Tuesday, August 12, 2008

China took home the gold medal in team gymnastics

BEIJING — With the pressure of the host country weighing heavily upon them, the Chinese men’s gymnastics team came into the Beijing Games knowing full well what was expected of it: a gold medal and nothing less. The Chinese men dominated on their home soil, as expected. On Tuesday in the team finals, the team delivered. China had finished a disappointing fifth at the 2004 Games in Athens, after arriving as the defending Olympic and world champion. But the team was not about to let a medal slip from it fingers this time, not in front of a capacity crowd at the National Indoor Stadium, not when the eyes of China were watching on television. China started slowly before making its way to the top of the scoreboard after four events. By the end of the competition, as all of the gymnasts had dreamed for so long, the gold medal rested in their hands. With a score of 286.125 points, the Chinese were more than seven points better than Japan, the defending Olympic champion, which took the silver with 278.875 points. The United States men’s team, weakened by the loss of its top two gymnasts to injuries, won an unexpected bronze medal. Throughout the competition, the Americans pumped their fists and gave each other bear hugs, as if the day was a continuous celebration. But it was the Chinese who dominated on their home soil, as expected. Their routines on the vault and the parallel bars, where they all scored in the 16s, were breathtaking. Each routine was more complex than the one before it, with the gasps of the crowd growing louder. On vault, all three China’s scores were above 16.0, with the vault expert Li Xiaopeng scoring a sky-high 16.775 for his performance on arguably the most difficult vault. He did a round-off and half twist onto the table, then twisted two and a half times in the air with one full flip. The other teams, including the United States, were left to fight for silver and bronze. At the 2004 Athens Games, the Chinese crumbled in the finals. Japan won the gold. The United States team, led by Paul Hamm, was second. Romania was third. The Chinese went home and had four years to think about their failure. They had won the team title at the 2006 and 2007 world championships, but the Olympics in Beijing loomed. The new scoring system in gymnastics was on their side. That system, which two years ago replaced the system based on a top score of 10.0, rewards more difficult routines. And the Chinese had them. If the Olympics had been contested on paper, the Chinese would have won even more convincingly. Their routines were so difficult and so far ahead of the other teams’ that even before the first event it seemed no one would be able to catch them. But mistakes are costly in the new system. And in the team final, there is no room for error. In the team final format, three gymnasts from each country compete on each event, and every score counts. And when the Olympics arrived, the Chinese men were ready. They delivered in qualifying, finishing first, with Japan in second. Only 1.025 points separated the next four teams — Russia, Korea, Germany and the United States — making it seem as if the bronze medal was up for grabs. The United States team seemed to have nothing to lose. Without its veterans, Paul and Morgan Hamm, the American team wanted to prove that it could contend for a medal. Paul Hamm, the reigning Olympic champion in the all-around, had not healed in time from broken bone in his right hand. Morgan Hamm withdrew two days before the Olympics with an injured left ankle. The United States team was hoping to perform better in the finals Tuesday than it had in qualifying. The Americans finished in sixth, and seemed happy to secure a spot in the final. The first gymnast up in the finals was China’s Chen Yibing, who stepped out of bounds on his final tumbling pass of his floor routine, scoring a low 14.575. Yang Wei, the defending world champion in the all-around, was next, with 15.425. Then Zou Kai, who seemed to nearly hit the rafters during his tumbling, scored 15.925. After the first rotation, though, China was fifth, behind the first-place Romanians, who had competed on the vault. That event, however, generally lends itself to higher scores. France, which also competed on the vault, was second after the first rotation. The United States, on the still rings, was third. In the second rotation, the Chinese scored two lower scores — 14.750 and a 15.1 — on the pommel horse. They remained fifth after that round. France was in the lead, followed by the United States. But the Chinese were not about to fret. They knew they were on the cusp of their highest-scoring events. They began to shine on the still rings — their third event — and the crowd began to marvel. Yang scored a 16.3, but it was Chen who was the star. He performed his routine as if the rings were painless, flowing from one move to another without even looking strained. He stuck his landing, then pumped his fists, his biceps rippling. When his score of 16.575 popped up, a deafening cheer followed. After three rotations, the Chinese had leaped to second from fifth. The United States, after making no major mistakes, was momentarily in first.

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