Japan ends China’s reign at World Gymnastics Championships; pommel horse dooms U.S.

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This was the moment Kohei Uchimura had waited for, a chance to clinch a team gold medal for Japan with the kind of beautiful gymnastics that’s propelled him to unprecedented individual success in the sport the last six years.

“This is a team competition, and I was the last to compete, and I really wanted to have a perfect routine,” he said, according to Worlds organizers.

He saluted the judges, took a deep breath and latched onto the high bar for the last routine of the men’s team final at the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, on Wednesday night.

China, long the Lucy to Japan’s Charlie Brown, was already vanquished.

Upstart Great Britain performed well, but even an average Uchimura, a man who has won a record five straight World all-around titles plus an Olympic all-around gold, would be enough to clinch Japan’s first World title since 1978, the tail end of its dynasty.

So Uchimura began swinging about nine feet above the mat. He let go of the bar once for a high-flying, somersaulting release move … and grabbed the bar on the way down like he always does.

The crowd roared, not for Uchimura, but for the score of Great Britain’s Max Whitlock‘s outstanding floor exercise routine that clinched the host nation’s first men’s World team medal ever.

Uchimura, perhaps affected by the noise, swung a few more times and released again, this time twisting in the air.

This time, his arms reached, but he could not get a grip. Chalk dusted off the bar, and the Japanese legend crashed on his back on the mat.

Clearly dazed, Uchimura refused to lie down. He immediately, but slowly, stood up from the mat as the crowd’s gasps silenced.

Uchimura stuck his tongue out slightly, walked over to chalk up his hands again, saluted and remounted the high bar amid applause.

Had he lost the gold medal? A scoreboard check showed he needed 13.994 points for Japan to overtake Great Britain for the title. Doable with a fall, but any more errors could be costly.

So Uchimura picked up from where he left off. He let go of the bar for release moves three more times, catching the bar on his descent twice more and then dismounting. Uchimura landed on the mat a second time, sticking his feet and not moving.

He bowed and sauntered away from the apparatus. There was no raucous celebration — no fist pump as he had shown in 2014, when it appeared his clean high bar routine had clinched Japan a gold, only for China to come back later and steal it by one tenth of a point in Nanning, China.

There was no sign of emotion from Uchimura until he reached a coach a few seconds later. They shook hands, and Uchimura emerged with what appeared to be the slightest smile.

Perhaps then he knew. But he had to wait about two more minutes before the judges’ decision came down.

“I knew the score I needed, but I thought it would be difficult, because scoring on high bar was quite strict in qualifications,” said Uchimura, who scored 15.366 in qualifying without a fall, but lost 1.5 points combined for the fall and a loss in difficulty, according to NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett. “The feeling was just like the London Olympics after pommel horse [when Uchimura flailed on a dismount on the final routine, Japan appealed the low score and it was upgraded from fourth to the silver medal].”

The verdict was a Japanese gold medal by .473 of a point, thanks to a mediocre 14.466 for the most decorated all-around gymnast in history.

Uchimura has repeated in recent years that a team gold medal would mean more to him than another individual all-around title at this point in his career. He finally got it, and his reaction now that it was assured was to pump his fists and yell briefly while surrounded by teammates.

“I feel really bad,” Uchimura, who must pass five consecutive pictures of himself in the “Walk of Champions” to get to the competition floor in the Glasgow arena, said later. “But I have never won a team competition, and even though it wasn’t perfect, we still won the gold medal. The next time I am the last competitor, I want to do what is expected of the last competitor.”

Across the floor, the British men gushed even more for their silver medals, backing up their London Olympic bronze finish.

“Everyone’s always been asking me how good can we get?” Two-time Olympian Louis Smith said in a press conference. “Today has been a perfect display of how we can knock them down as a team and just show what we are capable of.”

Dethroned China, which had rallied for bronze, already had their Li Ning jackets zipped up and offered little more than blank stares.

“It’s a warning for all of us,” Zhang Chenglong said, according to The Associated Press. “Because it’s a competition, there are always successes and failures. No one can be the forever winner.”

The U.S. men, missing their three best gymnasts from 2014 due to injuries, plummeted from second place going into the final of six rotations to place fifth, as they had in qualifying and as they had in disappointing fashion at the Olympics. Their final rotation free-fall wasn’t shocking given their last three routines came on pommel horse, long their Achilles’ heel.

