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Male gymnasts break new ground in Rio

The Rio 2016 men’s artistic gymnastics competition produced plenty of drama and highlights. Kōhei Uchimura set the tone by leading Japan to victory in the team event and then winning individual all-around, while Great Britain’s Max Whitlock won two titles of his own in the apparatus finals and Germany’s Fabian Hambüchen brought the curtain down on his career with gold in the horizontal bar.

In the first of the events on the Rio 2016 men’s artistic gymnastics programme, Japan reversed their recent trend of finishing second to eternal rivals China and relieved them of their Olympic all-around team title. Led by Kōhei Uchimura, the Japanese won the competition for the seventh time, 12 years after their last success, with Russia taking the silver and the Chinese relegated to third. 

Twice a silver medallist behind the Chinese, at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, the 27-year-old king of Japanese gymnastics finally secured a team gold to go with all his individual accolades, which include the Olympic all-around crown he won four years ago and ten world championship titles. “The team has finally won gold,” said the man they call King Kōhei, who collected his sixth Olympic medal in the process. “I’ve realised just how difficult it is to do that and I feel so pleased.” 

Russia were within touching distance of the gold after the first four rotations, only for the Japanese – the 2015 world champions – to outscore them on the parallel bars and then clinch the title on the horizontal bar. Though Uchimura was not at his very best, scoring only 14.800 points on the rings, his team-mates made valuable contributions, with Kenzō Shirai scoring a competition-best 16.133 points on the floor and Yūsuke Tanaka chipping in with 15.900 on the parallel bars. 

After a slow start on the floor, the Russians top-scored on the rings, with Denis Ablyazin outpointing Arthur Zanetti of Brazil, the apparatus’s reigning Olympic champion. David Belyavskyi furthered their cause by bouncing back from a disappointing floor routine to register 15.800 on the parallel bars.

China recovered from a shaky start of their own, moving into the medals with a series of high scores on the parallel bars, with You Hao earning 16.166 points from the judges. Yet though Zhang Chenglong, the only survivor from the triumphant London 2012 team, contributed 15.566 points on the final apparatus, it was not enough to take the defending champions any higher than bronze.

 

Uchimura clings on to individual all-around title

Uchimura then retained his individual title, holding off a determined challenge from Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev to extend his unbeaten run in the event since his silver at 2008 Beijing, a sequence that now includes six world titles and two Olympic golds. That record looked under serious threat for much of the competition, with the Japanese gymnast falling behind the young Ukrainian on the rings and trailing by 0.467 at the halfway point.

Though Uchimura collected 15.566 points after nailing his vault, a massive 16.1 by Verniaiev on parallel bars asked yet more questions of the defending champion, who replied with a 15.600. That left the Ukrainian holding a 0.901-point lead going into the final horizontal bar rotation. Seemingly immune to the pressure, Uchimura produced a thrilling routine and stuck a perfect landing to score 15.800, while Verniaiev could only amass 14.800 after failing to nail his dismount. The Ukrainian’s only sub-15 score of the competition, it gave the Japanese legend victory by a mere 0.099 points.

After becoming the first gymnast since compatriot Sawao Katō to retain the individual all-around title, a feat Katō achieved at Mexico City 1968 and Munich 1972, a relieved Uchimura said: “The title has been mine since 2009 but it was tighter than ever this time.” Recalling his gold medal-winning routine, he added: “Going onto the horizontal bar I knew what I had to do. I remained calm and controlled. This calmness I think was the key to my success. This is a great victory for me.”

Disappointed not to take gold after running Uchimura so close, Verniaiev was nevertheless full of praise for his opponent, comparing him to Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt: “I’m happy that I made Kohei very nervous, but in the end he retained his title again. I really don’t think he doubted himself. I got as close as possible to his score as nobody has done before. I did everything I could.” 

Great Britain’s Max Whitlock won bronze, securing a first Olympic men’s all-around medal for his country since Walter Tysal’s silver in 1908, a sign of things to come for the young Briton.

 

Whitlock strikes double gold to end GB drought 

The opening day of the apparatus finals saw Whitlock end Great Britain’s 120-year wait for an Olympic artistic gymnastics title in style, by landing not one but two gold medals. The 23-year-old kicked off by winning the floor event, topping the podium from two home gymnasts and dashing two-time world champion Shirai’s hopes of Olympic glory. A couple of hours later, the young Briton followed up with gold on the pommel horse.

Whitlock produced a series of gravity-defying tumbles to win the floor title with a score of 15.633. Shirai had been widely tipped to become the first Japanese gymnast to win the event since Kato back in 1968, but two significant errors effectively ended his hopes of a medal. Buoyed by the impassioned support of the home crowd, Brazilian pair Diego Hypolito and Arthur Mariano took the other two places on the podium, with Hypolito bursting into tears when his silver was confirmed, while Mariano curled up on the floor, unable to watch the final results unfold. After collecting his bronze, he said: “It was unthinkable to have two Brazilians on the podium but finally our day came.”

