Rooting for the Underdogs – MAG London 2012

What a day it has been for gymnastics – Team GB have managed to win bronze in the team event, amidst a whole bucketload of drama.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

That’s Daniel Purvis, Max Whitlock, Louis Smith, Kristian Thomas and Sam Oldham from left to right, on the podium with their medals. These boys were hardly considered a threat coming into the competition, let’s face it. But today they proved otherwise. They all pulled off strong routines without major errors, apart from Sam Oldham’s fall from the high bar.

They were really lucky also, that the US team had faltered early on in the competition, with John Orozco falling off his vault attempt, resulting in a poor score that really killed off their hopes for a medal. And with each performance by Team GB, that excitement and anticipation began to build up, as it became increasingly possible for them to compete for a medal. Credit to the boys, they didn’t buckle under all that pressure and instead delivered the good to secure the bronze.

China did not perform too well at the qualification round and there were some doubts on whether they’d be a serious competitor for gold. But they came out, put on a brilliant show and bagged it. Japan never looked like they could challenge China for the gold. Zou Kai was especially impressive on the high bar, I thought, and the rest of the team also put in solid performances.

Japan was a bit of a disappointment. They struggled a little throughout, and in the last apparatus the last two gymnasts made huge errors on the pommel horse. Kohei Uchimura, who was the final one up, messed up his dismount but nevertheless managed to land on his feet. He was given a low score, which left Japan in fourth and Great Britain in second, Ukraine third. Japan then appealed against Uchimura’s low score and the judges convened and adjusted his score to credit him for the dismount after watching the replays. With that, Japan ended up in second place and Team GB in third.

The atmosphere while waiting for the results of the appeal was tense. The crowd, obviously ecstatic at the home team winning a silver, was notably disappointed when the revised scores was announced. It’s so much more difficult to accept a bronze with the same excitement (which in itself is a feat for the British team) when you had thought you won a silver at first. A bit cruel, and will definitely be the talk of the Olympics for a while.

For me, the finals was everything it should be, unpredictable and nail-biting to the very end. I enjoyed watching Uchimura in action, although even as a casual viewer I realise he could do so much better. He’s shown glimpses of what he’s capable of, but then he hasn’t been consistent with all the apparatus. He has qualified for the all-around and the floor final, so hopefully he’ll be able to pick himself up and really show the London crowd what he’s made of.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The revelation for me so far was Kristian Thomas. This young man has really shone for his team, taking the lead and scoring vital points with several amazing performances. His strength and maturity really showed when he handled the pressre so well, being the last to perform for his team, and really nailing his routine. I will definitely look out for him in the all-around as well, as I continue to root for the underdogs this Olympics.

On a side note here, four years ago I was simply captivated by Hiroyuki Tomita, but he’s retired from the sport now. However, I did catch a glimpse of him with the Japanese team, so I presume he’s here with the coaching team or as a mentor to the team, which apart from Uchimura are all making their Olympic debut, I think. It felt like seeing an old friend again.

Hiroyuki Tomita – Beyond the Competition

Another post I’ve been wanting to do for a while, seems fitting to go with my short absence. Hiroyuki Tomita is a guy I only got to know at this Olympics. Although he wasn’t the star of the tournament, he made a lasting impression to me. Most people may remember him (for the wrong reason) as the guy who fell of the rings, but to me, he is a fighter.

At first during the qualifications, my interest was piqued because he always seemed so tense and unsmiling, even after he’s performed well. So I sort of rooted for him for the rest of the time, because I thought, if he’s won a medal, there’d be no reason not to smile. Haha but when he won silver in the team, he didn’t really smile much at all, maybe just a little, but hardly the big, teethy grin I was hoping to see.

