his career since he was a little kid."
Leyva's teammate John Orozco found himself on the bottom of the 24-man field after two events. He hit a solid floor routine but completely missed his back Moore flair handstand dismount on pommel horse and took himself out of the medals. To his credit, he climbed all the way to eighth (89.331), but if you add 2.0 to his 12.566 pommels score, he's wearing the silver.
"I'm still really upset with pommels," he said. "But you know what, this is something to think about for the next four years. I'm really happy for Danell. At least we have one USA medal for now."
Uchimura's teammate Kazuhito Tanaka was a close second with two events remaining, but he fell on the same tumbling skill he missed in team finals, and he was tossed off the pommel horse in the last rotation to finish sixth.
Ukraine's Nikolai Kuksenkov relied on consistency for fourth, followed by Russian David Belyavsky in fifth. Hometown favorite Kristian Thomas began well but fell on his Yurchenko-double pike in rotation four to finish seventh.
The story of the day, however, was Uchimura, who completed an all-around sweep of the 2009-12 quadrennium, which actually began with his first title in the O2 Arena. Yup, he's the best ever. And at only 23, he's still got a few years to make it stick for quite some time.
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