The Japan victory was a little more of a surprise given the history books.

China had relegated Japan to silver at the previous five World Championships and the last two Olympics, after Japan took the 2004 Olympic title. The Chinese were starting to close in on the greatest dynasty in gymnastics history, that of Japan, which won every Olympic and World team title from 1960 through 1978.

China, which had qualified second into this final, was not at its best Wednesday night. Zhang went out of bounds on floor exercise on the first rotation. Lin Chaopan nearly fell off the pommel horse on the second, and then Xiao Ruoteng did come off of it.

The Chinese were in seventh place after six of 18 routines and were fortunate to climb back for the bronze medal. Japan, meanwhile, led wire to wire. Its small lead over the U.S. going into the final two rotations, one tenth, would inevitably balloon with the Americans average at best on floor exercise and so poor on pommel horse.

The U.S. went into the final with a nothing-to-lose mindset, given it was missing the top three all-around finishers from the 2014 P&G Championships — Olympians Sam MikulakJohn Orozco and Jacob Dalton — due to injuries.

In second place after four of six rotations, it led third-place Russia by 1.957 points and fourth-place Great Britain by 2.192 points with six total routines left for each nation.

“I kind of had an idea that we needed to be about 3.5 points above Great Britain or Russia to be a possibility of a medal,” Alex Naddour said in a USA Gymnastics interview. “So when we were less than that, I knew we had to be as perfect as we could.”

Then two Americans went out of bounds on floor exercise — Donnell Whittenburg and Paul Ruggeri III. The U.S. was still in second going to pommel horse, but now the lead over third-place China was .261 and fourth-place Great Britain was 1.242.

“It was definitely nerve-racking,” Whittenburg said in a USA Gymnastics interview. “We know that it’s not our best event.”

Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva led off pommel horse with two major leg form breaks and a messy swing up to a handstand before his dismount. His 13.1 took the U.S. out of the medals.

“I was a little upset at myself,” Leyva said in USA Gymnastics interview.

Whittenburg followed with a 13.866, further ensuring they’d be off the podium. Those were the only two U.S. routines of the night that scored below 14.

The fifth place marked the U.S.’ lowest finish at Worlds since it was 13th in 2006.

But there is hope. The team will undoubtedly be better in 2016, with the returns of Mikulak (stronger on pommel horse than Leyva and Whittenburg), Dalton (the 2013 World silver medalist on floor) and Orozco (who is best on parallel bars and high bar). They’ll vie to make a five-man Olympic team.

In Glasgow, Leyva was fourth in all-around qualifying and could earn a medal in that final Friday, but Uchimura will be favored to make it six straight there, especially with the weight of team expectations off his shoulders.

The World Championships continue with the women’s all-around final Thursday, featuring Simone Biles going for an unprecedented third straight title and Olympic champion Gabby Douglas.

NBC Olympics researcher Amanda Doyle contributed to this report from Glasgow.

MORE GYMNASTICS: World Championships broadcast schedule

MEN’S TEAM FINAL
GOLD: Japan — 270.818

SILVER: Great Britain — 270.345
BRONZE: China — 269.959
4. Russia — 268.362
5. United States — 267.853
6. Switzerland — 261.660
7. South Korea — 260.035
8. Brazil — 259.577

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that China was first in qualifying.

Russia track and field athlete clearance frozen due to unpaid fine

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MONACO (AP) — The program allowing Russian track athletes to compete internationally will be frozen because the country’s federation failed to pay a fine on time, World Athletics said Thursday.

The Russian track federation, known as RusAF, owes a $5 million fine and another $1.31 million in costs for various doping-related work and legal wrangles. World Athletics said RusAF missed Wednesday’s deadline to pay.

World Athletics said it would freeze the work of the Doping Review Board, which vets Russian athletes who want the “authorized neutral athlete” status that allows them to compete internationally, and its taskforce monitoring RusAF’s anti-doping reforms.

World Athletics said both bodies will be “put on hold” until its council meets to discuss the situation at the end of July.

“RusAF is letting its athletes down badly,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said in a statement. “We have done as much as we can to expedite our ANA process and support RusAF with its reinstatement plan, but seemingly to no avail.”

