October 14, 2010

If you want a jump-start on research for the 2012 Olympic Games, the world gymnastics championships in Rotterdam are must-see TV. There are no world championships for swimming and diving or track and field this year, and the recent Commonwealth Games featured minor-league talent for the most part. Even the FIBA world championships were void of several superstars.

Rotterdam is the first step toward the London Games. The top 24 countries will advance to the 2011 world championships in Tokyo, where the top eight finishers are guaranteed Olympic spots.

Qualifying at the worlds begins this weekend, with the team finals coming on Wednesday (women) and Thursday (men). The all-around finals take place next Friday, and the meet ends on Oct. 23-24 with additional finals. Below, SI.com previews the meet:

National team coordinator Márta Károlyi is bringing the most experienced U.S. women's team in recent history to the world championships. The squad includes two gymnasts with Olympic experience (Alicia Sacramone and Bridget Sloan) for the first time since 1995, when Shannon Miller and Kerri Strug were on the team.

Sacramone, most remembered for her balance beam blunder at the Beijing Olympics, is the group veteran. In addition to her team silver from Beijing, she owns seven world championship medals dating back to 2005. She left the sport after the 2008 Olympics, but felt the itch to compete again last year. Despite a year off, the rust is already gone. At the U.S. championships in August, Sacramone won vault and finished second on balance beam. She's a medal contender in both events at worlds.

Sloan was unable to defend her national all-around title two months ago due to a pectoral injury. That seems to have passed, though, and Károlyi tabbed the defending world all-around champion to be one of the two U.S. all-around entries.

Sloan's biggest threat in the all-around was thought to be 2010 U.S. champion Rebecca Bross, but Bross is battling shin inflammation that may limit her to a couple events. A year ago, Bross looked to have the world all-around title locked up until she fell on floor exercise -- her final event -- allowing Sloan to surge ahead by .05.

The remainder of the U.S. team is made up of worlds rookies. Mattie Larson, 18, who finished second behind Bross at nationals and is a logical choice to step into the all-around mix if Bross isn't 100 percent. Alexandra Raisman trains with Sacramone and excels on beam. Mackenzie Caquatto will get valuable experience before beginning her collegiate career at Florida in January. Chelsea Davis, fifth in the all-around at the U.S. championships, is strong on uneven bars.

Though they are all strong, one of the seven U.S. women will have to be relegated to an alternate by Károlyi before the team finals.

Reigning Olympic champion China brings back four gymnasts from 2008, including Yang Yilin, who's been battling injuries since winning all-around bronze in Beijing. The two at the center of the Olympic age controversy, Deng Linlin and bars dynamo He Kexin, are also competing.

Russia gets a chance to make up for a fourth-place team finish in Beijing, the first time it failed to medal since the breakup of the Soviet Union. They're led by three names sure to give announcers fits: Ksenia Afanasyeva, Aliya Mustafina and Ksenia Semenova.

Romania ruled the sport a decade ago, but faded after the 2004 Athens Olympics. The oft-criticized constructor of those great teams, Octavian Belu, returns after a five-year break to right the ship. His squad will include Ana Porgras, 16, who could be the country's next star.

Great Britain's team can't match the world powers, but they do have Beth Tweddle, who owns four career world championship medals, including floor gold from 2009. She will garner more and more attention over the next 650 days with the Games on her home turf.

After years of playing a subsidiary role to the U.S. women, the American men can't be ignored anymore. They medaled at two of the last four world championships and the last two Olympics. Their team boasts an Olympic all-around champion, Paul Hamm (not competing at worlds however), and another all-around medal threat in Jonathan Horton. Anything less than a podium in the team event will be a disappointment for this squad.

Hamm's second comeback attempt has been the biggest news since the U.S. won bronze in Beijing. The 2004 Olympic champ made a run at the 2008 Games, only to be stymied by injury and fade back into retirement. He re-resumed full training earlier this year and said he hopes to be on the national team again in 2011.

Given the 28-year-old Hamm's return, and that Olympic rosters will be trimmed from six to five in 2012, the U.S. men's team will be in flux moving forward. For now, Horton and Cuban-born Danell Leyva make up the top tier.

Horton, 24, was the leader of the Hamm-less 2008 Olympic team, winning silver on high bar. He has been plagued by off nights at big meets however. For all his accomplishments, he's never won a worlds medal. At the Olympics, he was world class in the team final though, and it would not be surprising if he leaves Rotterdam as the best gymnast on the planet.

Leyva could also prove to have a breakthrough meet. He debuted at the 2009 world championships as a 17-year-old and took fourth on high bar. Leyva then gave Horton a serious run at nationals in August, cementing himself as second best in the U.S.

NCAA All-Americas round out the roster: Chris Brooks (Oklahoma), Chris Cameron (Michigan), Steven Legendre (Oklahoma) and Brandon Wynn (Ohio State). In three-up, three-count team gymnastics, specialists have become extremely valuable. While they don't provide the all-around punch of Horton or Leyva, Brooks (high bar), Cameron (pommel horse), Legendre (vault, floor) and Wynn (rings) can excel on their best apparatus. They'll need to if the U.S. is to win a team medal.

The discussion of the best in the world in men's gymnastics starts and ends with China. Whether it's the team final, the all-around final or event finals, the Chinese own the podium. This year should be no different. The Chinese are so deep, their national all-around champion, Guo Weiyang, is an alternate, and three individual gold medalists from 2009 were replaced. In their place, China brings Teng Haibin, who hasn't competed in a major international meet since winning pommel horse gold at the 2004 Olympics.

Rival Japan counters with reigning all-around world champ Kohei Uchimura and fourth-place finisher Kazuhito Tanaka. Yet, the China-Japan rivalry has been pretty one-sided recently. Since winning team gold at the 2004 Olympics, Japan has finished third, second and second to China at worlds and the Olympics.

Germany is without national champ Marcel Nguyen (broken leg) and can't count on star Fabian Hambüechen (Achilles) for a full slate of events, either.

So the battle for team bronze could come down to the U.S., Russia and Romania. The Russians will count on Olympic and world bronze medalist Anton Golotsutskov and 2010 American Cup champ Maxim Devyatovsky. Romania's leaders are eight-time world championship gold medalist Marian Dragulescu and national champion Flavius Koczi, an all-around threat.

Finally, it's worth noting Jordan Jovtchev is still competing. The 37-year-old Bulgarian owns 13 career world championship medals, eight on still rings, and conceivably made his Olympic debut (1992) before the entire Chinese women's team was born.

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