GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — Japan sprinted to the front. China jogged into second.
Another showdown awaits. Just like always.
The Japanese men easily topped qualifying at the World Gymnastics Championships on Sunday, posting a score of 358.884 to finish well clear of their rivals as the two superpowers spent six rotations shadowing each other around the chilly SSE Hydro in what amounted to a dual meet.
An occasionally sloppy one at that.
Not even Japanese star Kohei Uchimura was immune to a rare slip. The reigning Olympic and five-time World champion tweaked his neck and shorted a tumbling run during his floor exercise. He smacked his thigh in frustration when he finished and rubbed his immaculately styled hair before making his way back to his teammates.
The greatest male gymnast of his generation recovered in time a steady set on pommel horse on his way to an all-around total of 90.564. Yet the graceful and understated 26-year-old didn’t stick around another Olympic cycle to chase individual glory. Beating China in a major international team competition is the thing that keeps him going, the lone hole in Uchimura’s peerless resume.
“I think we need strong guts to win the competition,” he said.
While Japan led all the way during its session, it won’t matter when the scores are reset for Wednesday’s final, giving the Chinese plenty of time to play Lucy to Japan’s Charlie Brown.
It happened in the 2014 final, when China trailed going into the final rotation only to nip the Japanese by a tenth of a point after Zhang Chenlong‘s dramatic performance on the high bar.
Maybe that’s why Zhang, the only holdover from his country’s gold medal-winning team at the 2012 Olympics, wasn’t exactly sweating a sluggish start inside a brisk arena that had Uchimura seeking the comfort of his white parka when given the chance.
“I don’t think (the mistakes) have any bearing on the finals,” Zhang said. “They are not any issue to worry about. They are exceptions, not problems.”
Particularly in a sport where China typically rules. The Chinese have won every major international competition over the last decade. Whether its qualifiers are good or bad, in the final China is the closest thing to a sure thing.
The Chinese’s afternoon began with a series of pommel horse routines that made it look more like they were riding a mechanical bull as they struggled to hold on. They settled down and recovered with a world-class parallel bars set, Zhang punctuating his 15.433 with a fist pump and You Hao following with a 15.7, the best score of the day.
Britain and Russia rounded out the top four. The U.S., the Netherlands and Romania scheduled to compete Monday, with the teams with the best eight scores earning an automatic spot in the 2016 Olympics.
The Games were hardly a given in Britain, which went a century between Olympic team medals until a stunning bronze in London three years ago. Now anything short of a trip to Rio de Janeiro next August and a run at the podium would have been a disappointment.
The Brits are almost certainly through even they — like just about everyone else — were iffy at times, particularly during a messy 20 minutes on high bar that forced them to get serious very quickly.
“You’re always nervous on your first piece, a different atmosphere and everything like that,” said Max Whitlock, the defending all-around silver medalist who narrowly made it this year’s all-around final after edging teammate Nile Wilson on a tiebreaker.
Britain came in a narrow fourth behind China, Japan and the U.S. at last year’s world competition, and that was without three-time Olympic medalist Louis Smith, who is back after a sabbatical to extend his run as one of the most elegant pommel horse specialists around.
“We wanted to just do our jobs today and let the judges take care of us,” Smith said. “We pretty much did that. We didn’t make many mistakes. We didn’t carry too many mistakes over.”
The only real drama during Britain’s session came in the race to see who would join teammate Daniel Purvis in the all-around final on Friday. The rules limit two final participants per country, forcing Whitlock and Wilson into a game of knockout.
Wilson seemed to deliver the final blow with an aggressively controlled parallel bar routine. The 19-year-old pounding his fist over his heart after sticking his landing while looking for his father in the stands. His 15.500 was spectacular but only good enough to move him into a tie with Whitlock, who received the second spot in the final through a tiebreaker that dropped the lowest score of each competitor.
Wilson shrugged off his disappointment, pointing to the pursuit of another team medal as the priority. There’s really only room for one spot on the podium China and Japan, who have finished either first or second in every world meet since 2007.
“All we need to do is to perform as normal, because there won’t be huge difference at the finals,” Zhang said. “It all comes down on how you complete the skills at the finals.”
MORE GYMNASTICS: Women’s team, all-around, event finals qualifiers