In a successful, storied career, there was one thing missing from Kohei Uchimura’s trophy case—an Olympic gold medal from the team competition. Uchimura has long been the most successful individual in men’s gymnastics, but he was never able to stand atop the podium with his team.
The Japanese last won gold in the team final during the 2004 Olympics, but that was before Uchimura was an international power. He made his first Olympics as a 19-year-old in 2008 when Japan took silver as a team. They did the same in 2012. That changed late Monday afternoon as Uchimura led his team to the top of the standings in the three-up, three-count team final and to his first Olympic gold that could be shared with his country mates competing alongside him.
Japan finished fourth in the qualifying round on Saturday, easily in the top-eight to move to the final, but disappointing for a team hoping for more. But those numbers meant nothing as qualifying turned to finals and all scores were reset to zero. When it counted the most, the Japanese, and their leader, had their best day.
Qualifying was highlighted by a rare fall from Uchimura on high bar, but with a four-up, three-count format, the fall was not devastating. When all routines counted during the team final, Uchimura again did all six events and hit all of his routines for an all-around score of 91.598. That was just about a point better than his all-around score in qualifying, but would not have been enough to top Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev, who posted the highest qualifying score at 91.964. Uchimura may need to again raise his game if he wants to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, but for a night he’ll get to relish in the fact he’s an Olympic team champion.
Uchimura is the most famous and the leader of the team, but he was not alone in helping Japan win gold. While he did six events well, he was only the highest score on two of them, and one of those was a tie with Yusuke Tanaka on high bar. Uchimura’s lone high score for Japan came on pommel horse.
Disappointment for the U.S.
There were high hopes for the U.S team heading into the team final. The team finished qualifying in second place and visions of the podium were projected everywhere. There were similar expectations in London when the team finished the qualifying process in first, but finished fifth in the final. All expectations had a different ending than the one in London, unfortunately it played out in a similar way.
Medal hopes were almost completely washed away as soon as the first event. Sam Mikulak stepped out of bounds on two of his floor passes and Alex Naddour had a fall on his final pass. Pommel horse came next and while there were no major errors, the routines weren’t the perfection needed to get out of the hole from floor.
Give credit to the team because they tried to fight back. The next three events — rings, vault and parallel bars — brought the type of routines that were needed to get back into medal contention. There was a sliver of hope heading into high bar, the final rotation, and two hit routines to start kept that feeling alive. Any chance of a comeback faded when Danell Leyva slipped off the bar coming down from a laid out tkatchev, the easiest of his three release skills in the routine.
There should not be any blame placed on individual gymnasts for the off the podium finish, especially Leyva. His fall might have been the latest and it may feel as though the comeback was stopped there, but the reality is the U.S. was already in such a hole from the start of a competition it’s highly unlikely a hit routine would have allowed the U.S. to leapfrog both Great Britain and China for a bronze medal.
Qualifying showed the U.S. has the talent to hang with the best in the world with a good day. The past two Olympic team finals, however, have not been good days.
Fall of a Power, Rise of Another
In the past two Olympics and three of the past four, the men’s team final has been won by China. It’s understandable, then, that a bronze medal would feel disappointing for a country accustomed to finishing atop the standings. China had placed itself as the favorite in the competition after finishing the qualifying round in first place, but the overall level of gymnastics rose for the final while China’s didn’t at the same rate.
The Chinese actually beat their qualifying score by 0.661, but others improved more from the first day of competition. In a competition decided by tenths, there were two mistakes that cost China a chance to get higher up the podium. Deng Shudi put his hand down on his third tumbling pass on floor, which resulted in a 13.6 and the fourth-highest combined team score on the event. Vault was a bigger problem, where the Chinese finished sixth thanks to Lin Chaopan, who put a hand and knee down on a triple full for a score of 14.4, the second lowest individual score of the competition on the usually high scoring event.
While China was upset with a bronze, Russia was elated to win silver. The Russians haven’t won a medal in the team final since 2000, having finished sixth in the past three consecutive Olympics. Russia, whose participation in the Olympics as a country was questionable just days before the games, rode a meet-high score on rings and second place team scores on pommel horse and vault to its first team podium in 16 years.
Historically Russia, through various incarnations, has been one of the most dominant forces in gymnastics. However the men had not seen a lot of recent success in the Olympics. This might not be the start of another dynasty, but it is a positive step for a team looking to get back on top.
Ukraine Battles Injuries, Time
Between the race for first place, the U.S. surge to try to get back in medal contention and the home Brazilian team drawing raucous cheers from the crowd, the team final was one of the most exciting in recent memory. But in last place—by almost 60 points—was Ukraine.
The reason was because the Ukrainian team only sent up two gymnasts to compete on four of the six events. When all three scores count toward a team total, that’s not a strategy that usually works out.
During the competition there was some speculation this might have been a protest from Ukraine about what happened in the team final during the London Olympics. Ukraine believed it had finished in third place in team finals, but an inquiry was sent by Japan to look at Kohei Uchimura’s pommel horse dismount, which was the final routine on their last event. Uchimura had fallen on the dismount and was not given credit for the skill by the judges. It appeared Japan would finish off the podium. But after the inquiry Uchimura was given credit for the dismount, though still deducted heavily, and 0.7 was added to his score. That was enough to get Japan into second place, which sent Great Britain to third and bumped Ukraine of of a medal.
After Monday’s competition, though, it was revealed there was no malice intended. Instead, the Ukraine was hit with an ill-timed injury. The team found out Maksym Semiankiv would not be able to compete just 15 minutes before the competition started and at that point it was too late to change the official lineup. Semainkiv was forced to scratch on the four events he was scheduled to compete and Ukraine was forced to take a zero for all four of those routines. Following the competition, Oleg Verniaiev described the situation on social media, apologized to the fans, and to Switzerland, the team that finished ninth in qualifying, just missing out on the team finals.
Verniaiev will be a big part of the next men’s competition, the individual all-around on Wednesday, as he finished qualifying with the top all-around score.
Dan Pizzuta is a freelance writer and former Division I gymnast at Temple University.