LONDON — When there’s gold to be gotten, don’t ever doubt the Chinese.
When there’s silver and bronze on the line, don’t count anyone out.
The Chinese won their second straight Olympic title and third in four games Monday, making fools of everyone who wrote them off after a dismal performance in qualifying.
“After getting up from bed I thought we were going to win it,” said Chen Yibing, one of only two holdovers from the Beijing squad. “We have the abilities and the skills.”
China’s score of 275.997 points was more than four points better than Japan, which needed help from a DVR to finish second.
Britain initially was announced as the silver medalist, setting off raucous celebrations at the O2 Arena, Princes William and Harry included. The British don’t have a proud history in gymnastics — barely any at all — and this was their first men’s team medal in a century.
But Japan questioned the score of three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura on pommel horse, the very last routine.
While judges huddled around a video screen, the British partied and Uchimura and his teammates sat stone-faced against a wall.
“I couldn’t say anything,” Uchimura said. “I couldn’t think anything at the very beginning. I was thinking, ‘It’s fourth, it’s fourth.'”
About five minutes later, though, it’s silver.
Uchimura’s score was revised, with judges giving him seven-tenths more credit for his dismount. Instead of 13.466, he scored 14.166 — enough to move Japan from fourth to second with a total of 271.952.
Britain was bumped down to bronze, while Ukraine dropped to fourth.
“To win a medal in your home games, I’ll take that any day,” Kristian Thomas said. “We never actually had the silver in our hands, so there’s no real disappointment.”
Tell that to the Japanese, who were bested by the Chinese yet again.
Just like everybody else.
“Even after it was changed, I was not too happy,” Uchimura said.
China now has gone eight years without losing at a major competition.
The Americans, hoping for their first Olympic title since 1984 after finishing No. 1 in qualifying, lost all hopes for a medal with a dismal showing on pommel horse, their second event. They rallied to finish fifth.
“It didn’t go as planned today,” U.S. champion John Orozco said. “I can’t help but feel personally responsible because I did five events — I did the most out of everyone — and I botched on two of them. It hurts.”
For the Chinese, it was pure joy.
When Zhang Chenglong finished on pommel horse, China’s last routine, he let out a roar. Chen bent over and covered his face with his hands, unable to stop the tears.
The Chinese have been like playground bullies most of the last decade, sauntering into every competition and scooping up as many gold medals as possible — the last five world titles and at the Sydney and Beijing Olympics, where they won all but one of the men’s medals. They probably would have claimed that, too, had they bothered to contend for vault.
This victory may have been even more special because of the team’s struggles during the last two years.
With most of the Beijing squad moving on and a rule change putting a premium on all-arounders, China has looked — dare we say it? — vulnerable. Chen even tried to dampen the expectations this spring, saying it would be “extremely hard” for the Chinese to defend their title. It didn’t get any easier when Teng Haibin, the 2004 gold medalist on pommel horse, dropped out with an injury Thursday and had to be replaced by Guo Weiyang.
An abysmal performance in qualifying only furthered the doubt when they finished sixth. Sixth!
Yet there they were Monday, walking off the floor he way they always do, index fingers in the air and gold medals around their necks.
“We don’t have any faults. That’s our secret to beat the Japanese and to beat everyone,” Zhang said. “In preliminaries, we had a little bit of faults. But tonight was completely perfect.”
China doesn’t have Japan’s stylish elegance, Britain’s youthful exuberance or even the Americans’ flair for the dramatic. What the Chinese do have, however, is sheer, brute strength, and they simply steamrolled the rest of the field. Chen set the tone in the very first event on still rings, where he is the defending Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion.
Simply watching the event makes most folks grab their arms and scream for mercy. He flips from one skill to another with silky smoothness — at one point lifting his head a bit higher as if to say, “Oh, you liked that one? How about this?” The cables stayed perfectly still when he did a somersault into a handstand, the veins bulging in his arms and neck the only signs of exertion.
The Chinese only got better from there, with half their 18 scores at 15.6s or higher. Compare that to Japan, which had five, or the British, who had four.
By the time China got to pommel horse, the last routine, all it had to do was plot a new victory celebration. Sure enough, when Zhang’s score posted, the team pulled out big gold stars, and held them in the shape of the symbol on the Chinese flag.
Japan was still waiting to go, but any last chance it had of catching the Chinese disappeared on floor exercise. Kazuhito Tanaka’s foot slid out from underneath him on the landing of a tumbling pass, and he skidded forward. He put his hand down and managed to stay upright, but they could not recover from his 13.733.
“Our rivals were not necessarily stronger than in previous years,” Zhang said, “so we kept a cool mind.”