The closest to a smile in the competition

The closest to a smile in the competition

So then I employ the use of the Internet’s second most powerful weapon – Youtube. I found lots of footage of his past performances. His memorable Athens high bar routine, and his all-around title in the Worlds. (And it was in the year before the scoring system changed too.) From his Beijing stint I knew he was classy, but I didn’t know he was that good. Then again, he had to be experienced enough to have that degree of nonchalance and coolness about him. I also found this on the tube:

1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ngt5uExZ200
2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErekFcXWvxM

It’s an interview with him by that guy from Arashi (no wonder he looked so pretty) before the Beijing Olympics. Anyway, after watching that, all the mystery surrounding Tomita somehow disappears. I thought that would somewhat diffuse my interest in him, but it hasn’t. He’s just such a simple guy (he doesn’t even have a bookshelf or CD rack at home, just a Tv) who is so focused and so hardworking, which explains the serious look during competition. From the interview, you can really see that gymnastics is his life. He’s usually pretty quiet and doesn’t speak much, and gives really short answers when asked about personal stuff. But when asked about gymnastics or anything related to it, he just lightens up and starts talking a lot (even though I don’t really know what he’s saying, he just seems so much more animated). Oh, and he does smile when talking to people. I suppose he just finds it weird to smile at cameras during the competition.

He’s also pretty humble in the sense that, when Sakurai asked if he thought talent or practice is more important in gymnastics, he chose the latter. He then launches into a pretty lengthy (for his standards) explanation of why he thought so, which I obviously didn’t understand. Even though Japan is a pretty advanced country, I don’t think they put so much into sports like US or China. That’s why their athletes are more grounded, and gymnasts like Tomita aren’t paid to train, it’s the other way around. Tomita takes care of his own diet, and doesn’t have a special about of intake or what not like Phelps does. (Which by the way, 12000 calories seem ghastly). Well, I think a regular Japanese meal is much much healthier than a regular American meal of burger and fries anyway.

So whats for lunch?

So whats for lunch?

Anyway, Tomita must be really tired now after the Olympics. He actually looked relieved after his routine in the high bar finals, even though he messed up his landing a bit. But as the captain of the team, he did lead them to a silver; it’s just a little disappointing to see him without an individual medal. And he had to lose out in such heartbreaking manner too, falling off the rings. Taking a fall from the rings or high bar has to be the worst, being so far off the ground. Poor Tomita, he looked up at the rings and then at his hand guard, as if to ask “what happened?”, then he just gets up on his feet to acknowledge the crowd.

Oh why did you fail me?

Oh why did you fail me?

That fall really broke my heart. Even more heartbreaking is the fact that he didn’t make any excuses for his fall at all. He just said (jokingly, I think) that he was too tired to hold on to the rings. He still fought on for the rest of the apparatus, because he said he had to give his best, since his teammate Koki Sakamoto qualified higher than him but Tomita was chosen to represent instead. I was personally hoping that the fall wouldn’t have affected his performance in the high bar final, but his routine didn’t have the difficulty to match the others, and he didn’t have a perfect performance. Well, that’s just disappointment from my side. For Tomita, I think he’ll always put beauty and execution ahead of difficulty. The beauty of the sport is probably why he likes it so much, so he’s not going to go the Chinese way and up the difficulty without doing justice to the beauty of the tumbling. I really respect his principle on that, and how he works tirelessly to aim for perfection.

Word is that FIG is going to reduce the number of gymnasts in a team from six to five, meaning that in team competitions they can only send 5 gymnasts. That means that there is a very slim chance that Tomita will see action in London, even though I’ll cling on endlessly to what little hope that’s left. The least I can hope for is that he can stick around for the next two world championships, and sort of redeem himself before bowing out. And until then, I’ll just satisfy myself by watching the clips of him in action on Youtube.

MAG at the Olympics

I’ve been meaning to do this post for a while now, but I didn’t have the time to finish it off. MAG = Men’s Artistic Gymnastics btw. WAG is for the women’s events. (Don’t confuse it with the British WAGs, those are wives and girlfriends of football players ok?) I honestly lol-ed when I found out about the WAG thing.

Back to the topic now, MAG is paid somewhat less attention to than WAG, I feel. Maybe because the US people tend to watch the women more (their women are more outstanding than their men, and they win more, most importantly), so it sort of creates a delusion that WAG is more popular. I was searching for some info on Yahoo.com during the Olympics, and I noticed that they always had headlines and articles on their women gymnasts. [They also placed US above China in their medal tally. Haih…a bit sore loser in my opinion.] Actually MAG is as worth watching as WAG, because they have more apparatus, so you can watch for a longer time. Ahem, more worth my money for having the sports channel anyway. Plus, the men’s events are more of an exhibition of strength and beauty, while the women’s are about grace and elegance. My initial interest in MAG was limited to ‘why don’t the asian gymnasts shave their armpits’, haha just joking la. I was watching because I liked seeing people twist and turn themselves to do physically impossible things that I could never do.

