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.

Curling kerfuffle opens up debate on self-officiating

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Curling has long had an ethos of sportsmanship in which players call infractions on themselves and work out the resulting response — perhaps “burning” a rock by taking it out of play, perhaps restoring a rock to where it was or would have gone. 

“Curlers never knowingly break a rule of the game, nor disrespect any of its traditions,” reads the second paragraph of the World Curling Federation’s rule book. “Should they become aware that this has been done inadvertently, they will be the first to divulge the breach.”

Sunday at the European Curling Championship, a pivotal breach was divulged not by the players but by match officials, and a debate has erupted over social media in the usually uncontroversial curling community.

The rule itself is clear. When a substitute enters a game, a rare occurrence, that substitute must use the same brush head (for sweeping) as the player being replaced. The penalty is a forfeit. See page 33 of the rule book.

The Norwegian team, in which rival skips Thomas Ulsrud and Steffen Walstad have united to form a dream team, neglected to do that in a game the perennial powers were controlling against England, which was only promoted to the top division of the annual championship this year.

Norway left the ice thinking it had taken a routine win, only to be informed by officials that they would forfeit.

Walstad took to Facebook to complain about officials’ overreach.

“Even though all parties acted in good intent, thinking they were following the rules as best we could, a small misunderstanding that happened after the game in all regards was already decided was enough for the umpires to put on their star of authority and point to a subparagraph,” Walstad wrote.

Though Norway clearly broke a rule, many top-level curlers agree with Walstad. The Twitter account of U.S. curler Rich Ruohenen‘s team, which has advanced to the semifinals of the Red Deer Curling Classic over the weekend, called the decision “Ridiculous and embarrassing to the sport!” Canadian curlers Ben Hebert and Casey Scheidegger agreed, as did Scottish curling veteran Tom Brewster.

One counterpoint came from curling official and coach Keith Wendorf: “Don’t ask the officials to ignore rules, learn the rules.” Wendorf also sarcastically suggested curlers should ignore the red light on a stone indicating an illegal delivery and just write it off as unintentional.

The World Curling Federation issued a statement saying little other than restating the rule.

Self-officiating also came to the fore in an incident involving future Olympic gold medalist John Shuster at the 2016 world championships in a playoff against Japan. Yusuki Morozumi‘s last shot of the eighth end sent a U.S. stone in motion, and it made a Japanese stone go out of play. But before anyone could stop the Japanese stone, it rebounded off the side bumper and hit the moving U.S. stone, stopping its momentum. In that situation, the curlers are expected to figure out where the in-play stone would’ve stopped if it hadn’t hit the out-of-play stone. The Japanese team thought it would have continued moving and gone out of play. Shuster disagreed, saying it would have stayed in play and in the house, where it would count toward Shuster’s score. Shuster wound up keeping the rock in play and then delivered his last shot to score three for the U.S.

Shuster’s team went on to win the game 5-4. They lost the semifinal 9-3 and then faced Japan once more for the bronze medal, winning 8-6 to give Shuster his only world championship medal in eight appearances. (He also has a bronze medal from the 2019 mixed doubles championship and, of course, the 2018 Olympic gold.)

The video is a little easier to understand (the controversy starts at the 1:40 mark):

Shuster had every right to make the call according to curling rules: “If a moving stone is touched by a stone deflecting off the sheet dividers, the non-delivering team shall place the stone where it reasonably considers the stone would have come to rest had the moving stone not been touched.”

Shuster was clearly uncomfortable in that position, and columnist Don Landry wondered if he would have avoided controversy if an official had made the call instead: “Perhaps John Shuster might rather not even have to make that call. Because he’d be better off moaning about the officials and a determination he disagreed with instead of being the target of the torches and pitchforks set.”

In recreational curling, leaving decisions in the hands of the curlers can literally force them to make a choice between winning or losing on a technicality. Every now and then, curlers end up with a negotiated settlement of sorts.

In high-level competition, curlers have already handed over one decision whether the thrower has made a clean release before the “hog line,” the thick blue line that is one of the sport’s most important boundaries. A light on the stone turns red if the thrower didn’t let go of the rock in time or touched it again after releasing it The system seems straightforward but proved controversial in the 2018 Olympics on a costly infraction against British skip Eve Muirhead where TV replays didn’t seem to back up what the light reported.