Whitlock then completed the greatest day in the history of British gymnastics, producing a smooth and silky performance in the pommel horse, his favourite event, scoring 15.966 points to earn his second gold of a momentous day. Team-mate Louis Smith had led the competition with a score of 15.833 and looked set to improve on the silver he won four years ago. In the end, however, he had to settle for second place once more, with the USA’s Alex Naddour occupying the last place on the podium.

“It’s just an incredible feeling,” said Whitlock after picking his second gold. “All the gymnasts out there know how much work goes into it. You get one minute to show what you’ve been working on for the last however many years.” Revealing that he had barely had a moment to take in his first gold, having been called into action almost immediately for the pommel horse final, the double Olympic champion added: “I had my job to do on pommel horse. I had to get back to the training gym and refocus. It was tough, especially as I didn’t watch any of the floor routines that were before or after me. When my coach said what I’d done, it hit me literally like a ton of bricks.”

 

Rings gold for Petrounias 

Eleftherios Petrounias of Greece edged out local favourite and defending champion Arthur Zanetti to take the rings gold medal. Appearing in his first Olympics, the 25-year-old reigning world champion scored 16.000 points to become his country’s first gold medallist in the event since Dimosthenis Tampakos in 2004. The last of the finalists to perform, Zanetti was awarded 15.766 points, good enough for silver, though he was aiming for more in his favourite event in front of his own fans. Russia’s Denis Ablyazin scored 15.700 to complete the podium.

“It’s amazing. I’m so excited,” said Petrounias. “We worked very hard on the details, on keeping stable and not showing anything on my face. It’s a big deal to keep still and hold the positions a little bit more than normal. And I think I might have been the only one who stuck my landing. That’s why I got the 16. That was my goal from the beginning: my 16.”

Anything but dejected at relinquishing his title, Zanetti said: “I’m happier than I was when I won in London, and that’s because I’m competing at home. My team-mates Diego Hypólito and Arthur Mariano have won two medals and I’ve added a third. I think gymnastics is only going to get more popular in Brazil. I hope we can get more funding. We’ll be fighting hard to make sure that happens.” 

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Ri vaults to gold

Ri Se-gwang became the first male gymnast from the Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea to win the Olympic vault title and only the second to win a medal in artistic gymnastics, following Pae Gil-su’s gold on the pommel horse at Barcelona 1992. Taking silver was London 2012 runner-up Ablyazin, who collected his second medal of the day, with Japan’s Kenzo Shirai third.

Ri sealed the title with his second vault, a Tsukahara full-twisting double back, which he himself invented and which earned him a mark of 15.766, despite a flawed landing. A gold medallist in the team all-around, Shirai recorded the same overall score as Romanian veteran Marian Dragulescu but secured his place on the podium thanks to superior execution marks.

“This gold medal is a gift for my country,” said Ri. “It’s a moment of joy. I was confident when I came to Brazil that I could win, and I managed to do it thanks to the unfailing support of my coach and my team-mates. I wanted to win this title for all the love I’ve had from my country.” 

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Verniaiev stars on parallel bars 

Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev beat the USA’s Danell Leyva and Russia’s David Belyavskiy to gold in the parallel bars, winning a second Rio 2016 medal to go with his individual all-around silver. Putting together a faultless routine, Verniaiev scored 16.041 points to Leyva’s 15.900 and Belyavskiy’s 15.783. 

“I’m extremely happy. I’m delighted,” said the new Olympic champion after stepping up to collect gold. “At long last, I’ve brought the first gold medal to my country, Ukraine. I thank my team, I thank my fellow athletes who came from the different sports to cheer for me. I still cannot relax. I’m so thrilled. I was ready for this. It was just a question of coming and doing my routine. I knew I was up against two very strong Chinese competitors but it just comes down to getting on the bars and doing your thing, which is how it worked out.” 

 

Hambüchen bows out in style

A winner of bronze at Beijing 2008 and silver at London 2012, Germany’s Fabian Hambüchen finally climbed to the top of the horizontal bar podium at Rio 2016, scoring 15.766 points with a superb, error-free performance to take the gold from parallel bars runner-up Leyva and Great Britain’s Nile Wilson. The surprise of the competition came when defending champion and two-time world champion Epke Zonderland of the Netherlands fell off the apparatus and could only finish seventh.

After announcing that this was the last competition of his long career, an elated Hambüchen said:  “I can’t put it into words. Before the Games I said this was going to be my last competition. I’m now going to retire, and finishing like that is a dream come true. It was the only medal I hadn’t won, until now. I came to Rio to enjoy my fourth Olympic Games, to end my career on a high note. And then I made it to the high bar final, which was a great achievement in itself.” 

Delighted to walk away from the Olympic Arena with two silver medals, Leyva commented: “It’s incredible, a dream come true. No one was perfect today, but I think I got as close to perfection as I could. I am so incredibly happy.” 

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