Diving’s showcase event looks to have quite a storyline going into the Rio Olympics.
The men’s platform is traditionally the final diving competition at the Games and will be again in Brazil next year, on the day before the Closing Ceremony.
It’s earned that place as the sport’s climax. China of course dominates diving, but non-Chinese won the last two Olympic men’s platform gold medals by thin margins (fewer than five points in Beijing and London after more than 500 points of scores over six dives).
And then there’s this — the favorite for gold at the Rio Olympics may be the man who finished 10th at the recently completed World Championships.
That’s China’s Yang Jian, who has been called the world’s best platform diver by the reigning Olympic champion — American David Boudia.
Yang, 21, was hampered by a knee injury at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, where he averaged 7.0 scores on his six dives in the final. Yang finished a whopping 135.80 points behind the winner.
Boudia, who took silver at the World Championships behind Chinese Olympic silver medalist Qiu Bo, has seen Yang at his best. Yang recorded the highest score ever — 123 points on a forward 4 1/2 somersault (straight 10s) — at a meet in London last year.
“That’s one of those dives where you kind of just throw your hands up, shake your head and clap,” said Boudia, who finished fourth at that competition. “It was phenomenal. Divers recognize good dives.”
Yang repeated the score at a meet in March and considered both 123-pointers to be perfect dives.
“It’s a high level of difficulty,” Yang said through a translator, “but for me it’s easy.”
He appeared the favorite to keep countryman Qiu from winning a third straight World title in Kazan. It was not to be.
So Yang now must prove himself entering the Olympic year, not only to make the Chinese Olympic team (two divers per event maximum) but also to show that the 10th-place finish at Worlds (the worst by China across all events) was an aberration.
Yang started diving in September 2003 in the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province and was inspired to take it up as a career after reading the autobiography of Gao Min, the 1988 and 1992 Olympic women’s springboard champion.
Yang considers Gao “a genius diver” and the greatest of all time. As for the best men’s platform diver right now?
“It’s hard to say who is the best because the level is similar,” Yang said before he finished 10th in Kazan.
It may be even harder to say now.
NBC Olympic researcher Amanda Doyle contributed to this report from Kazan.