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China’s men ace gymnastics; Japan second

by Ed Odeven

BEIJING — This story is a familiar one: China was devastated by the earthquake that hit Sichuan Province on May 12, instantly killing thousands and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

Yet this one is obvious and refreshing as the drama unfolds in the Chinese capital: Day after day, the 2008 Beijing Games is bringing much-needed joy and inspiration to the region’s survivors and lifting the nation’s spirit as a whole.

China’s team triumph in the men’s artistic gymnastics final was the biggest sports news on Tuesday afternoon, a symbolic victory for this very reason: Team gymnastics requires patience and hard work, dedication and a never-ending commitment to a larger cause, the essential things needed in Sichuan Province.

The hosts amassed 286.125 points and dethroned Athens Olympics champion Japan (278.75), which took silver, at National Indoor Stadium. The United States picked up the bronze with 275.850 points. The U.S. was without the brothers Paul and Morgan Hamm, who both withdrew from the Olympics with injuries.

“I am very proud to win the gold medal for my hometown. It will give them a lot of inspiration,” said Zou Kai, a first-time Olympian born in Sichuan Province who sported thin red wristbands along with his five teammates.

The wristbands, Zou said, are “a tradition of China. We got them from a temple, and we thought they would bring us luck.”

Luck may have played a part in the team’s stirring victory. An exceptional outing across the board fueled the win.

China, the 2007 world champion, scored top marks in five of the finals’ six events — horizontal bar (46.950), vault (49.325), parallel bars (49.025), rings (48.75) and pommel horse (46.025).

Yang Wei scored the day’s highest point total (79.600), boosted by his 16.0-plus point totals on the rings, vault and parallel bars.

“We are the champions,” Zou declared. “Competing as a team is totally different from competing as an individual. There is more meaning to competing as a team, and we had really good morale and were fired up.”

For China, it was the nation’s first team gold since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Three members of that team — Yang, Li Xiaopeng and Huang Xu — helped the host nation return to the top of the Olympic awards podium early Tuesday afternoon.

“We had been through a lot over the last eight years,” Li said. “I’m 27 and I think I’m a little old for a gymnast, (but) we put so much effort into this competition.”

“We held on for eight years,” added Huang. “We have gone from the highest to the lowest, and back to the highest again. Eight years ago I was very young, but now I can enjoy the process and be confident.”

Kohei Uchimura was Japan’s top scorer with 63.225 points, including a team-best 16.150 on the vault. Hiroyuki Tomita, the Athens silver medalist on the parallel bars, was Japan’s second-leading scorer (62.875) and Koki Sakamoto was third (60.775).

Japan posted second-best point totals on the pommel horse (45.575) and rings (46.900). A fifth-place result in the floor exercise (45.975) and an eight-place score in the vault (46.750) hurt Japan’s chances to win back-to-back gold medals.

Sakamoto remained a good sport after Japan’s disappointing runnerup finish. He didn’t hesitate to praise his Chinese counterparts.

“Their performances were excellent and they are competing at home, so they had high spirits,” said Sakamoto, one of four first-time Olympians on the Japan squad. “But it didn’t have much influence on us because from the beginning to the end we kept the faith and never gave up.”

“Our team united together and so we won the silver medal,” Tomita said. “I confidently played my role and we did a good job uniting together.”

For Japan coach Koji Gushiken, his team’s ending effort pleased him.

“When the vault was over I was wondering how things were going, but then my athletes performed very well on the parallel bars and horizontal bars,” said Gushiken. “I’m relieved that we won the silver medal.”

Japan won the team gold in five consecutive Olympics, from 1960 to 1976.

With silver medals in hand, Japan will now look ahead to the men’s all-around finals on Thursday and apparatus finals on Aug. 17-19.