SI.com's writers will preview each event from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Here, Brian Cazeneuve looks ahead to men's gymnastics.
Kohei Uchimura, Japan: The prohibitive favorite to win the all-around title in London missed out on getting the prize four years ago in Beijing. He finished a distant second to China's Yang Wei, who then retired from competition. Since then, Uchimura has become the first gymnast in history to win three world all-around titles.
SPORTS EXPLAINERS: GYMNASTICS
He captured the crown in Tokyo last year despite an injured left shoulder that hampered him on both the pommel horse and rings. The son of gymnasts who opened a gym in Nagasaki when he was three, Uchimura is really the definition of an all-arounder in that he has no one great event or weak event. He has won either a national title or world medal on each of the six apparatus and could conceivably win the all-around in London without taking an event medal.
Danell Leyva, U.S.: The 20-year-old world champion on parallel bars will also be a contender in the all-around competition. He finished first in the all-around at U.S. nationals in St. Louis this year, but finished second to John Orozco in the event at trials in San Jose, Calif., last month. If you can't find Leyva on the floor, just look for his enthusiastic coach, Yin Alvarez, who also happens to be Leyva's stepfather. Alvarez is among the most active coaches on the floor, always celebrating his son's routines as if each were a gold-medal performance. A former member of the Cuban national team, Alvarez came over to the States during a team tour in Mexico City. He then married his current wife, Maria Gonzalez, a fellow émigré who had made her way through Peru and Venezuela before landing in the U.S. to make a better life for Danell, who was then 18-months old. The pair later opened a gym in Miami, where Leyva now trains.
John Orozco, U.S.: The 19-year-old native of the Bronx in New York City edged Leyva for the all-around title at the U.S. trials, making him an all-around threat in London. Orozco got his start in the sport through a city program for disadvantaged youth. As a U.S. junior gymnast, he won at least one national title on each of the six apparatus. He moved up the ranks as a senior before his stunning performance at trials. As he moved to the parallel bars for his final event in San Jose, the gymnast known as Ninja became so nervous, he started gripping the bars tighter than usual and had trouble letting go of them on each release skill. At one point, he sustained a nasty cut on his left hand, but he completed the championship-clinching routine despite the significant laceration. "You know I was one routine away from being an Olympian and it was hard to let go of the bar," he said. "The day was finally here, you know."
With Japan and China likely taking the top two places in the team competition, the U.S. should be in a fight for the bronze medal with Russia. In addition to Leyva and Orozco, the starting U.S. five features team veteran Jonathan Horton, the team's best gymnast on still rings; Jake Dalton, a superb vaulter; and Sam Mikulak, the member of the U.S. men's squad who has made the greatest improvement over the past year. As with most teams, the U.S. squad has an Achilles heel event. The U.S. men are weak on pommel horse and must find a way not to lose too many points to their rivals on that event. It hasn't always been that way. When the U.S. won the Olympic team title in 1984, pommels was probably the team's best event. (Peter Vidmar also won individual gold on the apparatus and Tim Daggett took a bronze.) This team's best pommels worker, Alex Naddour, is one of the alternates, so it will likely be up to Leyva, Orozco and Mikulak to keep the team competitive in the event.
Don't forget about China and Russia. Gymnasts from those two countries have won five of the last six team competitions at the Games while loading up on individual medals. While neither team is as dominant as it has been in past years, look for some strong one-on-one battles. China's Chen Yibing is the favorite to win still rings, but Russia's Alexander Balandin is probably his toughest challenger. On horizontal bar, one of the most entertaining events, look for China's reigning champ Zou Kai to be pushed by several challengers, including Russia's Emin Garibov, who won gold at the European championships earlier this year.
When you think of gymnastics powerhouses, the British generally don't come to mind. But this year's team could be poised for a run at the podium before the home fans. Daniel Purvis will be one of the contenders in the all-around competition, trying to challenge Uchimura for gold. Purvis was on little sleep and suffering from food poisoning at the London test event when he vaulted into a judge's lap, but he still recovered to help the Brits win the team competition. Louis Smith, a stylish specialist on pommel horse, will be among the favorites in his signature event. Smith was diagnosed with ADHD as a child but found gymnastics as a way to channel his energy. He has three world medals on pommels and a bronze from the Beijing Games in 2008.
While many fans pay attention to the team and all-around competitions, gymnastics purists really see the best the sport has to offer during the often-overlooked individual apparatus finals that conclude the competition. Why? Since judges score both the team and all-around events on aggregate, gymnasts tend to be a little conservative during those two phases of the competition. A fall can effectively cost a gymnast a full point, including both a mandatory deduction and the hit against the execution score, and a risky skill, if done well, adds only a tenth or two to a difficulty score, making it less likely that a gymnast will toss his full arsenal into those routines. But once they reach the apparatus finals, gymnasts have nothing to lose in taking extra risks. In London, the apparatus finals will actually be stretched over three days, as opposed to the two- or even one-day events that we've seen in the past. If you're looking to see the sport's most daring and entertaining skills, don't turn off the sets until the end.
July 30: Team
Aug. 1: All-Around
Aug. 5: Floor Exercise, Pommel Horse
Aug. 6: Rings, Vault
Aug. 7: Parallel Bars, Horizontal Bar