LONDON — Their closest rivals were still on the floor competing when the Chinese whipped out five big gold stars and held them up in the shape of their flag.
The Chinese won their second straight Olympic title in men’s gymnastics and third and in four games in a rout Monday, making fools of everyone who wrote them off after a dismal performance in qualifying.
“We don’t have any faults. That’s our secret to beat the Japanese and to beat everyone,” Zhang Chenglong said. “In preliminaries, we had a little bit of faults. But tonight was completely perfect.”
It took five minutes and a video review to sort out the silver and bronze medalists after Japan questioned the score of three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura on pommel horse, the last routine. Japan jumped from fourth to second after judges revised Uchimura’s score, bumping Britain down to bronze and Ukraine off the medals podium.
It was the British men’s first team medal in a century, and it set off raucous celebrations at the O2 Arena. Even Princes William and Harry joined in.
“To win a medal in your home games, I’ll take that any day,” Kristian Thomas said. “We never actually had the silver in our hands, so there’s no real disappointment.”
Tell that to the Japanese, who were bested by the Chinese yet again. Japan was the runner-up to China in Beijing, as well as at the last four world championships.
And unlike last year’s world championships, where the Japanese had appeared to close the gap on China, this one wasn’t even close. China finished with 275.997 points, more than four points better than Japan.
China now has gone eight years without losing at a major competition.
“At the very beginning it was fourth for Japan so I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t think anything,” a somber Uchimura said. “I was thinking, ‘It’s fourth, it’s fourth.’ Even after it was changed, I was not too happy.”
The Americans weren’t all that happy, either.
Bronze medalists four years ago, they could practically feel their first gold since 1984 after finishing No. 1 in qualifying, with captain Jon Horton jokingly asking if they could claim their prizes. But everyone gets a do-over in team finals, and whatever momentum the Americans had evaporated when Danell Leyva and John Orozco fell on pommel horse, their second event.
They wound up fifth, six points behind China and almost two behind Britain.
“There’s definitely disappointment,” Horton said. “We are one of the best teams in the world.”
But China is in a class by itself.
The Chinese have been like playground bullies most of the last decade, sauntering into every competition and scooping up as many gold medals as possible: Team golds at the last five world championships and Olympic titles in Sydney and Beijing, where they won all but one of the men’s medals.
They probably would have claimed that, too, had they bothered to contend for vault.
But with most of the Beijing squad moving on and a rule change putting a premium on all-arounders, China has looked — dare we say it? — vulnerable of late. Chen Yibing, a double gold medalist in Beijing, even tried to dampen the expectations this spring, saying it would be “extremely hard” for the Chinese to defend their team title. It didn’t get any easier when Teng Haibin, the 2004 gold medalist on pommel horse, dropped out with an injury Thursday and had to be replaced by Guo Weiyang.
An abysmal performance in qualifying only furthered the doubt when they finished sixth. Sixth!
While everyone else was gleefully expecting the end of a dynasty, China was as cocky and cool as always.
“We have the abilities and the skills,” said Chen Yibing, one of only two holdovers from the Beijing squad. Asked when he knew his team would win, he said: “After getting up from bed.”
China doesn’t have Japan’s stylish elegance, Britain’s youthful exuberance or even the Americans’ flair for the dramatic. What the Chinese do have, however, is sheer, brute strength. Chen set the tone in the very first event on still rings, where he is the defending Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion.
Simply watching the event makes most folks grab their arms and scream for mercy. He flips from one skill to another with silky smoothness — at one point lifting his head a bit higher as if to say, “Oh, you liked that one? How about this?” The cables stayed perfectly still when he did a somersault into a handstand, the veins bulging in his arms and neck the only signs of exertion.
The Chinese only got better from there, with half their 18 scores at 15.6s or higher. Compare that to Japan, which had five, or the British, who had four.
When Zhang’s feet slammed into the mat after his pommel horse routine, China’s last of the night, he let out a roar the rest of the world will be hearing for four years. While the rest of his teammates broke into their latest victory celebration, Chen leaned against a wall and buried his face in his hands, unable to stop the tears.
“Our rivals were not necessarily stronger than in previous years,” Zhang said, “so we kept a cool mind.”
Japan had to keep its cool, too. Uchimura lost control on his dismount, flailing wildly before he got his feet beneath him. Judges initially gave him just a 5.4 for difficulty, and his overall score of 13.466 left Japan in fourth place.
But the Japanese coaches rushed to the judges to protest, saying Uchimura’s dismount should have been worth more. While judges huddled around a video screen, Uchimura and his teammates sat stone-faced against a wall.
Finally it was announced that judges had revised Uchimura’s score, giving him an additional seven-tenths credit on his dismount. That boosted Japan’s total to 271.952, good enough for the silver medal but not the gold that Uchimura and his teammates crave.
“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.”
Difficult, it seems, for everyone but the Chinese.