The debate over self-officiating has also come up in Ultimate (formerly Ultimate frisbee), as the game has grown in stature from a college pastime to a semi-professional sport. Many competitions now use “observers,” whose job is somewhere between that of a referee and that of a mediator. The semi-professional American Ultimate Disc League has gone a step farther, using actual referees akin to those in almost any other sport. The league still allows players overturn a referee’s call in their favor (basically, a “no no, I actually fouled him” call), but the referee has more authority than has been common in the sport.

Norway’s curlers might not object to officials in general, but the rigid enforcement of the broom rule has left them in difficulty in the European championships. They’re currently tied for fifth place, one spot out of the playoff berths, with a 3-3 record. England is in last place at 1-5, though they’ve been close in a couple of games.

The Olympic Channel has coverage of the European championships for the rest of the week (all times ET):

  • Wednesday, 8 a.m.: Switzerland vs. Scotland (men)
  • Thursday, 3 a.m.: Scotland vs. Sweden (men)
  • Thursday, 8 a.m.: Sweden vs. Russia (women)
  • Thursday, 1 p.m.: Men’s semifinal
  • Friday, 8 a.m.: Women’s semifinal
  • Friday, 1 p.m.: Women’s bronze medal game
  • Saturday, 4 a.m.: Men’s bronze medal game
  • Saturday, 9 a.m.: Women’s gold medal game

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Grand Prix Final: Who’s in, who’s on the bubble, and how NHK Trophy impacts the standings

Yuzuru Hanyu, Nathan Chen
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Some figure skaters, like Nathan Chen and ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, have already clinched spots to the prestigious Grand Prix Final. But the December competition allows for an exclusive six-skater field, which will finalize this weekend after NHK Trophy in Japan (live, on-demand and commercial-free for NBC Sports Gold Pass subscribers).

Let’s examine what scenarios need to play out at NHK Trophy in order for skaters like Olympic champions Alina Zagitova and Yuzuru Hanyu to clinch spots at the event. The Final is Dec. 5-8 in Torino, Italy, site of the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

Ladies

Two skaters have clinched spots prior to NHK Trophy:

  • Alexandra Trusova (won Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup), 15, from Russia
  • Anna Shcherbakova (won Skate America and Cup of China), 15, from Russia

They train together in Moscow under coach Eteri Tutberidze and are both in their first season on the senior Grand Prix circuit. Along with Alena Kostornaia, this young trio are capable of some of the most difficult jumps being performed in women’s skating today. The ladies’ standings can be found here.

American Bradie Tennell currently sits third in the standings. She is as close to clinching a berth as one can get without technically doing so. Forcing Tennell out of the Grand Prix Final at this point would require a series of unlikely scenarios to take place this weekend at NHK Trophy.

Tennell would be the first American woman in a Grand Prix Final since Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold competed in the 2015 Grand Prix Final.

American Mariah Bell ended up with the same number of points in the standings as Tennell. However, Tennell wins over Bell on a tiebreak due to her second and fourth place Grand Prix series finishes, compared to Bell’s two bronze medals this season. The first tiebreak procedure is based on highest placement on the Grand Prix series.

Tennell also beats Satoko Miyahara of Japan on a tiebreak, because Tennell’s total combined score is higher than Miyahara’s. They both have a silver medal and a fourth place finish on the series, so the next criteria looks at total scores from both Grand Prix events. Miyahara had appeared in every Grand Prix Final since 2015 and this would’ve been her fifth straight appearance.

The remainder of the six-skater field should be decided at NHK Trophy, where reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova is skating, as is Japan’s Rika Kihira and Grand Prix France champion Kostornaia (16, and also in her first senior Grand Prix season).

Kostornaia will make the Grand Prix Final with a fifth-place finish or higher, while Zagitova and Kihira just need to land on the podium to earn a spot in Torino.

Another note: Four out of the six women’s skaters in the Grand Prix Final field are Russian. Last year, three Russians and three Japanese skaters made up the field. This year, there is likely a little more variety with as many as four Russians, a Japanese skater and an American.

READ MORE: Bradie Tennell’s personality shines through at Skate America

Men

Two skaters have clinched spots before NHK Trophy:

  • Nathan Chen (won Skate America and Grand Prix France) from the U.S.
  • Alexander Samarin (silver at Grand Prix France and won Rostelecom Cup) from Russia

Chen has appeared in the last three consecutive Finals, earning a silver in 2016 followed by winning back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018. The men’s standings can be found here.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu skates this weekend at home in Japan and needs to place inside the top four to clinch a spot in the Grand Prix Final. Hanyu won the Grand Prix Final four straight times in 2013, ’14, ’15 and ’16, but withdrew last year from the Final after qualifying due to injury. In 2017, he couldn’t qualify for the Final due to his withdrawal from NHK Trophy. This will be the first Hanyu-Chen head-to-head since the world championships in March, where Chen earned gold to Hanyu’s silver.

