SPORTS

What slump? China bounces back and grabs 2nd straight Olympic men's gymnastics gold

07/31/2012 01:49 EDT | Updated 09/29/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - Chen Yibing couldn't quite help himself. He needed to gloat. A little at least.

When asked how a team that looked like a bit of a mess — at least by its lofty standards — in men's gymnastics during qualifying on Saturday could turn it around so suddenly and win a second straight Olympic gold so convincingly on Monday night, Yibing smiled and smacked his hands together.

"Perfect!" he said in English.

Maybe not, but then again, perfection was hardly required. Not with expected contenders Japan and the United States finding interesting ways to let gold slip from their grasp.

The Japanese needed a little help from the judges to earn silver. The U.S., so spectacular during qualifying, faded to fifth.

The only team besides China that seemed capable of rising to the occasion was Britain, which earned its first team medal in a century by grabbing bronze.

It felt like something considerably shinier to the host nation, which had been pointing toward this meet from the moment London was awarded the games seven years ago.

The last time the Brits had medaled in the team competition came in 1912, when they earned bronze a few months after the Titanic sunk.

"The beauty of what we've got is that this team isn't a one-hit wonder," said Britain's Louis Smith, the team captain and unquestioned leader.

Still, while the British have closed the gap between themselves and the rest of the sport's elite, one thing remains clear. Nobody beats China when Olympic gold is on the line.

China hardly looked like its normal efficient self as it bumbled through qualifying on Saturday. It hardly mattered on Monday.

Their total of 275.997 left them well clear of the field and means China has now won three of the last four Olympic titles.

The uncharacteristic miscues that marred their preliminary round, when they finished sixth, vanished. The Chinese were their typical steadily spectacular selves.

"Our coach and our fellow colleagues created a history," Yibing said. "In the future we will have more new rising stars."

Though the 27-year-old Yibing is unlikely to be around when the games head to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, there's another crop right behind him.

Whoever inherits the mantle from Yibing and company will have to find a way to deal with an increasingly unstable landscape. The Japanese squeaked out silver when judges adjusted three-time defending world all-around champion Kohei Uchimura's score on pommel horse, providing the 0.7-point boost necessary to hold off Britain.

The judges ruled upon review that Uchimura should receive credit for his dismount, providing his score with the points necessary to keep the Japanese on the medal stand.

"We practiced just like we thought but 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."

Maybe, but not really to the home team. The Brits — with Prince William and Harry cheering them on and Union Jacks flying throughout the O2 Arena — leaned on Smith early then relied on their own rising stars to climb into third and cement themselves as an emerging power in a sport long considered an afterthought.

"It's a beautiful day for the sport of British gymnastics," Smith said.

Not so much for the Americans.

The U.S. had touted this group as a team capable of winning gold for the first time since the boycotted Los Angeles games in 1984.

The Americans certainly looked capable during qualifying, posting the top score and performing with such confidence veteran Jon Horton joked afterward if the U.S. could just get its gold from the finals and save everyone a lot of time.

It wasn't to be. The U.S. saw its hopes of a medal of any colour evaporate immediately. Sam Mikulak wobbled on floor exercise. Danell Leyva and John Orozco bobbled on pommel horse. And the U.S. spent the second half of the meet futilely trying to make up lost ground.

Though the Americans rallied from last to fifth, it was of small consolation.

"There's nothing we could have really done differently," Mikulak said. "We're a young team. We've never experienced anything like this before."

True. Leyva and Jake Dalton are 20. Mikulak and Orozco are 19. They will be around for a while.

So will the Brits. While this probably marked the final games for the 23-year-old Smith, youngsters Sam Oldham and Max Whitlock are 19. The junior ranks are packed with precocious talent that no longer views the chance to compete on a world stage as something of a pipe dream.

"The juniors we've got coming through, there's so much depth," Smith said. "Now everyone is going to be more motivated than ever."

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Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP

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