Gymnastic champions are made very slowly, and the old order yields very slowly to the new. Upsets are a rarity. Gymnastic experts in Russia, Japan and the U.S. concur on the probable outcome of the Olympic tests almost as if they shared a common crystal ball. At Helsinki the Russians won 20 of the 26 gold medals in individual and team events for men and women. At Melbourne, Russia will probably rule again, but one corner of the gymnastic world is in sharp revolt. Japan, fifth in the team competition in 1952, now stands some chance of upsetting the Russians.
The rest of the world, notably the Finns, Bulgarians, Germans, Czechs and Americans, will be scrambling for bronze medals and just hoping for a bit of silver or gold. Switzerland, whose gold medal chances collapsed when Hans Eugster, 1952 parallel bars winner, was lost through illness, is now out altogether.
Japan's high hopes ride on the knotty shoulders of a teacher, Masao Takemoto, and a college senior, Takashi Ono, who took second and third over the long horse in 1952. Handicapped somewhat in ring work by their short height of 5-feet-3, the Japanese men have both improved steadily on the long horse, side horse, parallels and horizontal bar and in free exercises. "Takemoto and Ono," the Russians report, "are now equal to the best of the Soviets."
It's a paradox, the Russians admit with equal candor, that their own team has improved but will probably win less because rivals such as Japan are catching up. In the middle of this paradox is the tall and familiar, iron-hard figure of Victor Tchoukarine, a metallurgist from Lvov. At the 1952 Games, Tchoukarine won the long horse, side horse and all-round individual titles and shared in Russia's team victory, winning four firsts and two seconds—a record never equalled by any Olympian in any sport. Now Tchoukarine is better still, but even if he loses nothing to the Japanese, he may well lose most of his honors to a vastly improved teammate, Valentine Muratov (whose comely wife Sophie is a likely winner among the women). "The Russians are not the most elegant," U.S. Coach Gene Wettstone says. "The Japanese are now slicker, but the Russians still have the strongest and best. They will be strong, and sure at every moment, in every movement. On the horse Tchoukarine and Muratov have such confidence they can move almost slow motion. On the rings they can spread their arms coming down into the cross and hang there forever."