TOKYO — Kohei Uchimura of Japan lifted the medal off his chest, holding it high so first one side of the arena and then the other could see.
He had hoped to give his battered host country the team title at the world gymnastics championships.
Instead, a piece of history in the individual category will do just fine.
Uchimura became the first man to win three world titles Friday night with a performance so dominant it raises the question of whether he is not only the greatest gymnast of his generation, but of all time.
“That’s what everyone (else) will talk about,” Uchimura said. “But I don’t think about that.”
Svetlana Khorkina of Russia is the only other gymnast to win three world titles, but hers came over a span of four championships. Uchimura has won three straight, and like every other time he’s taken the floor since winning the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics, no one came close to catching him.
He finished more than three points ahead of Germany’s Philipp Boy, his largest margin of victory, and had the highest scores on four of the six events. With the title essentially wrapped up after two events, Uchimura turned high bar, his last routine, into something of a victory party. Fans roared with each release move, gasping when he somersaulted high above the bar, and they were on t heir feet before Uchimura’s hit the landing mat.
As he threw his arms into the air, the arena exploded in joy.
“Honestly, I’m very glad,” Uchimura said through a translator. “Of course I’m happy, but I was more focused on the team competition.”
Uchimura finished with 93.631 points. Boy won the silver for a second straight year, and Koji Yamamuro, Uchimura’s training partner, won the bronze medal. John Orozco was the top American, rallying to finish fifth after a series of form errors on his first three events. U.S. champ Danell Leyva was last, taking a 6.466 after a scary crash on high bar.
Gymnastics has a proud tradition in Japan, and Uchimura knew what success at worlds could mean for his country. It’s been seven months since the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan, and the country still bears the physical and emotional scars. Gymnasts all wore patches with a heart and the word “Tohoku,” the area where the quake occurred, as a reminder of the ongoing relief efforts.
By doing well, Uchimura said last week, he hoped he could provide some inspiration and hope.
Japan came up short in the team competition, finishing with silver after some uncharacteristic mistakes by Uchimura. But with the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium full of flag-waving, thunder stick-clapping fans Friday night, he did not disappoint.
“It was almost like a show,” said Orozco, who had a front-row seat for it, competing in the same rotation with Uchimura. “Incredible. Amazing. I can’t even find the words to describe him.”
Andrianov, Bilozerchev, Tsukahara, Scherbo, Ivankov, Nemov, Hamm, Yang — there is no shortage of names on the list of greatest male gymnasts. To put his name at the very top, Uchimura likely will need to win a team title and an Olympic gold medal. But after his performance Friday, upgrading his silver to a gold at next summer’s London Games seems like a given.
And, at just 22, he still has a long career ahead of him.
“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” Uchimura said.
What makes Uchimura so special is that he doesn’t seem to have any flaws. When Yang Wei was running roughshod over the competition in the last Olympic cycle, winning a pair of world titles and the gold medal in Beijing, he did it through pure, brute strength, bulking up his routines with so much difficulty he started most meets two or three points ahead.
But there’s an “art” in artistic gymnastics, and Yang didn’t have it. He managed to win one of his world titles despite taking such a big fall on high bar that he rolled all the way off the mat to the edge of the podium.
Uchimura, on the other hand, has gorgeous style to go with his difficult skills. He and Romania’s Ana Porgras won the Longines Prize for Elegance on Friday, given to the male and female gymnasts who demonstrated “remarkable elegance.” Uchimura was particularly pleased because the award comes with a watch, and he collects them.
“He’s a very special gymnast,” Boy said. “Everything what he’s doing, it looks beautiful. And he makes no mistakes. He’s really kind of a machine. It’s amazing.”
His tumbling passes on floor had the kind of height usually reserved for skateboard parks, yet he landed each so securely not even a toe budged. Art classes looking for a model might want to consider his strength poses. He’s so smooth on pommel horse he’s almost hypnotic, and his line and perfectly pointed toes would put ballet dancers to shame.
On still rings, he opened by hanging upside down, batlike, for what seemed like a minute. Rings is perhaps the toughest event in men’s gymnastics, upper body strength the only thing keeping a gymnast suspended 9 feet above the ground, and few can do the tough skills without making the cables shake just a little bit. Not Uchimura. He did three straight somersaults and then came to a dead stop, the cables perfectly still.
He was so far in front of the pack that he was atop the standings after just two events — ahead of the guys who’d gone on vault, which artificially inflates scores.
“He performed quite good today from the first to the end,” said Hiroyuki Tomita, the 2005 world champion who is helping coach the Japanese men. “Looking at that performance, I think he’s the best in the world.”
There isn’t much argument about that.
“Three times in a row, this is history. Congratulations,” Boy said, shaking his head in wonder. “I can’t say anything more about it.”