RIO DE JANEIRO — Kohei Uchimura stepped off the floor, saluted the crowd inside Rio Olympic Arena and bent over. Symbolically, it looked as if the Japanese gymnast was overcome by the moment after clinching the Olympic team gold he's pursued during his otherwise unparalleled career.
Nope. The reason the six-time world champion and defending all-around Olympic titlist found himself with his hands on his knees gasping for breath was more pragmatic than poetic.
"I was just exhausted," he said.
And relieved. No more questions about whether he can beat top rival China on the biggest stage. His status as the greatest of all time is no longer in doubt. Turns out his team — Koji Yamamuro, Ryohei Kato, Yusuke Tanaka and Kenzo Shirai — is pretty good, too. Japan's total of 274.094 was more than two points better than Russia and nearly three clear than the Chinese, who couldn't lock down a third straight Olympic title thanks to a series of small but crucial missteps the Japanese simply didn't make. Britain finished fourth while another slow start in the Olympic finals dropped the United States to fifth.
"I think compared to the Japan athletes, tonight we are a little bit less good, but this difference is very slight," China's Zhang Chenglong said.
Maybe, but the gap isn't a mirage. Japan laid the groundwork at last fall's world championships when it ended China's decade-long run at the top. Uchimura called the victory in Scotland vital in showing the judges it could keep it together under pressure.
"If you don't win gold there, the judges just don't formulate a very good impression of you," Uchimura said. "If Russia or China were to win in Glasgow, the sense would be that they'll probably win in the Olympics."
No chance. Though it was close for the first five rotations, ultimately it wasn't. The Japanese finished on floor, where Shirai is the world champion and a spinning, twisting wonder. His 16.133 made it nearly mathematically impossible for Japan to be caught. It's only fitting the routine that sealed Japan's triumph fell on Uchimura.
Controlled and precise, he was his typically elegant self as Japan bounced back from a so-so qualifying round, where it wound up fourth and looked plenty sloppy while doing it. Not in the finals. Japan's overall score was nearly five points better than preliminaries.
The only drama in the end surrounded silver, where the Russians cemented their return to the Olympic podium for the first time in 16 years by holding off the Chinese on the final rotation. It was vindication for a team that spent the days leading up to the games wondering if their country would be allowed to compete at all following a doping scandal that ultimately barred more than 100 athletes from Rio de Janeiro.
"Of course there was a psychological pressure," Denis Ablyazin said. "We didn't know if we would have access or not. The situation around Russia was difficult. We decided to put everything aside."
The going was far bumpier for the Americans. The U.S. men were second in qualifying on Saturday and pointed to their experience as a key to avoiding their meltdown four years ago in London, when they topped preliminaries but slid to fifth in the finals. In 2012, the problem was a nightmarish start on pommel horse, typically their weakest event. This time it happened on a usually far friendlier spot: floor exercise.
Alex Naddour stepped out during his dismount and the orange out-of-bounds flag went up on teammate Sam Mikulak a few minutes later. Though they avoided disaster on pommels, the Americans were sixth after three rotations and even a series of hit sets — including a spectacular performance on parallel bars — couldn't salvage a shot at bronze. The chase ended when Danell Leyva came off high bar while coach Mark Williams gave him a brief pep talk.
"In a lot of ways, these guys performed better than I feel we did in London," Williams said. "We fought through everything and there's no giving up. Gymnastics is hard and there are a lot of good teams out there on the men's side."