NBC's 2012 star, the U.S. women's dominance, Uchimura's legacy
Turnover among elite female gymnasts is staggering -- the top U.S. all-around finisher at the Olympics or worlds has been different each of the last eight years -- but Wieber has staying power. She's young enough to still be on the rise, and her primary domestic competition is either coming off major injury or too young to compete in London. Wieber also has the personality that lends itself to NBC's prime-time audience, beginning with her adoration of a certain teen singer with a similar sounding last name. Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson and Alicia Sacramone are all bidding for Olympic returns, but Wieber will be the primary gymnastics attraction next summer.
Then consider who could be swapped into the lineup next year: Liukin, Johnson, Sacramone, 2005 world champion Chellsie Memmel, 2009 world champion Bridget Sloan and two-time world all-around medalist Rebecca Bross. In 2012, every country will be limited to five gymnasts (down from seven in the 1990s and six in the 2000s), making the competition for spots on the U.S. team every bit as tough as the Olympics themselves. The U.S.' biggest flaw going into the world championships was a lack of depth on uneven bars, which just happens to be a strength for Liukin, Memmel, Sloan and Bross. At this point, Russia looks like the only nation with any hope of keeping the U.S. women from their first Olympic team gold since Atlanta's Magnificent Seven.
Uchimura's routines aren't the most difficult, but nobody can match his precision. His closest pursuers don't compete with him -- they are in awe of him. The way he smiles after each breathlessly stuck routine, he, too, may be a little astonished. But to call him the perfect gymnast, or to anoint him as the greatest in history, is premature. By his stratospheric standards, Uchimura at times looked human in Tokyo. He fell on his most pressure-packed routine, high bar in the team finals, which almost allowed the U.S. to overtake Japan for silver. Uchimura then ran out of gas in event finals, spinning off the pommel horse and having a major form break on rings, missing the medals in both.
There's no doubt Uchimura is as close to perfection as it gets. But he hasn't won more than four medals at a single world championships, and he was a silver medalist in his first Olympics in 2008. Vitaly Scherbo won six gold medals in 1992, and Nemov won six medals each in 1996 and 2000. Uchimura must have the greatest meet of his career at the 2012 Olympics to enter the historical debate, and he probably will.
For years, the U.S. met its demise on pommel horse. But Leyva, Orozco and specialist Alex Naddour -- flown 5,000 miles for that one routine -- actually outscored Japan and came within one tenth of China on pommel horse in the team final. Who knows if those problems have finally been put to rest, but this was the kind of meet the U.S. needed heading into the Olympic year. When the Americans won a surprise bronze at the 2008 Olympics, Horton's refrain was that nobody believed they stood a chance. Now, everybody believes they will contend, including China and Japan.
It didn't work. The women were fourth and the men eighth. Marian Dragulescu, 30, an eight-time world champion twice retired, pulled out of the all-around finals and two individual event finals due to injury. Triple 2004 Olympic champion Catalina Ponor, in her first major competition in four years, could only muster seventh place on balance beam. The Romanian women were without 2008 Olympic gold medalist Sandra Izbasa (foot injury), so the cupboard is not totally empty.