By Pritha Sarkar
Dethroning champions China has been the number one target for Japan at the Rio Olympics but after a day of falls and botched landings in men’s qualifying on Saturday, Kohei Uchimura and his team mates were left with sore bodies and bruised egos.
Uchimura suffered the most spectacular of falls from the horizontal bar — an apparatus on which he is the reigning world champion — as he lost his grip following a release and catch manoeuvre and produced a deafening thud as he landed on his back.
Despite glaring errors on every apparatus barring the floor exercise, Japan’s collective score of 269.294 was enough to see them top the first sub division in qualifying ahead of jubilant hosts Brazil — who were fielding a full team in the men’s Olympic competition for the first time.
However, Uchimura lost his chance to be in the running for the horizontal bar gold as his score of 14.300 left him well outside the top eight scores needed to reach the apparatus final.
That mishap did not stop the Japanese heartthrob from leading the standings for the all around final, where he will be bidding to become the first gymnast since compatriot Sawao Kato in 1972 to win successive Olympic titles in the event that tests skills across six apparatus.
Japan can forget about Saturday’s horror show since none of the scores will be carried through to Monday’s team final but what they do know is that if they want to end China’s eight-year reign as Olympic champions, they simply cannot afford another similar performance.
“What happened today can only make me stronger,” Uchimura told reporters.
“I need to repress my feelings so I can perform better at the next competition.”
While in qualifying, four competitors from each country compete on each apparatus, with only the top three scores counting towards the total, in the final each nation will put forward three athletes and all three scores will count.
Since 1994, Chinese men have won 10 of 12 world championship team titles and three of the five Olympic golds on offer.
But the team that were toppled from their lofty perch by Japan at last year’s world championships will be eager to prove that they have recovered from the bronze medal finish in Glasgow when they compete in the day’s third and final subdivision.
Glasgow silver medalists Britain will be up next in the second group.