Rio de Janeiro – Kohei Uchimura pulled off a stunning last-gasp victory to retain his men’s all-around Olympic gymnastics title at the Rio Games on Wednesday.
Uchimura trailed Oleg Verniaiev of Ukraine by 0.901 points heading into the final apparatus — the high bar — but the six-time world champion kept his nerve while Verniaiev stumbled to hand Uchimura the gold with a score of 92.365.
“I didn’t see any of Oleg’s performances and I wasn’t looking at the points difference, but then I heard the announcer and I started working it out in my head,” said Uchimura, who became the first man to win back-to-back all-around Olympic titles since compatriot Sawao Kato in 1972.
“I knew it would come down to the high bar. My performance was good, so if I had lost I wouldn’t have had any regrets. I thought I had lost, so this feels good.”
Verniaiev took silver at Rio Olympic Arena with a score of 92.266, while Max Whitlock of Britain picked up the bronze with 90.641. Ryohei Kato finished 11th with 88.590.
Uchimura looked to be on the ropes heading into the final rotation, having trailed for most of the competition, but the master craftsman had one last trick up his sleeve.
Uchimura’s high-bar score of 15.800 was the best mark of any competitor on the apparatus, while Verniaiev, who stumbled on his landing, could only manage a 12th-best 14.800 with the gold medal there for the taking.
“I hoped I had beaten him,” said the 22-year-old Verniaiev, who failed to make the all-around podium at last year’s world championships but finished ahead of Uchimura in qualifying for Wednesday’s final.
“It didn’t work out that way. I’m disappointed because the gold was so close. I’ve never trained so hard before and this is the result.”
Uchimura’s victory gave him his second gold medal of the Rio Games after helping Japan win the team title two days previously. Uchimura has now won three all-around Olympic medals after claiming gold in London four years ago and silver in Beijing in 2008.
“It’s really difficult to defend your Olympic title,” said the 27-year-old from Nagasaki Prefecture. “In London I knew that if I made a mistake I would still be able to win the gold. I had that mental belief. But there’s no way that was the case today. I wouldn’t be able to beat Oleg on such a big stage if I made any mistakes.”
Uchimura looked to be in control when he took the lead after the second rotation, but a series of strong performances by Verniaiev and Whitlock dropped him to third place at the halfway point of the competition.
A score of 15.600 on the parallel bars — only seventh-best on the apparatus — put Uchimura further into a pinch heading into the last rotation, but the final twist turned the tables to give Japan its sixth gold medal of the games.
“It was interesting for the fans to watch,” said Uchimura. “It really showed how difficult and interesting gymnastics can be. I think that was bigger than who won and who lost.”
Kato started strongly before dropping out of medal contention, leaving the 22-year-old unable to add to the team gold he earned with Uchimura, Yusuke Tanaka, Kenzo Shirai and Koji Yamamuro on Monday.
“Of course it’s frustrating, but even before the high bar I could see that the other gymnasts were performing at a higher level than me,” said Kato. “I knew that even if I had been able to raise my level, I still wouldn’t be able to make the podium.”
Whitlock took bronze ahead of Russia’s David Belyavskiy and Lin Chaopan of China, giving Britain its first all-around men’s gymnastics medal in 108 years.
“Uchimura is my idol and he has been for a long time,” said the 23-year-old Whitlock. “He’s an unbelievable gymnast. He’s the best gymnast of all time and he’s just proved that.”
Uchimura plans to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in four years’ time but has yet to decide which disciplines he will enter.
“I’ve been on top in gymnastics for a long time and I have helped raise the level,” said Uchimura. “But that just shows everyone that it can be done. Gymnasts who can do even more than me will come along.
“The progress of gymnastics hasn’t finished. I think I have contributed to the development of the sport.”