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An urgent call answered: Japan roars to men’s gymnastics team gold

While Team USA disappointed, Kohei Uchimura and Japan, spurred by the memory of last year's world championships, roared to their first team gold since 2004.

RIO DE JANEIRO — To hear it from Kohei Uchimura, the reigning headliner of Japanese gymnastics, the story of Japan’s victory in the Olympic men’s team competition on Monday night really began at the world championships in Glasgow last fall. At that event, Japan seemed primed to end China’s run of six straight world titles after building an early lead that slowly slipped away. After some poor performances on parallel bars, the team’s fifth of six events, Japan’s first alternate Koji Yamamuro spoke up out of character and out of turn. “Why did we come here?” he bellowed to his teammates. Given Japan’s reverence for rank and order, the pronouncement left Uchimura, the team’s leader, stunned by its bravado and bluntness. “He was the alternate,” Uchimura recalls, laughing. “But, you know, he was right. We were not living up to all of our preparation. We were not honoring our training.”

Japan held on to win that title, but on Monday, with  Uchimura and Yamamuro competing on this team, Japan got off to a horrendous start, trailing first-place Russia by two and a half points after two events. Granted the pommel horse is often the team’s worst event, but after some dicey scores on horse, punctuated by a major slip from Yamamuro, and uninspired routines on rings, Japan sat in fifth place among eight teams. That’s when Uchimura, a man not given to corny speeches or pronouncements, remembered Yamamuro’s inspiring and simple oratory from last year. “Why are we here?” he asked, twisting the words slightly. If ever a team not easily stirred by emotion seemed to spring to life, the Japanese team did, recognizing the urgent call that had lifted it before. The Japanese squad that managed just one score of 15.000 or better out of six on its first two events than recorded 12 in a row on its last four events. “This result is my greatest source of pride,” Uchimura said after the competition. For a man with six world titles and an Olympic gold medal in individual all-around competition, that was pride, indeed.

The Russians settled for silver, a healthy 2.6 points off the lead, with China third, Great Britain fourth and the U.S., teased by a better showing in the qualification round, in fifth.

And it wasn’t just Uchimura’s excellence that won the day. Yusuke Tanaka earned a 15.900 on parallel bars, the same event that spilled him at worlds last year. Kenzo Shirai, the mad twister, lifted the team with a 16.133 on floor, opening with a dizzying 3 1/2 through to a 2 1/2 twisting back.

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Despite losing the early lead, the Russians still counted the silver as a success on a few levels. It was their first Olympic team medal since getting bronze in 2000 and it came after a cloud of uncertainty left many Russian athletes wondering until the 11th hour if their entire delegation might be banned from the Games. “We did our jobs, we did what we had to do,” said Denis Abliazin, the team’s highest scorer on Monday. “Of course there was a psychological challenge, because we did not know if we would be allowed to participate.”

The U.S. expected better than fifth. The team placed second, behind China, in qualification on Saturday, but the squad got off to a slow start on its very first event, the floor exercise, when Alex Naddour went down on his last tumbling pass and Sam Mikulak stepped out of bounds on his first two. After the first rotation, the U.S. found itself in seventh place and was able to make up two places.

“I’m proud of these guys, but upset at the outcome,” said Jake Dalton. “When we had an early mistake, the guys picked each other up and fought. We just had too much ground to make up.”

Things picked up for the U.S. team gradually, until the fifth rotation when the squad put together three stellar scores on parallel bars and moved within two points of a medal. A podium spot was still a long shot, but the scores of Chris Brooks (15.100), Mikulak (15.700) and Danell Leyva (15.533) left the U.S. within long-range striking distance. Then the team’s anchor, Leyva, fell from high bar on a Tkatchev, a back straddle release over the bar that was not as difficult as other release moves he caught earlier in the routine. Leyva, the reigning world silver medalist on high bar, took several seconds to stand up, though he later said he was more dazed than hurt. He ultimately received a score of 14.333, with an excellent 7.200 difficulty score, but just 7.133 for execution.

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It is at least a testament to the team’s balance that all five U.S. gymnasts will still have a chance to compete for individual medals later in the week. Mikulak and Brooks qualified for the all-around final on Wednesday. Mikulak will also be in floor and high bar finals later in the week. Leyva will go on the parallel bars and high bar. Naddour will be on pommel horse, his best event, and Dalton will join Mikulak on floor after the pair had the two best scores in the qualifying round. Those scores, however, will not carry over to the final round of eight on each apparatus.

Despite his pre-meet resume, Uchimura is not a sure thing to defend his all-around title on Wednesday. He suffered a rare gaffe during high bar qualifying and finished second, behind Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev. It has already been a trip full of mixed publicity for Uchimura, who racked up a $5,000 Pokemon bill last week. At 27, he has said that he would like to continue gymnastics for four more years to try to help the Japanese team before the home crowd at the Tokyo Games, even though Rio would likely be his final all-around competition. If he has any worries about the outcome, he need only ask himself why he came to Rio in the first place.