RusAF president Yevgeny Yurchenko earlier told the Tass state news agency that his federation’s finances were damaged by the coronavirus pandemic and that it had asked for more time to pay.

World Athletics’ statement didn’t directly address that issue, but said Russia hadn’t indicated when it would pay.

Russia was fined $10 million by World Athletics in March, with $5 million suspended for two years, after the federation admitted to breaking anti-doping rules and obstructing an investigation.

The Athletics Integrity Unit said fake documents were used under the previous management to give an athlete an alibi for missing a doping test.

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Jason Brown remains optimistic facing uncertain skating season

Jason Brown
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For Jason Brown, the last figure skating season began and ended with some unexpected challenges.

On Aug. 22, 2019, the day he arrived for U.S. Figure Skating’s pre-season Champs Camp in Irvine, Calif., Brown was a backseat passenger in a vehicle involved in an accident. He sustained a concussion that compromised his training for several weeks and forced him to withdraw from what was to have been his season debut competition.

On March 16, 2020, the day Brown was to fly from his training base in Toronto to the World Championships in Montreal, he went the other direction, driving home to his family’s home in the Chicago suburbs because the world meet had been cancelled five days earlier over Covid-19 health concerns. His most successful competitive season, with silver medals at nationals, the Four Continents Championships and Skate America, left him feeling both fulfilled and unfinished.

Now Brown, 25, is back in Toronto (finally getting there June 23 brought another unexpected challenge). He is undergoing a Canadian government-mandated 14-day self-quarantine before a planned July 8 return to the ice at the Cricket Club to prepare for a season that may not take place.

None of the other foreign stars who train at the Cricket Club, including 2-time reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and reigning Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia, is expected back before the end of July, according to Brown’s primary coach, Tracy Wilson. (Brown also works with Brian Orser, primary coach to Hanyu and Medvedeva.)

We caught up with Brown, the 2014 Olympic team event bronze medalist, by phone at the end of last week for a wide-ranging conversation:

You had an unexpectedly extended family reunion, with your older sister, Jordan, 27, (and her boyfriend), younger brother, Dylan, 22, and your parents, Marla and Steven, all together longer than a week for the first time in nine years. What was that like?

Brown: It was really awesome, even if the circumstances that led to it obviously weren’t ideal. I got to know my siblings on an entirely different level, as adults. We didn’t miss a single family dinner in three months.

Jason Brown
Jason Brown makes pizza (Courtesy Jason Brown).

Who cooked for that crowd every night?

Brown: I did! Jordan (in her first year as Major League Sports Dietician for the Chicago Cubs) had a million Zoom meetings, and Dylan was finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois and studying for the CPA exam. My dad was still working, and my mom never has liked to cook.

What were your go-to dishes?

Brown: We all eat everything, thank goodness, and we all like Asian cooking. The favorites were a shrimp stir-fry with quinoa and a shrimp salad with cold noodles.

When did you learn to cook?

Brown: Over the past two seasons living in Toronto. But doing it for six instead of one is like anything when you get into a position where it’s sink or swim. I was in charge, and sometimes my sister would ask me to try things she was thinking of recommending to the players. And I used some of my unexpected free time to take some online cooking classes.

What other things did you try with the extra time?

Brown: I never had consistently done dance classes, and I took three (virtual) dance classes a week, working on different choreography and styles: hip-hop, contemporary, modern, Latin. I could feel progress in finding my own way of moving.

You are a relentlessly optimistic person. Was there any time when the uncertainty really got you down?

Brown: The only time was when my (paternal) grandmother died on Mother’s Day. She was 89, and it wasn’t related to Covid, but it was hard on our family not to see her at the end, even if it brought us all together even more.

Did you ever hit a low about when and whether skating was going to be able to come out of this?

Brown: As you said, I’m a very optimistic person. As of now, my goal – and I have always said this since moving to Canada – is the 2022 Winter Olympics. I want this season badly, but my focus is on 2022. I’m trying not to look at what this could possibly mean for the future, but if it snowballs toward 2022, I think we will have a different conversation.

Then it would probably be like what a lot of the 2020 (Summer) Olympians and hopefuls are feeling right now. I can’t let myself get down about it, and I can’t imagine what they are going through. I look at how they are adapting and moving forward. My eyes are set on the ’22 Olympic Games, and we’re not in a place where I’m thinking about those being cancelled.

