Russia’s First-Ever Team Gold Makes Them the Boys to Beat in Tokyo

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Ivan Stretovich

When I previewed the men’s team competition at worlds last year, I talked a lot about Russia looking likely to take the gold, which would’ve been the first team gold in the country’s history.

The men were so close to making it happen in 2018, leading qualifications by just under a point and outshining China on every event but pommels in the final, until Artur Dalaloyan had an uncharacteristic fall on parallel bars, where China was able to put up a 16.200 from Zou Jingyuan, leaving the Russians unable to fight back on high bar despite a fall from China, which ultimately won the competition by 0.049.

It was a crushing result after a hard-fought battle, and it’s hard to forget Dalaloyan crouched in a sobbing ball by the side of the podium, blaming himself for the team’s failure to reach the top of the podium. Both teams came into world championships this year with nearly identical circumstances, and once again Russia had a commanding lead in qualifications, coming in just over 1.5 points ahead of the Chinese team.

Even the events of the team final seemed to follow last year’s, with the Russians getting a strong lead in the first four rotations, leading the Chinese on every event but pommels, and then when it came to p-bars, Zou again put up an insane score — a 16.383 this time around — while Dalaloyan once again struggled in his routine, leading the Russians a little over a point back going into the final rotation.

To continue on the trend of following in 2018’s footsteps, China again counted a fall on high bar, this time from Sun Wei. But the Russians fought like hell and refused to lose, putting up a clean and strong high bar rotation with all three scores in the mid-14s.

The Russian men ended up winning by nearly one point exactly, adding insult to injury for China’s last-minute fall, though I think even if China finished on a high note, the Russians were pound-for-pound the stronger team as a whole, with pommels the only event where they’re not a hundred percent (but even there, they’re not bad; it’s just not a strength the way other events are).

In addition to Dalaloyan competing five events, the Russians had all-around champion Nikita Nagornyy competing all six, with relative newcomer Ivan Stretovich on four, while David Belyavskiy and Denis Abliazin rounded them out as specialists, with Belyavskiy on pommels and p-bars while Abliazin competed rings in the final.

With Dalaloyan and Nagornyy doing the bulk of the work both this year and last, it’s clear this is the pair that will lead Russia on a four-person team in Tokyo, while Belyavskiy could snag the third spot, leaving the fourth open for one of many talented all-arounders, like Stretovich or this year’s alternate Vladislav Poliashov, or a decent all-arounder who has standout events as well, like Dmitrii Lankin, who has really strong work on floor and vault and is also good enough to trust on rings or p-bars in a team final, or Kirill Prokopev, who is pretty great on pommels.

After getting so invested in the Russian team last year, I was personally thrilled to see them pull it off this year. They’ve spent the last few years really building up to a big win like this, and the payoff was beautiful, with happy tears in Stuttgart instead of last year’s sad tears.

China actually brought the same team to Stuttgart that they had in Doha, with just minor shifts in the team final lineup, and while they performed well enough to increase their total score by about four full points compared to 2018, putting up top-three finishes on every event but high bar, where they had the fall, they just weren’t quite as flashy as the Russians as a whole, who can put up three true standout routines on nearly every apparatus, whereas the Chinese have just one or two standouts per event.

Despite being known for having lots of specialists, I liked that the work in the team final was pretty evenly shared among the Chinese men, with Deng Shudi, Sun Wei, and Xiao Ruoteng each competing four, while Lin Chaopan and Zou Jingyuan competed three apiece. Though I typically think of Zou for his excellent p-bars work, for example, he’s also pretty strong on pommels and rings. Even though they’re not as “fabulous” as the Russian team, they’re still absolutely competitive against them, and should remain so going into Tokyo.

Of course, though they didn’t end up threatening Russia and China in Stuttgart, the bronze medal-winning Japanese men will hope to grow to be more competitive by next year so they can fight for the top spot on the podium at the Olympic Games in their country.

Led by young veteran Kazuma Kaya, who was just 18 when he helped Japan win the gold at world championships in 2015, the team also included Yuya Kamoto, 18-year-old Daiki Hashimoto, and the Tanigawa brothers, Wataru and Kakeru, with this Kakeru’s first major international competition after getting his feet wet at last year’s Asian Games, where he helped the team to the silver medal.

It’s obviously an incredibly different team than one we could’ve imagined just a few months ago, with both Kohei Uchimura and Kenzo Shirai missing out after underperforming at Japan’s domestic meets, leaving the future of both up in the air. The team performed well, nonetheless, and though they’re missing some of the hugely difficult routines they’ve enjoyed in the past, the team came back from some mistakes in qualifications to put up an overall solid meet, though as a whole it’s clear they need to focus on better execution across the board.

