Injuries hurt U.S. chancesThe reigning Olympic champion is gone and so is the only other guy who’s competed under the glare of the Olympic spotlight. Yet the Hamm-strung Americans insist nothing’s changed. When the team medals are handed out next week, they think they can be right there with the Chinese.
BEIJING (AP) — The reigning Olympic champion is gone and so is the only other guy who’s competed under the glare of the Olympic spotlight. Yet the Hamm-strung Americans insist nothing’s changed. When the team medals are handed out next week, they think they can be right there with the Chinese.
Good thing they’re confident. They might be the only ones.
Certain contenders in men’s gymnastics only a few weeks ago, the Americans now find themselves with a far tougher road to the medals podium — maybe even to the team finals. Morgan Hamm, the only American with Olympic experience, withdrew Thursday because of a chronic ankle injury that prevented him from doing floor exercise.
Hamm’s twin brother, Paul, pulled out July 28, two days before the U.S. team left for China. Not only was he still feeling pain in the hand he broke in May, but he had a shoulder injury.
“These guys are good enough to go out there and get a medal and compete with anyone else in the world,” Morgan Hamm said. “They’re going to show the heart of America here in Beijing.”
The United States was fourth at last year’s world championships, three missed routines from a medal. With Sasha Artemev replacing Morgan Hamm, half of last year’s world team will be on the floor when the men’s competition at the Beijing Olympics begins Saturday.
Jonathan Horton was fourth at last year’s worlds, and Russia’s Maxim Deviatovski was quick to name the American when asked about the competition in the men’s all-around earlier this week. Kevin Tan is one of the best around on still rings, fourth at last year’s world championships, and Artemev was the bronze medalist on pommel horse in 2006. Raj Bhavsar has silver medals from the 2001 and 2003 worlds, and Justin Spring does tricks on high bar that will impress even the X-Games set. Joseph Hagerty lacks experience at major international competitions, but he’s as consistent as a metronome.
“Morgan Hamm is an irreplaceable athlete, an incredible gymnast,” Horton said. “The expectations stay the same. The vision doesn’t change at all. We still feel we’re medal contenders.”
They’re going to have to show a lot more than they did during Wednesday’s podium training. Podium training is the one chance gymnasts have to work in the competition arena before the event begins, with the judges critiquing every routine. Think of it as a dress rehearsal, only the stakes are much, much higher. Make a good impression and the judges can’t help but remember you. Struggle or look sloppy and, well, the judges will probably remember that, too.
The Americans took several splats and spills on floor exercise. Pommel horse was simply ugly. There were wobbles and bobbles on other events, too, certainly nowhere close to the polish of the Chinese. That’s not the fairest comparison, of course, considering the Chinese are bigger favorites here than the U.S. basketball team.
But the Russians and Germans looked good, and Japan can never be overlooked. There’s Romania and South Korea out there, too.
The Americans also have to compete in the very first rotation Saturday, and scores tend to rise as the day goes on.
“They’re ready to go out there and fight,” said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. “We’ve had a very strong group of guys who have worked really hard the last three years. They want nothing more than to be on the podium. They saw the generation of athletes before them, and it’s a pretty strong burning fire inside this group of guys that they don’t let what’s come before them go down.
“You’re going to see a lot of determination when they hit the floor.”
When the Chinese hit the floor, you’re going to see a lot of really good gymnastics.
The Chinese are the sport’s version of royalty. And not some low-rent duke or baron. They roll into the Beijing Olympics with more gold and silver than some countries’ national treasuries, winners of seven of the last eight world titles, including the last three. Of the six men on their squad, all but two have won world titles on individual events.
And yes, that is titles with an s. Yang Wei is the two-time defending world champion in the all-around, and also won gold on parallel bars in 2006. Xiao Qin has won the last three pommel horse titles, while Chen Yibing is two-for-two on still rings. Don’t forget Li Xiaopeng, who not only won two world titles on parallel bars (2002 and 2003), he has an Olympic gold medal in the event, too.
As for the “slackers,” Zou Kai and Huang Xu were part of last year’s world team that crushed 2004 Olympic champion Japan by almost five points.
“If they don’t miss, I would say they’re unbeatable,” said Wolfgang Hambuechen, the father and coach of German star Fabian Hambuechen. “But they must manage their stress.”
Handling the pressure has been the one thing China hasn’t done well in the past. It went to the Athens Games four years ago as heavy favorites and imploded, finishing fifth in the team competition and leaving with a mere two medals, only one of which was gold.
But the Chinese learned a thing or two from that debacle. Instead of the suffocating self-induced pressure that was as much a part of the Chinese teams as their red and yellow uniforms, the attitude seems more constructive now.
“They started to treat the team in a very positive manner. Like the U.S. style,” Wolfgang Hambuechen said. “Maybe it can work better than four years ago.”
The Chinese sure have looked like a different bunch the last few years. While the other teams marched into the training sessions Wednesday, the Chinese strutted, drawing loud cheers and applause from the 200 volunteers who arrived early to stake out the best seats. The gymnasts were all business, knocking one routine after another off as if they were in their own gyms.
High bar — long a trouble spot — wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty, but they didn’t appear overly concerned. They laughed and smiled on the sidelines between their routines, clearly enjoying their moment.
And why shouldn’t they? One look at the other guys on the floor and it’s clear the Chinese are in a class by themselves.
“If China’s team has a good competition, I think the gold medal” is theirs, Deviatovski said. “For Russia, the silver or bronze is very good.”
For the United States, a medal — any medal — would be as good as gold.