Striving for perfection
Kohei Uchimura added two gold medals to his career collection at Rio 2016, becoming the first male gymnast to retain the Olympic artistic individual all-around title in 44 years. A seven-time medallist at the Games, the Japanese ace is also a six-time individual all-around world champion and is widely regarded as one of the greatest gymnasts of all time.
“Beauty in movement is my only goal,” said the biggest star in men’s gymnastics, explaining his philosophy. “My father said that 100 imperfect movements are not worth one that is magnificently executed. And that’s what I’ve always kept in mind.
“I could do harder things, but if I did then it would give me problems. So what I always try to do is strike a balance between technical difficulty and quality of execution. That’s where the beauty of gymnastics lies. I want to show through my performances how high scores can be achieved, by striving for beauty in execution. If you don’t do that, then it’s impossible to have an impact.”
The perfect education
Born on 3 January 1989 in Kitakyushu (Fukuoka prefecture) to gymnast parents, Uchimura climbed on to an apparatus for the first time at the age of three. In his teenage years, he moved to Tokyo to train under the watchful eye of Athens 2004 all-around team champion Naoya Tsukahara, the son of the legendary Mitsuo Tsukahara. “I was 11 at the time of the Sydney Games,” recalled Uchimura. “Naoya took part in them and I wanted to be like him.”
Uchimura made his national team debut in 2007 and earned selection for Beijing 2008 at the age of 19. After helping Japan land team all-around silver behind the hosts in the Chinese capital, he won another silver in the individual all-around, won by China’s Yang Wei. It was Japan’s first medal in the event since Sawao Kato’s gold at Munich 1972.
World championship success
Uchimura claimed his maiden world individual all-around title in London in October 2009, finishing a comfortable 2.575 points clear of his nearest challenger after earning the highest scores in the floor, rings, vault and the horizontal bar.
He retained his crown a year later in Rotterdam, where he also collected team and floor silver and bronze in the parallel bars. A third consecutive world individual all-around gold came his way in Tokyo two years later, when he also pocketed floor gold, team silver and horizontal bar bronze.
An Olympic coronation
The three-time champion began his quest for Olympic gold at London 2012 by placing ninth in the qualification round of the individual all-around. Two days later, he contributed to another silver for Japan in the team event, which was again won by China.
Thrilling the spectators at the North Greenwich Arena with the quality of his performances on the pommel horse, rings, vault, horizontal bar and the parallel bars, Uchimura atoned for a small error in the floor exercise to win individual all-around gold by some distance from Germany’s Marcel Nguyen and the USA’s Danell Leyva. After becoming Japan’s first winner of the event since Kato 40 years earlier, he took his Olympic medal collection to five in the floor, taking silver behind China’s Zou Kai.
A world championship record
Further world individual all-around titles came the great Uchimura’s way in Antwerp (BEL) in 2014 and Nanning (CHN) in 2014. He then added to his legend at the 2015 Worlds in Glasgow (GBR), where he won a sixth consecutive world crown in the event, finishing 1.634 points clear of Cuba’s Manrique Larduet. The Japanese gymnast had now won the event twice as many times as any other man or woman in the history of the world championships, which were first held in 1903.
“I don’t see myself as the best gymnast on the planet, even if I have won a lot of world championship medals,” said Uchimura, whose collection of 10 world golds, five silvers and four bronzes is far larger than any other gymnast still competing.
A legendary double in Rio
Uchimura’s hunger for success continued unabated at Rio 2016, where Japan finally got its hands on that elusive team all-around gold, completing his collection of major titles. It was the nation’s seventh Olympic team triumph and its first in 12 years.
The reigning world champions, the Japanese had trailed Russia after the first four rotations, but took a narrow lead in the fifth before sealing overall victory in the floor. “King Kohei” scored 15.600 points in that final rotation, after performing somewhat below his best on the other apparatus. Russia took the silver, while two-time reigning champions China had to settle for bronze.
“Our team has finally won gold,” said their star man. “Winning at the Olympics is incredibly difficult, but that’s what I’ve done. Needless to say, I’m delighted with this victory.”
Held two days later, the individual all-around produced some stunning drama as Uchimura fought it out with Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev for gold. The Ukrainian took a surprise lead on the third rotation and then extended the gap by scoring 16.100 on the parallel bars, his favourite event, with the 27-year-old defending champion managing 15.600.
With his crown slipping from his grasp, King Kohei found inspiration on the final apparatus, the horizontal bar, throwing caution to the wind in a superlative and sublimely executed routine that brought him the acclaim of the crowd and a score of 15.800.
“When I went to the horizontal bar I knew what I had to do,” said Uchimura. “I stayed calm and composed, which I think was the key to my success.”
The gold was not his yet, however, with Verniaiev stepping up to the bars as the Rio Olympic Arena fell silent. Opting for a safe, risk-free routine, the Ukrainian earned the applause of the spectators but not enough points, his score of 14.800 leaving him an agonising 0.099 points short of Uchimura’s overall total.
Draped in their national flags, the two gymnasts shared a warm embrace when it was all over, with Uchimura expressing relief after becoming the first athlete to retain the title since his fellow countryman Kato, a gold medallist in 1968 and 1972: “I’ve been the number one since 2009 but this time it was a lot closer.”
The darling of Montreal 1976, Nadia Comaneci is in no doubt as to the Japanese gymnast’s status in the sport. “Uchimura is the greatest of all time,” said the Romanian legend. “Look what he’s achieved for such a long time. Undefeated for eight years [at world championships and Olympic Games]. That’s his legacy. His gymnastics is amazing. Sometimes I look at his execution and there is absolutely no flaws, not a single one.”