US men finish fifth in gymnastics

LONDON, England

When asked how a team that looked like a bit of a hot mess -- at least by its lofty standards -- in men's gymnastics during qualifying on Saturday could turn it around so suddenly and win a second straight Olympic gold so convincingly on Monday night, Yibing smiled and smacked his hands together.

"Perfect!" he said in English.

Maybe not, but then again, perfection was hardly required. Not with expected contenders Japan and the United States finding interesting ways to let gold slip from their grasp.

The Japanese needed a little help from the judges to earn silver. The U.S., so spectacular during qualifying, faded to fifth.

The only team besides China that seemed capable of rising to the occasion was Britain -- yes, Britain -- which earned its first team medal in a century by grabbing bronze.

It felt like something considerably shinier to the host nation, which had been pointing toward this meet from the moment London was awarded the games seven years ago.

The last time the Brits had medaled in the team competition came in 1912, when they earned bronze a few months after the Titanic sunk.

"The beauty of what we've got is that this team isn't a one-hit wonder," said Britain's Louis Smith, the team captain and unquestioned leader.

Considering a British gymnast has won the last six junior European championships, Smith's not kidding.

Still, while the Brits have closed the gap between themselves and the rest of the sport's elite, one thing remains clear. Nobody beats China when Olympic gold is on the line.


Sure, China hardly looked like its normal efficient self as it bumbled through qualifying on Saturday. It hardly mattered on Monday. Qualifying is just practice to the Chinese, something to pass the time. The finals are what counts, and no country does it better when it matters most than the one that has now won three of the last four Olympic titles.

Were the Chinese bothered by their abysmal performance in qualifying? Maybe a little. And no, they weren't sandbagging. At least they claim they weren't.

"This is not a smoke because if that's the way then that would not be serious," Zou Kai said. "We did want to make it to the finals."

That was never really in question. Neither was China's second straight Olympic title. Their total of 275.997 well clear of the field.

The uncharacteristic miscues that marred their preliminary round, when they finished sixth, they vanished. The Chinese were their typical steadily spectacular selves.

It's what they do. It's what they've seemingly always done.

"Our coach and our fellow colleagues created a history," Yibing said. "In the future we will have more new rising stars."

Who's going to argue? Though the 27-year-old Yibing is unlikely to be around when the games head to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, there's another crop right behind him.

Whoever inherits the mantle from Yibing and company will have to find a way to deal with an increasingly unstable landscape. The Japanese squeaked out silver when judges adjusted three-time defending world all-around champion Kohei Uchimura's score on pommel horse, providing the 0.7-point boost necessary to hold off Britain.

The judges ruled upon review that Uchimura should receive credit for his dismount, providing his score with the points necessary to keep the Japanese on the medal stand.

Barely. And Japan failed to overcome their rivals. Again.

"We practiced just like we thought but this is the Olympics and this is a special environment and we really couldn't do as we planned," Uchimura said. "It was really difficult."

Maybe, but not really to the home team. The Brits -- with Prince William and Harry cheering them on and Union Jacks in full sail throughout the O2 Arena -- leaned on Smith early then relied on their own rising stars to climb into third and cement themselves as an emerging power in a sport long considered an afterthought.

"It's a beautiful day for the sport of British gymnastics," Smith said.

Not so much for the Americans.

The U.S. had touted this group as their deepest in more than a generation, a team capable of winning gold for the first time since the boycotted Los Angeles games in 1984.

The Americans certainly looked capable during qualifying, posting the top score and performing with such confidence veteran Jon Horton joked afterward if the U.S. could just get its gold from the finals and save everyone a lot of time.

The answer, of course, was no. And the U.S. saw its hopes of a medal of any shade evaporate immediately. Sam Mikulak wobbled on floor exercise. Danell Leyva and John Orozco bobbled on pommel horse. And the U.S. spent the second half of the meet futilely trying to make up lost ground.

Though the Americans rallied from last to fifth, it was of small consolation.

"There's nothing we could have really done differently," Mikulak said. "We're a young team. We've never experienced anything like this before."

True. Leyva and Jake Dalton are 20. Mikulak and Orozco are 19. They will be around for awhile.

Then again, so will the Brits. While this probably marked the final games for the 23-year-old Smith, youngsters Sam Oldham and Max Whitlock are 19. The junior ranks are packed with precocious talent that no longer views the chance to compete on a world stage as something of a pipe dream.

"The juniors we've got coming through, there's so much depth," Smith said. "Now everyone is going to be more motivated than ever."

So are the Chinese. The names change but the results seemingly never do. They have ruled the sport for the past decade, winning every major international team competition since 2005.

The streak will end someday. Just not yet. Yes, the Brits are better than they've ever been. True, the Japanese have the best gymnast in the world.

They're just not the best team. Again.

"Our rivals are still the same one," China's Zhang Chenglong said. "We still keep a very cool mind."

The Chinese always do.

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