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Japan’s Uchimura can cement gymnastics legacy at Rio Olympics

Kohei Uchimura can certify himself as the greatest ever with a gold medal performance in Rio, though there's plenty of gymnasts aiming for all-around glory.

Assuming Japan’s Kohei Uchimura wins the men’s all-around competition as expected in Rio, the question of context will continue. No longer will it make sense to debate his achievements in contemporary terms, but rather to ask if Uchimura, a six-time world all-around champion is the greatest ever and who else is even in the discussion. Then people will inevitably ask him if he plans to continue for four more years when the Olympics will be held in his native Japan. By that time, he will have set the highest bar the sport has seen. The salient storyline in men’s gymnastics this year is the performance of its best gymnast.

First, Uchimura has to deliver on his promise. 

Since settling for silver in the all-around competition in Beijing in 2008, he’s won the top prize in the all-around every year (World gold in ‘09, ‘10, ‘11, ‘13, ‘14, ’15 and Olympic gold in ‘12). At the Worlds in Glasgow last year, he also helped lift Japan to its first men’s team title international completion since 1978. Since 1994, China had taken 10 of 11 world titles and three of four Olympic team golds. He won the title in Glasgow despite a shoulder injury that hampered his training leading up to the Games. For someone so accomplished in a sport that recognizes individual elements by name, Uchimura does not truly have a signature skill. He has now won individual world golds on the floor ex, parallel bars and high bar, and earned qualified for event finals on pommel horse and still rings. The vault is his weakest event.

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The son of gymnasts who opened their own training facility—his mother Shuko is still a competitive senior gymnast—Uchimura began showing mature skills at age three and didn’t look back. While his name in Japanese translates to “peaceful flight,” he is known throughout the sport by the moniker of “Superman.” He is humble and not terribly flashy, although his mop top haircut has become a bit of a fashion trend. Though he isn’t a spotlight chaser, he will be hard-pressed to avoid it in Rio and beyond.

USA outlook

Unlike the selection committee that chose the U.S. Olympic women’s team, the men’s committee, headed by national program director Kevin Mazeika, went almost exclusively by the numbers, allowing the combined results of the U.S. national championships in Hartford and the Olympic trials in St. Louis to guide their choices. As a result, the squad, which didn’t figure to contend for an all-around medal and perhaps not for a team medal in Rio, relegated its two event medalists from 2015, Donnell Whittenburg on vault and Danell Leyva on high bar, as alternates. Leyva has since been added as a competitor after an injury to John Orozco. Veteran gymnast Chris Brooks was chosen as team captain and was a popular choice to make the team at 29 after years of narrow misses for other World and Olympic teams. But even though he sailed through the two summer competitions without a major flaw on any routine, it was questionable whether Brooks was strong enough on specific events to boost the team score into medal territory. Did the U.S. make the right call in allowing the team to set itself for Rio?

Athletes to watch

Sam Mikulak, U.S.

At the national level, Mikulak’s run of titles has been quite impressive. The former Michigan Wolverine has won four straight all-around crowns in the current quadrennium and has captured individual titles on four of the six apparatuses. He placed fifth on the vault in London despite a run-up to the Games in which he suffered fractures to both ankles. He is healthy this time around. Unlike many gymnasts who actually train harder skills than they compete, Mikulak tends to take risks in big competitions. His execution scores are usually what keep him from the medal stands. Though he not a medal favorite on any one event, he is the best the U.S. has to offer, and for the squad to contend for a team medal, they will desperately need him to stay clean.

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Max Whitlock, Great Britain

In London, Whitlock was a member of the squad that won Britain’s first men’s team gymnastics medal since 1912. Performing last year in front of a home crowd at the World Championships in Glasgow, Whitlock finished a distant second to Uchimura in the all-around competition and also took gold on the pommel horse in the event finals, an event in which, ironically, he may be a slight underdog now to countryman Louis Smith, who has upgraded his set in the last 12 months. Look for the British team to be strong again in Rio, with Whitlock, Smith and 20-year-old high bar ace Nile Wilson also chasing individual golds and pushing up what should be a very competitive team score.

Arthur Zanetti, Brazil

Though often injured and inconsistent, Zanetti, the defending Olympic champion on the still rings, gives the host nation its best chance for gymnastics gold in Rio. He is one of the faces of the Games for the home team, appearing in a popular Adidas ad entitled ‘It’s Forever or Never.’ in which he performs an outdoor routine with the mountains and city of Rio in the background. At 5’1” he is very compact with more strength than swing to his routine. He’ll certainly be pushed by Eleftherios Petrounias from Greece and whichever two gymnasts qualify for the rings final from China, but look for him to wow the home folks in Rio.

Deng Shundi, China

It is hard to imagine a high-level gymnastics competition without a challenge from the Chinese. Deng is probably the gymnast with the best chance to unseat Uchimura should he falter. He had the highest cumulative difficulty scores in Glasgow, and though his lines don’t always match the level of his skills, he is an all-arounder who isn’t likely to give up too many points on any one apparatus. Pommels and high bar are what give Uchimura the edge, but look for Deng, Whitlock, Ukraine’s Oleg Vernayev and Cuba’s Manrique Larduet to be up there in the all-around pursuit.

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Medal dates:

Mon. Aug. 8: Team

Wed. Aug 10: All-Around

Sun. Aug. 14: Apparatus (floor exercise, pommel horse)

Mon. Aug. 15: Apparatus (still rings, vault)

Tue. Aug 16: Apparatus (parallel bars, horizontal bar)