American Jason Brown needs to place second at NHK Trophy to clinch a Grand Prix Final berth, but is very likely qualified even if he places third.

France’s Kevin Aymoz and Russia’s Makar Ignatov would need to win NHK Trophy to clinch a Grand Prix Final berth, and if they earn silver medals they’ll end up in a tie-break scenario with Russian Dmitri Aliev (currently third in the standings; almost certainly guaranteed a Grand Prix Final spot at this point with a bronze at Skate America and a silver at Rostelecom Cup).

Other notes: France’s last men’s representative in a Grand Prix Final was Florent Amodio, who finished sixth in 2010.

This is the first time in Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno‘s senior career that he will miss the Grand Prix Final (eighth at Grand Prix France, fourth at Rostelecom Cup). Uno was on the Grand Prix Final podium four times in four previous appearances.

READ MORE: Will Nathan Chen return to six quad jumps in his free skate?

Pairs

Three pairs have so far clinched spots for the GPF:

  • Aleksandra Boikova/ Dmitry Kozlovskiy (won Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup) from Russia
  • Peng Cheng/ Jin Yang (won Skate America, silver at Cup of China) from China
  • Daria Pavliuchenko/ Denis Khodykin (silvers at Skate Canada and Grand Prix France), from Russia

Pairs’ standings can be found here.

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China compete at NHK Trophy this weekend and can clinch a berth to the Final with a podium finish. The two-time world champions own three previous Grand Prix Final medals, but none are gold.

Anastasia Mishina and Alexandr Galliamov from Russia also compete this weekend and need to finish on the podium to clinch a spot in Torino. They already won Grand Prix France earlier this season.

For Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro to make the Grand Prix Final, they need to earn gold or silver at NHK Trophy. If they finish with bronze medals, they’ll enter a tiebreak scenario with Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia. That tiebreak will be determined by total cumulative score from both teams’ two Grand Prix events this fall, with the higher score getting the spot at the Final.

Two-time U.S. national pair champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim skate in Japan this weekend, too, but they need help in the standings from other teams in order to earn a spot in the Final. They skated in the Grand Prix Final in 2015, finishing seventh (under a rare circumstance where the Final allowed for seven, instead of the usual six, slots). 2017 U.S. national champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier are fifth in the standings for the Final before NHK Trophy, but the three-year long streak of a Grand Prix Final without an American team is likely to continue.

Ice dance

Three teams have so far clinched spots for the Grand Prix Final:

  • Viktoria Sinitsina/ Nikita Katsalapov (won Cup of China and Rostelecom Cup), from Russia
  • Piper Gilles/ Paul Poirier (won Skate Canada, silver at Rostelecom Cup), from Canada
  • Madison Hubbell/ Zach Donohue (won Skate America, silver at Skate Canada), from U.S.

Hubbell and Donohue are last year’s Grand Prix Final champions. Ice dance standings can be found here.

Four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France skate at NHK Trophy and clinch a berth to the Grand Prix Final with a podium finish.

Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin also skate at NHK Trophy, and can only clinch a spot in the Final with a win. However, if they finish second to the French team, both will make the Final.

Currently fourth in the standings are U.S. duo Madison Chock and Evan Bates. They earned silver medals at both Grand Prix France and Cup of China, and are as close to certainly getting a spot at the Final as can be without technically clinching a spot. The most likely NHK Trophy scenario is that Papadakis and Cizeron win NHK Trophy, and Stepanova and Bukin finish second – and if that happens, Papadakis and Cizeron, Stepanova and Bukin and Chock and Bates all make the Final.

Other notes: Gilles’ and Poirier’s first and only trip to the Grand Prix Final came in the post-Sochi 2014 season, when they finished fifth.

Prior to Chock’s ankle injury, which kept the duo out of the Grand Prix series and Final last season, they appeared in four straight Finals from 2014-17, earning two silver medals.

The last appearance in the Grand Prix Final by Papadakis and Cizeron was in 2017 – prior to PyeongChang – when they beat eventual Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada. The French couple missed the Grand Prix Final last year because they withdrew from a regular-series event and could not qualify.

READ MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: 10 things we’ve learned halfway through the Grand Prix figure skating season