LONDON — Bad news, guys. This wasn’t even Kohei Uchimura at his best.
Uchimura ran away with the men’s title at the world gymnastics championships Thursday night, adding it to his silver medal from the Beijing Olympics. He led from the second event, and his final score of 91.500 points was more than 2½ better than Daniel Keatings, who delighted the O2 Arena with Britain’s first all-around medal ever.
Russia’s Yury Ryazanov was third.
“Today’s performance wasn’t entirely up to my standards,” said Uchimura, who barely even celebrated after sealing the win with a high-flying high bar routine that had the crowd oohing and ahhing. “I’m not entirely satisfied, but I tried my best throughout and I think with that came the results.”
The results were mixed for the Americans. Tim McNeill finished seventh at his first major international competition while national champion Jonathan Horton, a pre-meet favorite for the podium, was 17th after falls on three events.
McNeill was actually in position for a medal after four rotations, in third place going into parallel bars — one of his best events. But instead of his usual confident technique, he looked tight, as if trying to hang on to that spot on the podium.
“A little bit, in the back of my mind, I kind of had that thought of a medal in the all-around, and that might have messed me up a little bit,” McNeill said.
Still, seventh at his first worlds is a strong showing.
“It’s absolutely thrilling,” he said. “It’s going to be huge motivation, knowing I was in contention for a medal and knowing I can compete with the best in the world.”
But he — and everybody else — will have to do a lot of work to match the stylish Uchimura.
Few people had even heard of Uchimura when he arrived at the Beijing Olympics. The Japanese had a veteran — and much decorated — team, and he was just a mop-topped kid. But he showed he was more than capable of carrying on Japan’s long history of elegance and grace, winning the silver in the all-around.
“Last year, I didn’t think I would have a chance of winning a medal,” Uchimura said. “After winning a silver medal, I was now aware of my position in the world, and I’ve continuously worked hard, being aware that a gold medal was in a reachable position.”
Indeed, with Olympic gold medalist and two-time defending world champion Yang Wei retired, Uchimura is the one everyone is chasing.
And from the looks of it, no one’s anywhere close.
Uchimura is a completely different gymnast from Yang, who dominated the sport the last Olympic cycle. Yang wasn’t blessed with great execution (his high bar routine was best watched with one eye covered), but he was so technically superior it didn’t matter.
Uchimura has the tough tricks, but it’s easy to overlook his skill because his elegance and grace make everything look effortless.
His tumbling passes are landed with certainty, few wobbles or hops, as if he’s got sticky tape on his feet. On still rings, he hung upside down for several seconds, holding so still the cables barely swayed. Most people would barely be able to see after having the blood rush to their head like that, but he calmly flipped and twisted. At one point, he did three somersaults — suspended 8-plus feet in the air, mind you — and came to a dead stop.
His only rough spot was on parallel bars, where he took an extra swing midway through his routine. Considering his big lead, it hardly mattered.
In fact, Uchimura could have fallen again or mailed it on high bar, his last event, and still won. Instead, he did a routine that would make the circus folks jealous. He did three release moves, throwing himself so high above the bar he might consider getting clearance from the air traffic controllers at nearby City Airport. His twirling pirouettes were gorgeous, and his form was so perfect coaches around the world are surely scouring YouTube for clips to show their young gymnasts.
“It didn’t even occur to me to play it safe,” Uchimura said, looking slightly horrified at the suggestion. “I have been working hard to perform the best, and it would be wrong to play it safe just because there’s a gap.”
Besides, Britain will celebrate Keatings’ silver medal as if it’s a gold.
Britain hasn’t exactly been a gymnastics powerhouse. It didn’t win its first world medal until Beth Tweddle’s bronze on uneven bars in 2003, and Louis Smith’s bronze on pommel horse last summer in Beijing was the first Olympic medal in nearly a century.
But Keatings, along with Smith and Tweddle, have led a resurgence that makes Britain an emerging force — just in time for the 2012 Olympics, right here at the O2 arena.
“I’m over the moon really,” said Keatings, still looking a bit dazed. “I’m still speechless with what happened today. I didn’t expect to win this at all, and with crowd pushing me all the way it helped keep my head up. It just gave me a little taste of what it’s going to be like in 2012.”
For Horton, his disappointing showing will be powerful motivation.
“I’ll be back next year,” he promised. “I belong on the podium, and I can be on top.”
Things went ugly for him in a hurry, his feet slipping out from under him on his first tumbling run on floor, his first event, and dumping him on his backside. Next up was his old nemesis, pommel horse, and sure enough, Horton found trouble again. He appeared to get caught as he worked between the pommels and he had to take a seat, a look of dismay crossing his face.
He also banged into the horse as he readied for his dismount, but managed to muscle through it. It was little consolation, though, with a score of 11.1 dropping him into last place.
He’d climbed back up to 17th going into high bar, his last and best event. But after flipping and twisting himself high above the bar on one of his three release moves, Horton grabbed for the bar and came away empty, splatting onto the mat.
“It’s gymnastics,” he said. “You have days like this.”