Kohei Uchimura, the five-time reigning World all-around champion, has been asked who is the greatest gymnast in history.
In 2011 and 2013 at least, he answered with Vitaly Scherbo. The Belarusian Scherbo is the only gymnast to win six gold medals at a single Olympics, doing so with the Unified Team at Barcelona 1992.
Scherbo owns 10 career Olympic medals and 23 World Championships medals. Uchimura is well behind with five Olympic medals and 16 Worlds medals.
Scherbo, who moved to Las Vegas in 1997 and opened a gym there in 1998, said in a phone interview Monday that he’s never met Uchimura. But he has watched the growing Japanese legend on TV.
“What I’ve seen on videos for him, first of all with the difficulty of gymnastics right now, and the difficult skills and being a specialist on one or two events a normal practice in the world, but to be the all-around leader for the past three, four years, winning all the competitions, especially the big ones, and winning by the large number, it already shows and says enough,” said Scherbo, who is now 43 years old with two daughters (Kristina, 22, and Victoria, 5). “So there is not only my opinion, I would say the opinion of the whole world that the all-arounder who wins everything the last four years, including World Championships and Olympics, you have to be considered one of the greatest gymnasts.
“To become one of greatest gymnasts of all time, you have to have a little bit more achievements and medals. As of right now, I don’t see anybody close to him, especially with the large margin of victory in competition (more detail on that here), and how flawlessly he’s doing them. With his difficulty right now, his all-around goes so flawless and without faults. It is very, very hard to do. That’s already very impressive. The difficulty of his routines is top-notch. I would tell you that, yes, he is one of the best for sure. I don’t think it will be anyone who’s going to become closer to him.”
Uchimura, 26, could very well catch Scherbo in medal totals. He has said he plans to compete through the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. At Rio 2016, Uchimura will likely try to become the first man to repeat as Olympic all-around champion since 1972. Scherbo failed in his bid in 1996, taking bronze.
Scherbo said Uchimura is competing in a tougher era now than in 1992 to scoop a handful of medals at one global meet.
There are now more elite gymnasts who specialize in one or two events from more nations than Scherbo had to deal with in his prime.
“It’s almost impossible,” to win six gold medals at an Olympics now, Scherbo said. “For [Uchimura], winning the all-around and probably get some medal with the team competition and placing in a couple events silver or bronze, maybe one gold, that’s maximum you can get.”
In 2011, Uchimura said, “My goal, indeed, is to perform in a way more beautiful than Scherbo’s routines,” according to Agence France-Presse.
In 2013, Uchimura said of Scherbo to the BBC, “To win six gold medals at a single Games is something that just isn’t normally possible, regardless of how the rules may have changed in the meantime. To complete each individual event so perfectly could not have been possible without a huge amount of training and really strong mental, psychological control.”
Scherbo said Monday that he’s read Uchimura’s comments.
“Thank you very much, what else I can say?” Scherbo said. “It’s really nice of him not to show the cockiness like usual stars are doing. That was pretty nice of him. I appreciate his thought. Of course, every time they have their own heroes. Gymnasts have their own heroes. This last decade, that’s him.”
Scherbo said he has not been to an Olympics since he last competed at Atlanta 1996. He said he didn’t have the time to leave his gym, the young athletes he coached and his family in Las Vegas for two or three weeks in the summer.
But Scherbo hopes to return to the Olympics for the first time in 20 years in 2016, as a coach. One of his pupils is former U.S. gymnast Fabian DeLuna, who placed second at the Mexican National Championships earlier this month. Scherbo said DeLuna is to compete at the World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, in October for Mexico.
Scherbo misses the atmosphere of big-time gymnastics.
“My old friends,” Scherbo said. “The air inside the arena and the fights, in a good way, between the competitors up there. The scoring and sweating and shaking up. Of course, I miss that. I haven’t been there for a long, long time.”
A recent history of U.S. Olympic gymnastics comebacks