The men set foot in the Ariake Gymnastics Center for the first time today as they tackled podium training, and while the sessions did offer some clarity on what we can expect from the top teams going into the final, there’s still so much that can happen, and I think most of the competition here is going to come down to the wire.
China and Japan on Top
If one thing was abundantly clear, it was that both China and Japan looked excellent throughout most of podium training, and are going into the team competition with a major edge over the reigning world champions from Russia.
China started out with a few rough vaults, though we later learned that vault was an issue for nearly everyone, with multiple MAG and WAG athletes reporting that the spot on the board where most athletes punch for handspring or tsuk/kaz vaults – which is lower than the spot where Yurchenkos hit – is really hard and tight. They’re all still figuring out how to adjust to that, China included, especially as they were the first ones up on vault all day.
But now that we know it’s a springboard issue and not a China issue, it makes so much sense, because after they got vault out of the way, the Chinese men looked phenomenal. I feel like every rotation looked easy for them, and they were so quick and efficient with their training, getting full routines out of the way, fixing a few little problems here and there, and then sitting back and waiting for the rotation to end. They did have a few short landings on floor, but overall I’d say they looked really sharp and ready to go.
The Japanese guys also looked really strong, especially the young Kitazono Takeru, who was all smiles throughout the session. I missed the last two events for their subdivision, so no rings or vault for me, but everything I did see looked mostly good, and even when there were issues like falls or short landings, the team worked to correct quickly in the next sets, getting everything out of the way with no drama. There was nothing suggesting that the team looked sluggish or weak in any areas, and like China, they seem to be in a really great place as they look forward to the competition on Saturday.
Russia and Great Britain a Question Mark
In contrast to the first two, both Russia and Great Britain had struggles that seemed more problematic than just the occasional mistake. We do have to think about how the first two didn’t need to adjust to a major time difference, so with a few more days under their belts, both of these teams could have massive turnarounds by the time they get to qualifications.
The Russian men actually looked pretty strong on most of their events, but floor and vault were both so rough that it has colored my entire impression of the team as “very scary.” When I go back and think about p-bars, high bar, and rings, it doesn’t seem so bad, and though there were a few iffy spots on pommels, nothing was so rough that it was cause for concern.
Vault could also be chalked up to the fact that the springboard situation is a mess, though the most terrifying thing there was obviously Artur Dalaloyan doing handspring double front pikes three months after rupturing his Achilles. He did land one, and he also went on to land super high-difficulty floor passes, so I’m obviously mostly concerned about how if he continues this and gets injured, they’re going to lose him on events where he could help the team.
Dalaloyan later told us that he is fourth in the lineup on both of the leg events, so the other three guys before him will determine whether he competes or not, though it seemed like he still wanted to do the all-around regardless. My biggest worry with both him and the other Russians on floor is that none of them did a full routine, and that the more Nikita Nagornyy worked, the more frustrated and in pain he became. Denis Abliazin amazingly was the only one of the guys here who didn’t look to have his legs glued together, possibly because he is already bionic, so his full run-through went well, but with the way things were going for the others, there’s obviously reason for concern.
The British guys also had a few rough spots that made my overall perspective a bit worrisome, most notably the fact that out of about 20 or so vaults from James Hall, Giarnni Regini-Moran, and Joe Frasier, only one or two were hit. The other teams struggling here were ultimately able to get a couple of hits out of the way, but the Brits worked until the end of the rotation and still couldn’t manage to stand anything up, which must have been so demoralizing.
Despite that, they moved on well to the remaining events. Max Whitlock seemed clean and consistent on his non-pommels events, and the rest of what I saw looked mostly strong. Obviously if Russia is at full strength alongside China and Japan, the British guys won’t be a team medal threat, but they could be one of the teams in the mix to sneak in if something goes wrong with a top program. If the guys can get a handle on vault, they showed here that they’re still in that position, but if they can’t crank out three hits in qualifications, it could put the team final at risk entirely.
United States Stayed Positive
Speaking of teams that aren’t medal threats but could potentially capitalize on the mistakes of others, the U.S. men looked largely fantastic in training, bringing high spirits from one event to the next and making important corrections in the moment to finish every event on a high note.
Vault was also an issue for the United States, but what I noticed with them is that when they had falls, they’d go back, make adjustments, and hit the next time. This is exactly what touch warm-ups are for, to work out those kinks before you have to throw a competitive set, and I think this is what’s going to help the U.S. men in competition. They didn’t get frustrated in podium training the way some of the other guys did, and I think a lot of that has to do with their attitude.
This was most noticeable on vault, but it’s something that carried over onto every event, and while the team is definitely at a massive difficulty deficit, they look very clean and prepared, and I think these combined with how they approach a competition at this level could put them in a good place to take advantage of a more temperamental team, even if they aren’t a threat outright.
The Other Teams
Based on podium training, I think these should be the top five teams, with a few others that maybe could have been top-five level just not at a hundred percent right now for a variety of reasons. I’d say Switzerland and Ukraine looked particularly affected, but both have a few individual all-around and apparatus standouts so even if they don’t perform as well as a team, they’ll still be competitive in other ways, with Illia Kovtun looking especially good as a standout in Wednesday’s training.
This can also be said for South Korea and Taiwan, both of which are missing some key competitors and are featuring some younger guys, but even if making the team final doesn’t work out, they’ll hopefully have a couple of individual finalists each.
Brazil looked really strong to me in podium training, so after not making the team final in 2019, it’s looking like they could potentially be in the mix this time around. I’d probably put them after the United States on my podium training feelings ranking, because they looked really solid and I think could overcome some difficulty disadvantages with how strong they look overall.
Spain and Germany were probably the two weakest overall, but both did some clean gymnastics in training, so it’s more about that than about any major meltdowns or anything.
I think despite Russia’s struggles, they’ll still end up in the top three with China and Japan after qualifications, though I’m worried that with injuries and other struggles, they’re no longer going to be as much of a threat for the top spot, especially with how strong China and Japan looked.
Qualifications should also give them a buffer over teams on their heels like the United States and Great Britain, so if they do have a few minor disasters, dropping scores will help keep them in that top three. Team finals will be more of an issue in that sense, but most of their riskiest routines are those tricky fourth-spot routines, so a three-up three-count will obviously also work out well for them.
I’ll be back with individual all-around and apparatus previews soon, based on what we’ve seen so far in 2021 and how everyone looked at podium training.
Article by Lauren Hopkins