The King kept his crown, but it was not an easy road to do so. Japan’s Kohei Uchimura—the reigning Olympic all-around champion and six consecutive time World champion—was the favorite coming into the competition, but that result was in question until the final hop of the final routine on the final event.
After all the scores were tallied, Uchimura became the fourth man to win back-to-back Olympic all-around titles. In a sport decided by tenths of a point, Uchimura on gold by less than that, a margin of victory of .099. In 2014, Uchimura won World Championships by 1.492 and up to this point, that was his lowest margin of victory through his seven major international titles and the only one below 1.5 points. On Wednesday, he squeaked through by less than a tenth of a point.
Uchimura was masterful, but he was not as dominant over the competition as the gymnastics world is accustomed to seeing. While some of this is due to Uchimura being in the latter stages of his career, it’s also about the gymnasts who were able to rise up and give Uchimura a scare.
At the top of that list was 22-year-old Oleg Verniaiev of Ukraine, who finished first in the all-around during qualification. Verniaiev was Uchimura’s toughest competition on Wednesday and the toughest competition the Japanese legend has seen since he finished second in the all-around behind China’s Yang Wei during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Verniaiev has lately been one of the top all-around competitors in the world, but he was never quite able to put a solid six routines together in the same meet. He was part of Ukraine’s team in the 2012 Olympics and finished 11th in the all-around as an 18-year-old. More recently, he finished fourth all-around in the previous two World Championships.
In qualifying, Verniaiev competed what was probably the best meet of his life and finished 1.5 points above Uchimura in the standings while the reigning Olympic champ counted a fall on high bar. It was unlikely Uchimura was going to mistake like that again so Verniaiev was going to have to match his best day, and he did just that.
Uchimura and Verniaiev competed in the same rotation, one that started on floor. Uchimura took the early lead with a more than seven-tenth advantage on the first event—15.766 to 15.033. But Verniaiev battled back and outscored Uchimura on four of the next five events. The one event where Uchimura put up a higher score was vault with a 15.566, the top score of the day on that event. But Verniaiev wasn’t far behind, scoring a 15.500 immediately following Uchimura for the second highest scoring vault for the day.
The competition then moved to parallel bars, where Verniaiev is the reigning World silver medalist. The Ukrainian is one of the best in the world on the event and had a 0.3 advantage in start value—the maximum score allowed if perfect—over Uchimura. Verniaiev used that edge in difficulty, performed a better executed routine, put up the highest score of the meet (16.1) on parallel bars, and took a 0.4 lead into a 0.901 lead heading into the final event.
But high bar is arguably Uchimura’s best event and he has slated to go second-to-last in the rotation, one spot before Verniaiev. Like how Verniaiev had the difficulty advantage on parallel bars, Uchimura had and even bigger one on higher bar, a start value difference of 0.6. It was unlikely a gymnast of Uchimura’s calibur was going to fall again like he did in qualification and he didn’t. Instead, he put up the day’s highest score on high bar, a 15.8.
Even with such a high score, a win was nowhere near guaranteed. Verniaiev was the next competitor to go, the last of the day, and all he needed was a 14.9 to top Uchimura, a 14.899 to tie. Verniaiev did not do high bar in the team final on Monday, but in qualifying his high bar score was a 15.133, plenty good enough to stake his claim atop the podium. But a few minor mishaps during the routine and a large hop on his dismount resulted in a score of 14.8 and a second-place finish.
Even as the competition ended with the result almost all were expecting, the back and forth of the top two gymnasts still made this arguably the most exciting men’s all-around final ever. Just the fact Verniaiev was able to give Uchimura a scare is both impressive and great for the future of gymnastics in Ukraine.
A Verniaiev upset of Uchimura would have been the equivalent to the 2007 New York Giants upsetting the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Even some of the same beats were there. Verniaiev’s parallel bar routine was the helmet catch to David Tyree, an incredible play that shifted the win probability in the underdog’s favor. But the hop at the end of high bar would be like if Eli Manning threw an interception in the end zone late in the game, instead of the game winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress.
The silver medal for Veniaiev was the best finish ever for Ukraine in the men’s all-around final. The only other Ukrainian gymnast to medal was Oleksandr Beresh in 2000. Even more impressive for his country was Max Whitlock of Great Britain, who finished third in this competition, though 1.625 behind silver. Whitlock did stay close for most of the competition, though, and was one of four gymnasts to post an all-around score above 90.00, an average of 15.0 per event. In the qualifying round, only Verniaiev and Uchimura topped that mark. Whitlock’s third place finish was the first on the podium for Great Britain in 108 years. The country had not had a male on the all-around podium since Walter Tysall in 1908.
Just off the podium was American Sam Mikulak, who finished in seventh place. A slight error on his vault landing, as well as a low score on rings kept Mikulak from having a chance to keep up with the top competitors in the all-around, even though he had top-six scores on three of his events. Chris Brooks was the other American all-arounder and he finished 14th. Brooks was having a better meet than his teammate through four rotations and sat in fifth place all-around heading into the fifth event. Unfortunately for Brooks, his two last events were his two worst and despite hitting his routines, the scores were just the 19th highest on each and he slipped in the standings. However, Brooks went six-for-six in hit routines again, which caps off an impressive execution run for the American team captain in this Olympics.
With all else going on in a back and forth competition, the conclusion came as it has in the past six World Championships and the last Olympics, with all-around gold for Kohei Uchimura. This could be the end for Uchimura’s reign atop men’s gymnastics. He’s stated he would like to compete in the 2020 Olympics, which will be in Tokyo, but he does not want to be the team’s all-arounder. Instead, he’d like to settle for a supporting specialist role. If this truly is the end of his run, it was close to coming with a surprising second place finish. But instead, the final high bar routine was as perfect as it needed to be and the competition fittingly ended with the king on top.
Dan Pizzuta is a freelance writer and former Division I gymnast at Temple University