It seems clear from what you just said the that the possibility of no 2021 season has crossed your mind, and you’re taking a mindset of, “I can deal with that.”

Brown: Yes. Absolutely.

How will it affect you personally and the sport in general if there is no 2020-21 season at all or no international events?

Brown: I know how important the pre-Olympic season is for development and experience. It’s a huge opportunity to learn and grow, to try new things and take on risks before the pressure of the Olympic year. And it’s important just to have the chance to compete against some of the people you will be going against for Olympic team spots.

But I’m looking at the positive. As of now, rinks are open, and we can train. We have the time to fine tune some things we don’t have time to focus on when we are getting ready for competitions.

How will you handle it if you can keep training but they cancel the Grand Prix Series and then maybe nationals and worlds?

Brown: That’s a great question. It is something I would have to re-discuss with my coaches. If we can keep training and the season is cancelled, that’s one thing: we’ll start right then working on programs for the Olympic year. If there is a season, depending what it looks like, we will be strategizing to maximize the competitive opportunities we get.

I’m prepared to move forward if there is no season, if there is a full season or if there is something in between.

Have you thought about what programs you might use if there are events this season, given the lost preparation time? Last year’s? New ones?

Brown: As of now, my coaches want me to keep expanding and work on new programs. Two weeks before the first time I went to cross the border, I was able to work on short programs with choreographer Rohene Ward at the Fox Valley Ice Arena (in Chicago’s west suburbs). We did a couple programs with very different styles – one easier and one more challenging that will take more time to find its rhythm. If I get to compete just once or twice or on short notice, the harder one might not work. (He chose not to provide any details until Orser and Tracy Wilson have seen the programs.)

As far as a free skate, (choreographer) David Wilson and I are still in the thinking stage. We’re waiting for more information about plans for this season.

Wait. You said, “the first time I went to cross the border…”

Brown: (He laughs.) I first tried to do it June 14 at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. (Canada’s current border crossing rules for U.S. citizens require an “essential” reason for entry, which can be a job.) I had some letters, including one from my billet family saying they would shop for me during my quarantine, but the day I arrived, the supervisor I needed to see was not working. They told me to get a hotel in Michigan and return the next day, when they deemed me non-essential. I drove back home, collected letters from U.S. Figure Skating, Skate Canada and Skate Ontario and decided to try June 23 at Buffalo, because (U.S. ice dancers) Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker (who train in Montreal) had successfully gone that way the day before. And I was approved. I totally respect how hard it was to get in.

So you are, in effect, so close and yet seemingly so far from competing again. Can you see a season taking place?

Brown: I think it’s really hard to see that, even trying to be as optimistic as possible. At the end of the day, it’s about safety, about the well-being of the athletes, the coaches, the officials, the judges. You want to make sure everyone feels comfortable, and that it’s in their best interests, health-wise. As much as I want to compete and get out there in front of the fans, I want to do it in a safe manner. There’s no reason to cut corners right now.

What kind of shape are you in now?

Brown: Decent shape, but I would need at least a month of training before I felt I could run a full-out free program, start to finish, without collapsing.

At the end of last season, after several up-and-down or simply disappointing seasons, your performances were a more mature version of the Jason Brown from 2014 and 2015, the skater who had made the 2014 Olympic team with an incandescent free skate, won the 2015 U.S. title and had his best finish (fourth) at Worlds. Where does that put you now?

Brown: It was an incredible end of the year or, as I look at, of the bloc of time I have been in Canada (since June 2018). Brian and Tracy always talk about this 18-month period, the time needed to adapt to new technique and be comfortable with the coaches. It really was a struggle, even in my second season with them. It finally came together after those 18 months.

The way those last two events (nationals and Four Continents) went was a proud moment for me and my coaches. At nationals, I cried in a kiss-and-cry for the first time ever, because it had been such an emotional journey. Then my going to Four Continents a week later and backing it up, so it wasn’t, “Oh, nationals was a one-time fluke.” The technique is in me now.

The one thing that nags me was popping the quad attempt (at Four Continents). But I had the mentality of “I’ll get it at worlds.” Not having the chance is my only regret.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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