China is still No. 1
TOKYO - A crash on vault. A few wobbly handstands. A couple of steps on landings.
Take those away and maybe, just maybe, it’s the United States standing atop the podium at the world gymnastics championships last night instead of China.
“We just showed the world we’re not falling behind,’’ Jonathan Horton said after the US won the bronze medal, its first at worlds since 2003. “Did China have a mistake today? I don’t think they fell on anything, and they only beat us by 2 points - and we had mistakes. So they’re feeling the pressure, Japan’s feeling the pressure. We don’t have that much to do when we go home. We’ve got some minor details to focus on.
“I’ll continue to say, we’re a very good team,’’ Horton added. “We believe now, and I think the rest of the world believes we have what it takes.’’
China has run roughshod over the men’s gymnastics world for much of this century, winning five straight world titles as well as the gold medals at the Sydney and Beijing Olympics. For much of that time, the Chinese had the meet won simply by getting off the bus. They were that much better than everyone else and not only did the competition know it, they freely admitted it.
But China’s air of invincibility took a hit at these worlds, even if the Chinese left the floor as they usually do, index fingers held high in the air, gold medals around their necks.
They were third in qualifying, the first time since the Athens Olympics that they finished anywhere but first in any phase of a major competition. They scored 275.161 points, finishing about 2 points ahead of both Japan and the US. But the silver and bronze medalists both counted falls - three in Japan’s case - while China was clean.
Japan, which won the silver medal at the previous three worlds as well as the Beijing Olympics, finished a mere 100th of a point ahead of the Americans, 273.093 to 273.083.
“I’m very happy because during qualifying, China was third,’’ said Zou Kai, whose collection of precious metal now includes three golds from the Beijing Olympics and four from the world championships. “But we won in the final so it’s very exciting.’’
With gymnastics squads being reduced from six members to five in London, countries won’t be able to afford to carry three or four event specialists on their rosters as China usually does. All-arounders will be at a premium, and the US had three of the top five in qualifying at worlds. Japan had two in the top four.
China had one all-arounder, and he was 18th.
“It means we’re really close,’’ US team coordinator Kevin Mazeika said. “It’s only going to serve to strengthen our resolve going into London.’’
The Americans lost ground on still rings, with both John Orozco and Jake Dalton having significant form breaks. The errors weren’t major, but little details add up when a competition is this tight. Horton landing his vault on his knees, his face practically buried in the mat, was even more damaging. He scored 8/10ths of a point below what he did in qualifying, and the Americans finished fifth on vault, three spots lower than in prelims.
Still, the Americans got themselves back into the medal mix with impressive routines on parallel bars and high bar. Orozco flipped from one handstand into another in perfect form on parallel bars, not wobbling or swaying an inch. Horton and Danell Leyva’s high-flying high bar routines have that cover-your-eyes-and-hide-the-children daredevil quality that the X-Games set loves so much.
“We’re going to come back, and we’re going to fight hard for the London Olympics,’’ Horton said.