LONDON -- Contrary to what others may tell you -- and tell you, and tell you -- Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura is not perfect.
First, he does not eat a balanced diet. "I don't like to eat green things, like peas," Uchimura says. "Or tomatoes. I don't really like vegetables, I suppose." Second, ... well, actually, that's it. That's the list. The roll call of Uchimura's imperfections stops at one, as far as anyone can tell, which is why he is widely considered the world's best male gymnast and has been tagged with the nickname Superman. After winning the silver in the all-around competition at the 2008 Olympics, he has won the last three consecutive world championships in the all-arounds, making him the first man to accomplish that feat. If, as expected, Uchimura takes home the Olympic gold in the men's all-around on Wednesday, two things will likely happen: More experts will advance the notion that he is the greatest male gymnast of all-time, and parents in Japan will have an even harder time getting kids to eat their veggies.
Uchimura, 23, is idolized in his home country, where he's a staple of television and magazine ads, and his image adorns one of Japan Airlines' 777s. He's particularly loved by children, owing partly to his affection for cartoons and comics. Once, when asked to name his idol, he didn't pick one of Japan's many legendary gymnasts, but chose instead Shun Fujimaki, the animated gymnast hero of the Japanese cartoon "
He has been so dominant that Philipp Boy, the German who has twice been runner-up to Uchimura at the worlds, has joked about the misfortune of being "born in the wrong age." Jonathan Horton of the U.S., who finished third behind Uchimura and Boy in 2010, makes no attempt to disguise his awe. "He's just the greatest gymnast that's ever lived, he really is," Horton said before the team competition. "It's his ability to do the difficulty that he is doing with such ease and acting like it's just no big deal. Unless he makes a major mistake and somebody, like maybe myself, has the meet of their life, I don't think he will be beat."
Coaches gush, too. "He's able to do incredibly difficult things in the air and just make them look easy," says Kevin Mazeika, the US men's head coach. Uchimura's style is seen as the perfect -- there's that word again -- marriage of technical ability and artistic fluidity. "He has no extra moves in the air, and he sticks his landings," says Yasunori Tachibana, the Japanese team manager, who compares Uchimura's ankles, knees and hips to a finely tuned car suspension that absorbs the shock of those landings.
Experts marvel at the 5-foot-3, 116-pound Uchimura's ability to perform high degree of difficulty routines without sacrificing any of his seemingly effortless grace. On the floor routine, one of his best events, he is known for not allowing his legs to part at all even on difficult twisting moves, a common weakness for many gymnasts. Overall, his ability to keep a tight, clean line, his legs pencil straight and glued together, toes extended, is considered one of the elements that sets him apart as both athlete and artist. "I think beautiful performances can make people, -- people who don't even know gymnastics very well -- be moved and say, 'Wow," he told International Gymnast magazine. "I think the performance that touches people's hearts is beautiful. So I want to show such a performance."
The compliments Uchimura receives from his peers are tame compared to some of the worship he draws from fans, one of whom recently tweeted that he "is not a gymnast. He is Grace incarnate. He is Precision personified. He is Beauty redefined. He is Perfection claimed." He is dismissive of such Hyperbole. "The greatest thing about gymnastics," he says, "is that there is no such thing as perfection. It is something to be constantly pursued."
He has been pursuing it since childhood. Uchimura was three when he began training at the Nagasaki gym owned by his parents, Kazuhisa and Shuko, both former gymnasts. At 15, he left home to train under five-time Olympic gold medalist Mitsuo Tsukahara before enrolling two years later at Nippon Sports Science University. "I have been training since before I can remember," he says. And he has always had the desire to train; it has never been forced. When he was young, his parents found him asleep under the high bar in the gym. He enjoyed being there so much that he didn't want to go anywhere else to take a nap.
Despite all the talk of perfection, Uchimura has had a decidedly less than perfect Olympics. He fell on both the pommel horse and high bar during preliminaries for the team competition, though that didn't really matter because the scores had no bearing on the finals two days later. But he also had an uncharacteristic miscue in the finals, when his awkward descent from the pommel horse was first judged to be a fall but then changed to a dismount. Without the reversal Japan would have finished fourth. Instead, they won the silver medal. But even the silver was a disappointment to Uchimura, who came to the Games declaring that winning the team gold was his primary goal. (See? The perfect teammate.)
Uchimura doesn't see the all-arounds as his chance to make up for the subpar team competition. He'll have to wait four years for that. But it is a chance for him to show the Olympic audience why everyone in the sport raves about him. In his pursuit of perfection, winning the all-around is the only step closer that Uchimura can take in these Olympics. Well, that, and maybe eating a salad.