STUTTGART, Germany — Russia earned its first world men’s gymnastics team title since the breakup of the Soviet Union, while the U.S. just missed the podium to extend its longest global medal drought this millennium.
Russia overtook China, the top men’s gymnastics nation of the last 20 years, on the final rotation and ended up winning by a comfortable .997. Japan took bronze, followed by the U.S. and Great Britain in a repeat of places three through five from 2018.
The Chinese led by 1.394 points going to the last rotation on high bar, but Sun Wei fell on the first routine. Russia seized the opening, moving ahead by .506 after its first of three gymnasts performed.
A year ago, a mistake from Russian leader Nikita Nagornyy on the very last routine on high bar handed China the title by .049, the smallest winning margin in an Olympic men’s or women’s team final since the perfect-10 scoring system was replaced in 2006. On Wednesday, Nagornyy closed it out with a stuck high bar finale.
Russia’s last Olympic title came in 1996, when it boasted the likes of future Olympic all-around champion Alexei Nemov and future world all-around champion Nikolai Kryukov. Its last world title came in 1991, when its roster included Nastia Liukin‘s father, Valeri, and Vitaly Scherbo, a Belarusian who went on to win six golds at the 1992 Olympics.
Here, Russia has similar star power: Nagornyy, who qualified first into Friday’s all-around, and the defending all-around champion Artur Dalaloyan.
“For a whole year I couldn’t sleep soundly because I didn’t have that medal. A year ago we let it go with our errors when we were competing with the Chinese,” Dalaloyan said, according to an Associated Press translation, after embracing the Chinese team, including Sun, who was in tears and hiding his face in his jacket.
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The U.S. extended its longest span without an Olympic or world team medal since a 17-year break from the 1984 Olympics to 2001 World Championships. The Americans’ last medal was a bronze in 2014.
The Americans were not expected to make the podium after struggling to a seventh-place finish in qualifying. Russia, China and Japan have been in a class of their own in this Olympic cycle.
The U.S. had no falls in a team final for the first time since 2015 but were still a considerable 3.581 points out of bronze.
“We performed to our expectations,” two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak said. “We didn’t really think we had the start value [degree of difficulty] to get into that medal podium spot.”
The U.S. must hope to benefit from the change from a five-person team to a four-person team in Tokyo.
It relies largely on Mikulak, who has the ability to challenge the world’s best when he hits. His all-around score Wednesday — 86.931 — would have placed second in the qualification round.
Mikulak fell four times in qualifying, scored 81.598, and thought he would miss Friday’s 24-man all-around final. He stopped watching the final nations compete and began playing Roomscape on his computer. Teammate Akash Modi informed him that he made the final in the last spot on a tiebreaker. Scores reset for finals.
“I was sweating real hard,” he said. “The gym gods were looking out for me.”
The other U.S. men — Yul Moldauer, Trevor Howard, Shane Wiskus and Modi — have no Olympic experience and a fraction of Mikulak’s accolades.
If as few as two Americans can step up in difficulty and consistency in the next 10 months, the U.S. could return to the medal-challenging status it had in the last four Olympic cycles.
“It will be difficult for us to jump up enough to be in that same realm,” U.S. head coach Mark Williams said. “We have to sort of rely on some other teams to have problems, which isn’t a great strategy, but it’s also better than feeling like you don’t get to the finals.”
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