LONDON -- The apparatus finals can be the great equalizer of gymnastics, a competition in which someone pulling the strings at gymnastics laughs at the oddsmakers and makes his own rules. Three of the 10 apparatus finals were contested on Sunday, and in a surprise, two of the stronger favorites, McKayla Maroney of the U.S. and Louis Smith of Great Britain, settled for silver medals. Ahead of them, Romania's Sandra Izbasa and Hungary's Krisztian Berki won shocking, but not astonishing golds, as formcharts in pommel horse and women's vault went for a tumble. "Not what I came here to do, walk out with silver," said Smith, "but competition is like that some days." At least China's Zou Kai dodged the surprises. Zou defended his Olympic title on the floor exercise, ahead of Japan's Kohei Uchimura, the all-around gold medalist in London.
Maroney, in particular, entered the competition as an enormous favorite. She hadn't missed a vault throughout nationals, trials or Olympics. She led all qualifiers after the first day, then boosted the team score with a tremendous effort two days later. Though she is an all-around gymnast, the 16-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., was picked by head coach Martha Karolyi to do just vault in London. Since gymnasts are only required to perform one vault at the Olympics that counts toward the team and/or all-around score, and only those who chose to try a second vault were eligible to win an individual medal on the apparatus, Maroney didn't seem to have much competition. She skied her first attempt, an Amanar vault, way down the landing pit area, but despite a clean landing, she received a deduction for going out of bounds. She still received a mark of 15.866, the highest score of any vault all day by nearly half a point.
But then Maroney sat down on her second vault, an almost unthinkable occurrence, and received just 14.300. Despite the misstep, she still led the competition with just one vaulter remaining.
When that vaulter, Izbasa, landed her second vault, a Yurchenko (round-off, double full), she stole gold from Maroney, even with a big hop on the landing.
"I didn't get my full block," Maroney said, fighting back tears after the competition. "My hands didn't really touch the vault ... I know I can do better vaults, but I also know I didn't deserve the gold medal because I fell on my second vault. It happens. It's gymnastics. You can't always be perfect. Sometimes things don't go as planned."
Although it wasn't much more than a footnote, Germany's Oksana Chusovitina finished fifth in the competition. At age 37, Chusovitina was twice as old as all but one other finalist in the event. She finished .267 out of a medal.
Smith's outcome was different. The man known for stylish pommel horse was as good as usual, but was simply beaten by Berki's stellar performance, one that featured the best single-leg work of any routine (he later described it as "a perfect routine"). Both received 16.066, but Smith lost out because of a tiebreaking procedure, much like the one that cost Aly Raisman a bronze medal in the women's all-around competition. Since the highest execution score wins, Berki won the tiebreaker. Smith's breakdown: 7.0 for difficulty, 9.066 for execution; Berki's breakdown: 6.9 for difficulty; 9.166 for execution.
"It was difficult to stand there waiting for the score," Smith said. "I thought I had done the best routine of my life ... I always said if Krisztian and I went out there with our best routines, it would be a real clash of the titans."
The gold for Zou, just 24, was already his fifth in Olympic competition, accompanying three in Beijing and another in the team event in London. He became the second man to defend an Olympic vault title since Nikolai Andrianov, the former Soviet, who won gold medals in 1972 and '76. Zou's scored topped the 15.800 for Uchimura, who twists better than anyone else in the world. The all-around gold medalist seemed to have room to spare when he performed a triple full, though his short landings cost him gold on a very unpredictable Sunday.