Russia hoped for its first men’s world team title since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Instead, China is back atop the sport after a three-year hiatus, via the smallest margin of victory in modern gymnastics history.
Russian Nikita Nagornyy‘s error on high bar on Monday’s last routine, muscling out of a handstand, handed the Chinese gold by .049 in the closest Olympic or world men’s or women’s team final since the perfect-10 scoring system was replaced in 2006.
“Almost everyone cried,” Russian Olympian Nikolai Kuksenkov said, according to R-Sport.
Nagornyy said he thought upon dismounting that it was enough for gold. Russia would have prevailed if he repeated his score from last week’s qualifying in Doha.
The 21-year-old Olympian has a tattoo on his ribs that says “salvame y guardame,” which roughly translates to “save and protect me” in Spanish and is a common Russian Orthodox phrase.
China won despite falls from world all-around champion Xiao Ruoteng on its first and last routines. Japan, the reigning Olympic and world champion, took bronze, 1.75 points ahead of the U.S.
China captured 10 of 11 world team titles from 1994 through 2014 before Japan’s resurgence. China dropped to bronze in Rio but now looks more determined to spoil one of the most important events for the host country at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Russia was in position for a breakthrough title, leading by 1.919 after four rotations. Then Artur Dalaloyan fell off the parallel bars. China busted through the opening, outscoring the Russians by 2.867 on the apparatus.
Japan led at the halfway point but was also done in on bars. Two-time Olympian Yusuke Tanaka came off on the fourth rotation, dropping the Japanese to third place. Eight-time Olympic and world all-around champion Kohei Uchimura is limited by an ankle injury, sitting out floor exercise and vault.
The U.S.’ fourth-place finish was the best it could have hoped for without significant help from China, Japan and Russia. The Americans were fifth at the Rio Olympics and at the last worlds with a team event in 2015. They missed the podium at three straight global championships for the first time since 1997, 1999 and 2000.
“The expectations for us weren’t very high,” two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak said in a USA Gymnastics interview. “Going into it, people didn’t see us on the podium, but I think we showed that we’re a lot closer to being on that podium than people expected us to be. The biggest takeaway for us is get our starts [routine difficulty] up just a little bit more within this group, get a couple of guys healthy that are hurt right now.”
Mikulak, who last week qualified for five of the seven individual finals (most by an American since 1979), fell on the opening rotation on pommel horse, long the U.S.’ nemesis apparatus in team finals. He rallied for the day’s best high bar score — 14.5.
Mikulak qualified third into Wednesday’s all-around final, where the two-time Olympian can earn his first individual Olympic or world medal.
Worlds continue with the women’s team final Tuesday, live at 9 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. The U.S., led by Simone Biles, is an overwhelming favorite to win a sixth straight Olympic or world title.
NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.
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