The roar began as soon as Chen Yibing’s feet hit the mat, a primal scream that was four pressure-packed years in the making.
Only half the meet was over, but so was this competition.
China has the Olympic title it has long craved and everyone else expected. The Americans, meanwhile, won the bronze with a roster patched together at the last minute when not one, but both Hamm brothers were knocked out with injuries.
Japan, the defending Olympic champion, won the silver.
“They told me, ‘We succeeded. We are the world champions.’ I told them we reached our target,” China coach Huang Yubin said. “Other teams were good, but we were better. We performed perfect today. Everyone was excellent.”
The Chinese began celebrating even before their last event, high bar, was finished. When little Zou Kai’s feet hit the mat with a thud, his teammates jumped up and down. They stood behind a large Chinese flag, tears flowing.
There were no tears from the Americans, only elation. When the final standings popped up, Jonathan Horton screamed: “Nobody believed in us! Nobody believed in us.”
China finished with 278.875 points, more than seven points ahead of Japan. That’s such a blowout the Chinese could have brought three fans in for the last event and still won. The Americans had 275.850.
“It bothers me a lot, especially if people from home kind of put down our team, saying, ‘Count the U.S. out. We can’t wait to see how China, Japan and Germany do,'” Horton said. “I wish more people in the U.S. believed in us like we believed in us. Now I hope more people realize the U.S. is a force to be reckoned with.”
The Chinese have won seven of the past eight world titles, including the past three, and have more individual titles than a royal family. For all that, though, they were still considered underachievers. There was just one Olympic title during this reign, and their collapse four years ago was one of epic proportions. Not only did they not win the gold they were supposed to, they went home with just two medals, only one gold.
But the failure fueled China.
“Since Athens, the Chinese team has run into a lot of failures which tested the team,” Huang said. “I know them, and they do work very hard and put a lot of hard work in their training. We worked as team, we enjoyed it, and that’s more important than anything.”
The Chinese strutted onto the floor, waving at their cheering fans and pumping their fists as if to remind everyone this was their party, and the other countries were simply lucky to get an invitation.
They started slowly on floor exercise, one of their weaker events. When they sauntered over to pommel horse, the show really began.
Xiao Qin had the crowd oohing and aahing, his hands a blur, his body a perfect plane. Not even a sliver of light was visible between his legs and his every move was performed with perfect control. When he finished, he pumped his fists at the crowd, smiling broadly at his teammates.
On still rings, the Chinese were simply dazzling.
Rings is all about brute strength, an event so physically demanding spectators wince just watching. But Yang Wei moved effortlessly from one strength pose to another, the bulging veins in his arms and forehead the only sign of his exertion. He took a small hop forward on his landing, but he grinned as he exchanged a high-five with Chen afterward.
As impressive as Yang’s show was, Chen’s was even better. He is the two-time world champ on rings, and it’s easy to see why. When he lifted his body into a plane, his arms extended, his back so straight you could iron on it. He moves easily from one position to another and holds his strength moves for what seem like minutes, never showing the slightest sign that his muscles are screaming.
Even before his feet hit the mat, the crowd was in a frenzy and a roar that shook the arena exploded as he thrust his hands into the air. Chen raised his head and closed his eyes, knowing the gold was finally in China’s reach. The Chinese finished the event — the third rotation — behind the Americans, but that was simply math.
Silver medalists four years ago, the Americans completed their own journey of redemption. With no members of the 2004 team around, the young U.S. men were a dismal 13th at the 2006 world championships, a stunning fall. But they grew up quickly, finishing fourth at last year’s worlds.
With reigning Olympic champ Paul Hamm and his twin brother, Morgan, back, they were sure to contend for a medal in Beijing.
But Paul Hamm broke his hand in May and couldn’t recover in time, withdrawing from the U.S. team July 28. Last Thursday, an ankle injury knocked out Morgan Hamm. With no Olympic veterans, nobody expected much from the Americans.
Nobody, that is, except themselves.
“We always believed in ourselves, and we kept at it. … Tenacious,” U.S. coach Kevin Mazeika said. “And we believed that our day would come.”
They are a scrappy bunch, and they gutted out one impressive routine after another Tuesday. Horton threw himself so far into the air on his high bar release moves the folks in the lower rows had to look up to see him, and he caught the bar on the way down each time as easily as if he were grabbing a drink.
When Horton stuck his dismount, Raj Bhavsar jumped up and down. The rest of the Americans hooted and hollered, and Horton practically sprinted off the podium. Justin Spring was just as good, showing the circus types a thing or two with his flips and twists. He does a triple back-somersault for his dismount, and he got such great air, he landed halfway down the podium.
“They’re high-risk, high-rewards,” Mazeika said, “and our guys knocked it out of the park. It was just amazing.”
Those routines put them solidly in second, behind the Chinese, with two events to go. But they had uncharacteristic struggles on floor, with Joey Hagerty stepping out of bounds twice. They slipped behind the Japanese going to pommel horse, their last event — and their weakest.
They didn’t start well, with Kevin Tan sitting on the horse at one point. After a serviceable routine by Bhavsar, it all came down to Sasha Artemev, who was tapped Thursday night to replace Morgan Hamm.
Artemev has perhaps the most talent of any of the Americans, and he’s far and away their best on pommel horse, where he won a bonze medal at the 2006 world championships.
Consistency, though, has been an issue, costing him a spot on the original Olympic team. He paced back and forth on the podium as he waited for what seemed like hours for Bhavsar’s score, the pressure building with every second.
But Artemev came through like a pro, his legs whirling like a propeller as he scissor-kicked around the pommels, his body straight and his toes perfectly pointed.
The Americans were celebrating as soon as his feet hit the mat. The bronze medal was theirs.
“He pulled off the performance of his life,” Horton said.
Credit: Associated Press