RIO DE JANEIRO – Japan captured the men’s Olympic team all-around gymnastic gold medal it craved after pulling away from the competition in imperious fashion at the Rio Games on Monday.
The team of Kohei Uchimura, Ryohei Kato, Yusuke Tanaka, Kenzo Shirai and Koji Yamamuro started slowly at Rio Olympic Arena but gradually reeled in leader Russia before moving into first place by the finest of margins going into the final rotation.
A stunning floor performance by Olympic debutant Shirai then gave Japan breathing space ahead of nearest rivals Russia and China, and a final score of 274.094 confirmed Japan’s win and a first Olympic team gold since the 2004 Athens Games.
“Now that I’ve got this medal, it really feels like a real Olympic gold medal,” said team leader Uchimura, a record six-time all-around world champion who will attempt to defend his individual Olympic title on Wednesday.
“I’ve won individual gold medals before but this feels completely different. To win a gold medal with my friends is something that makes me so happy.”
Russia took the silver medal with a score of 271.453, while China, which won gold in both 2008 and 2012, took bronze with 271.122.
Shirai bagged the second-highest individual score of the final just when his team needed it most.
Japan headed into the final floor exercise with less than a point lead over both Russia and China, but the 19-year-old twisted and tumbled his way to a mark of 16.133 to put the gold medal beyond doubt.
“I felt a huge responsibility going into the floor exercise,” said Shirai, who will compete in the floor final on Sunday. “The coach had told me to practice the things that had gone wrong in qualifying, and I wasn’t thinking that I was going to fail. I knew if I performed as I usually did, I would be OK.”
Japan, which won the world team title last October in Glasgow, Scotland, after a 37-year drought, got off to a difficult start when Yamamuro fell off the pommel horse, the team’s first apparatus of the evening.
“At first I started thinking about why I had fallen off, but then I told myself to just go out there and do the things I am capable of and think only about that,” said Yamamuro.
Yamamuro’s mistake left Japan in sixth place after the first rotation, but strong performances on the rings and vault pushed the team up to second behind Russia before a ferocious showing by Tanaka on the parallel bars further closed the gap.
“I’ve been working hard for the past four years since the London Olympics, and I wanted to be able to keep my cool during this competition,” said Tanaka, whose performance on the parallel bars earned him a score of 15.9, the team’s second-highest mark behind Shirai’s floor performance.
“But it’s just not possible to keep your cool when you get here. So all I could do was just believe in my training and go out there and do it.”
Japan struggled to find its rhythm in Saturday’s qualifying round, with Uchimura slipping on the pommel horse and falling off the horizontal bar to set nerves jangling ahead of the final.
But a steady performance on the night brought the team the prize that had eluded it at the past two Olympics, and Shirai — the only member making his debut — was pleased to make it first time lucky.
“I’ve dreamed of competing at the Olympics since I was a little kid, especially when I watched the teams that lost in Beijing and London,” said the Nippon Sports Science University student. “So to be part of the team that has won the gold medal hasn’t really sunk in yet. I’m really happy and it’s a great experience.”
And now that Japan’s 12-year Olympic itch has been scratched, Uchimura is hoping for more success on home soil in four years’ time.
“You can’t top what happened in Athens, but we’ve made our own history here,” said the 27-year-old Nagasaki Prefecture native. “I think this is something that we can take into the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“This result will put pressure on the gymnasts who compete in the final in 2020, but there are many in Japan who can live up to that. I’d like them to watch what we’ve done and take as much from it as they can.”