When the Japanese men won the gold in Rio five years ago, it was under the legendary Uchimura Kohei, who contributed on all six events to lead a team of decorated Olympic and world medalists.
This year, there are no legends, and no Olympic veterans (yet), but instead, a group of young guys who were either not considered for the 2016 team, like Kaya Kazuma and Tanigawa Wataru, or who were too young to try, like Hashimoto Daiki and Kitazono Takeru. The four put together a strong performance in qualifications on Saturday, coming nearly two tenths ahead of China and three ahead of Russia to lead the field despite dropping a couple of vaults and having to count a fall there.
The “counting a fall” aspect is crucial when you consider that China and Russia only had hit routines, but I also think the second- and third-place teams also have room to improve, and expect both to go for broke in the final.
Both teams also have a bit of fire in their eyes after missing gold in 2016, especially with China – the 2012 champions – having qualified in first while Japan had to come up from fourth to get the win. The team this year isn’t the strongest the federation could have selected, but Xiao Ruoteng and Sun Wei proved to be nearly as good as we could have expected in prelims, while Zou Jingyuan delivered on his two events with some of the highest execution scores n the entire competition, and Lin Chaopan also got the job done filling in the places where Zou did not have routines.
As for the Russians, they proved that injuries and a rough podium training were no match for what they can do once the competition starts. Led by Nikita Nagornyy, the team had top-three finishes on four events, and if they can make improvements on floor and pommels, I can see the reigning world champions climbing right back up to the top of the podium.
Of course, this will all depend on what Artur Dalaloyan can pull off with his Achilles injury still in play. Dalaloyan was great in qualifications, but possibly pushing a little too hard, especially on the leg events. Denis Ablyazin really stepped up for the team on his three events, and David Belyavskiy counted the team’s best pommels and p-bars scores, but again, while they were great, I remain a bit worried that going so hard in qualifications could give them problems today. If they do manage to win, though, it will be the first team gold for the Russian men since the immediate post-Soviet era, as they last won in 1996.
The United States and Great Britain finished fourth and fifth with scores of 256.761 and 256.594, more than six points ahead of the rest of the field, though both are in turn more than five points behind the top teams, so I think even meltdown-level days from the world’s best still won’t help either sneak in…but this is gymnastics, so I’m also expecting the unexpected.
Other teams in the finals include Germany (sixth with a 249.929 in qualifications), Switzerland (seventh with a 249.193), and Ukraine (eighth with a 247.492). Both Germany and Ukraine participated in the 2016 team final, but the Swiss men placed ninth in Rio, and then men are looking to put up their best team finish here since 1984.
Article by Lauren Hopkins