The British men sure know how to kick off a party.
The host country, which was only good enough to send two gymnasts to Beijing four years ago, upset Olympic champion China and took the early lead in qualifying Saturday at the London Olympics. A spectacular pommel horse by Louis Smith capped the day for the British, who finished almost 2.5 points ahead of China with at a total of 272.420.
“It’s just a dream competition really,” said Smith, the British captain.
Added Kristian Thomas, “We knew what we were capable of and what we did was well within our capability. The important thing is repeating this performance and not getting too overwhelmed by it, too excited.”
China scored 269.985, followed by France (265.759) and South Korea (255.327). Japan, the silver medallist in Beijing, and the United States go later Saturday, as do Germany and Russia.
Team finals are Monday, and everyone gets a do-over. Still, this was a stunning result for the Chinese, who have won the last five world titles and were so dominant four years ago in Beijing that they left with all but one of the men’s gold medals. When the standings flashed before the final rotation, showing Britain ahead of China, Feng Zhe looked into the camera and gave a little shrug, as if to say, “Oh well.”
“We’re not really disappointed because it’s been four years and the competitors are improving, there’s less discrepancy in their level,” Chen Yibing, one of carryovers from the Beijing squad, said through a translator. “We are still confident in the final.”
The British, meanwhile, could hardly contain their happiness and, for Smith, a few tears.
Britain doesn’t exactly have an impressive tradition in gymnastics. Smith’s bronze on pommel horse four years ago was the country’s first Olympic medal in 80 years, and this is the first time Britain qualified full men’s and women’s teams to the Olympics since the boycotted 1984 Games.
But Smith and three-time world champion Beth Tweddle have sparked resurgence in the sport, and the British are now a team to be reckoned with. The Brits, European champions, may not have Japan’s style or the Americans’ flash, but they are steady and solid, with dashes of brilliance thrown in like Smith’s pommel horse routine.
Most gymnasts simply pray to stay on the horse, looking as if they’re trying to wrestle it to the ground as they work their way around the apparatus. But Smith is so smooth he’s almost hypnotic, swinging slowly and in perfect circles. He had the consistency of a metronome as he worked on one pommel, his legs glued together, his rhythm never flagging. He picked up speed as he moved around the horse, giving the impression of a plane readying for take off.
“I could keep crying now,” Smith said. “I have to really try and bring myself down and think about what we’ve done ... and focus on the team result. It’s just unbelievable. It really is.”
So is seeing China behind the British.
The Chinese have run roughshod over the gymnastics world for much of the last decade. They were so much better than the competition, and everyone knew it.
But Chen and Zou Kai are the only holdovers from the Beijing gold rush, and China is no longer in a class by itself.
China’s air of invincibility took its first hit at last year’s world championships, where the Chinese finished behind Japan and the United States in qualifying. Yes, it was only qualifying, and they still left the event as they always do with index fingers held high in the air and gold medals around their neck. But it was the first time since Athens that they failed to finish first in every phase of a major competition.
A reduction in team size, from six gymnasts in Beijing to five in London, hurt the Chinese even more. After building their team around one- or two-event specialists for so many years, they’ve been left with gaping holes in their line-ups.
What hurt the Chinese most Saturday was simple sloppiness shocking for a team once known for its impeccable execution. Chen’s parallel bars routine wouldn’t cut it for a high school gymnast. Zou Kai, the reigning gold medallist on high bar, probably won’t even make the final after a routine that was practically indifferent. Guo Weiyang, pressed into service Wednesday after 2004 pommel horse gold medallist Teng Haibin dropped out with an arm injury, fell on his face on his dismount on floor exercise.
The Chinese had to count not one but two scores below 14 on pommel horse after falls by both Guo and Zhang Chenglong.
“We think we should beat Britain,” Chen said. “But because of the substitute and things (that) happened, we did not perform as well as we should be.”