Because this is Japan, I don’t expect anything less than a stellar performance in Tokyo, and the team has nearly unlimited depth to play with, as over 30 guys are capable of an 80 in the all-around. What they lack is that star power, however, and while a team doesn’t need Uchimura pushing a 90 in the all-around to win a title, they will need to step it up quite a bit when Russia has two guys capable of the 87+ range. Depth will help Japan have a greater number of options to flesh out a team of four all-arounders, but they’ll need one or two of those guys to build on a strong foundation if they want to match the top talent from Russia.

The United States, Great Britain, Chinese Taipei, Switzerland, and Ukraine also competed in the team final in Stuttgart, while South Korea, Brazil, Spain, and Germany missed the final but qualified full teams to Tokyo.

On a good day, these nine teams will be at least four or five points back from the top teams. Some of them had really strong days in Stuttgart either in qualifications or in the team final, but those that had weaker performances or saw lots of falls wouldn’t have gotten close to the podium even without those mistakes.

I was happy to see the United States come through with a great day in the team final after struggling in qualifications, where the finished just seventh. Coming back to finish fourth in the final was huge for them, and considering how far behind they are compared to the top teams, it was basically their version of winning gold.

When you look at their total difficulty (102.7, of which 35.2 comes from Sam Mikulak) compared to China’s (108.6) or Japan’s (108.4) or Russia’s (108.2), and then on top of that consider how much stronger the Russians are at executing that difficulty, mathematically the U.S. (and other programs in a similar situation) would need these teams to fall at least five times before they’d have a prayer at overtaking them, so it’s almost out of the realm of possibility, and I don’t see that changing much in the next year.

One thing the U.S. does have as a benefit is its relatively decent collection of all-arounders and lack of truly strong specialists, which will bode well for the team in a four-up three-count qualification. The U.S. struggles to piece together five-person teams without any true specialists, which holds them back in the format seen at worlds over the past couple of years, but next year putting together a team will be a bit more straightforward as they won’t be tasked with figuring out which kaz 1.5 vaulter to take as a “vault specialist.” Though their all-arounders are mostly in the low 80s, they have good enough depth to choose a solid team without the need of any specialists, and while they still won’t be a podium contender, they’ll be in a safer position than the teams that will bring specialists onto the main squad, risking the need to field just three gymnasts on some events in qualifications.

Great Britain is a team where I see a lot of talent and the potential to maybe get close to brushing the top teams if they have a hit day, but their problem has been a lack of consistency, as well as a lack of attention to detail, as many of their hit routines come up short in execution compared to similar routines from the top programs.

In the team final, the Brits had room to make up for close to six full points in execution with hit and/or cleaner routines, which would’ve put them within about a point of how Japan ended up performing. Getting Nile Wilson back will also help, and I think they have a good enough group right now that they’re going to end up leaving some super talented guys home next year, but Joe Fraser is doing more to prove himself and his level of consistency, and Giarnni Regini-Moran has had a long fight back from injuries, but finally seems to be getting back to a really good place to make a bid for Tokyo next year.

The rest of the teams here are kind of hit-or-miss, and I think any of them could challenge for the team final next year. I was of course thrilled to see Taiwan end up such a huge threat to finish sixth in the final after qualifying in 17th last year, upping its score by over 12 points, which is major. They’ve been on the rise for a few years now, and with so much recent individual success, the team’s increased success was waiting to follow, but I didn’t think it would happen this quickly and I commend them for their remarkably clean and consistent performances despite being at a major difficulty disadvantage.

Most teams that qualified to Tokyo were at close to full strength here, and I think we’ll see only minor lineup shifts on a few of them going forward. Switzerland had its entire 2016 Olympic team in Stuttgart, and it’s the same team they’ll be hoping to send to Tokyo, but Ukraine — which performed fabulously here to finish fourth in qualifications! — had a few weak spots, which they’ll be hoping to fix next year, hopefully with the addition of Nazar Chepurnyi, currently a top junior with endless potential.

Germany will also benefit from a few changes to the roster next year. They were lucky to sneak into Tokyo half a point over Italy, especially as the team had lots of injuries this year and their focus became simply qualifying to the Olympics instead of really focusing on how to best maximize the lineups for each apparatus to push for the team final. I think at full strength, they could be closer to team final potential.

The competition in Stuttgart was limited to just Russia, China, and Japan as the only realistic podium contenders in the team final, and it’s looking like this is going to be the case again at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. However, while Russia made an important step toward capturing Olympic gold with their win in Stuttgart, the podium order next year will come down to which of the three is best on that one day, and then there’s the secondary excitement in seeing which of the remaining nine teams will be able to qualify to the final, even if they’re unlikely to challenge for the podium.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

4 thoughts on “Russia’s First-Ever Team Gold Makes Them the Boys to Beat in Tokyo

  1. We all know it’s Russia that you love. Stop the degrading, soul-hurting façade to please your sheeple of American teenagers. Accept Mustafina as your queen, admit that Komova was robbed, swear your loyalty to the slav flag, work towards Soviet reunification under Russia’s leadership.

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  2. Pingback: Around the Gymternet: Keep it 100 | The Gymternet

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