The very first guy in that caught my eyes was Hiroyuki Tomita in the qualification rounds. At first I was pretty curious as to why he won’t smile. He’d perform his routine so well, land nicely, but he’ll still maintain that expressionless look. I realise that it was only qualification, and not really the finals or anything, but still…he came all the way to Beijing already, smile la a bit. =) He struck me as pretty Chinese looking at first, and if his face came up in the differentiate-the-koreans-chinese-japanese game I’d have picked wrongly. Lol. If he brushes up on his Manglish he can pass off as a Malaysian Chinese lor, seriously. But really, why so seriousssss? I don’t think I saw him smile after his routine before, not while he was on the podium anyway. When his coach or teammates talk to him then he sort of relaxes a bit, but it’s sort of like he senses that the cameras are taking him, so he just plays it cool. Or he’s just not a camwhore. The most likely reason is that he’s just very focused in competition. Because he’s a really classy performer – his moves are so strong and so beautiful to watch. He’s really good in the horizontal and parallel bars, but he’s an all-around gymnast, so he’s not too bad on the other apparatus as well. I think the moment that made me in awe of him was how he fought back in the all-around final, after falling off the rings. It was a really nasty fall, and after that he just popped on an ice pack and then went straight to the next apparatus. He did pretty well on those too, and he was so close to getting a medal. If only he didn’t fall of the rings, he’d have a realistic chance to get the silver. After the competition end, they showed the top 3 celebrating their wins and their total points, then they showed Tomita, who was in fourth. Wah I felt so sad for him at that moment. He still looked…..neutral. He performed better for the team in the team finals, and led them to silver. Maybe he was tired after the team finals, so he didn’t perform well at the all-arounds. And during the apparatus finals that he qualified for (pommel horse and high bar), he performed alright, but not outstanding enough for the medals. Maybe his shoulder and neck still hurt from the fall, poor boy.

Uchimura is the jumping one. And lol at Tomita's expression.

Uchimura is the jumping one. And lol at Tomita in the background.

Okay next is Kohei Uchimura, Tomita’s teammate and the youngest member of the Japanese team. He seems like such a contrast to his senior, always smiling and looking happy just to be there. He is quite a rising star; he won the silver in the all-around. On a day where so many gymnasts made mistakes, he came out second, although he did fall off the pommel horse and got a pretty low score on it, he made up for it on the other apparatus and ended up second. That is just amazing. He has great style and grace of his own, and he’s good on the floor and high bar. Not too bad at parallel bars too. I still cannot believe that he is only 19. He will definitely be a threat in London in 4 years’ time, just you wait and see. I couldn’t find other individual photos of him looking good in action, because most of the gymnasts don’t look good in action. You try doing a triple twist and have someone photograph you in mid-air.

*Ahem* No team romance, please

*Ahem* No team romance, please

At least there is a nice frontal shot of Uchimura here. Haha. I looked through some photos of them in action, and they really did not look flattering. No offense to professional photog who cover these events, but taking photos of their painful expressions while tumbling on the apparatus is not very flattering at all.

There’s also Marian Dragulescu from Romania, who is so good on the vault. He’s also very good on floor, but he messed up quite a bit in this tournament. Poor guy. I believe he should’ve gotten a medal in the vault final (the only final without a Chinese), but he didn’t do well on his second one. He has a vault named after him, and it looks pretty tough, but he does it so well. I couldn’t find any more recent photos of him in Beijing, because I’m temporarily boycotting Yahoo’s sport pages. [Pah.} Most of the photos online are of him without that little patch of facial hair on his chin. Actually he looks better without that patch, but I want everyone to have the same impression of him. The patch of hair thing was quite distracting for me at first, thank god he is good at gymnastics.

The guy in the middle is Jihoon

The guy in the middle is Jihoon

Next up is Kim Jihoon of South Korea. Not the actor Kim Jihoon alright. He’s an average gymnast only la, not as classy as Tomita. But he’s very expressive, which is a stark contrast to Tomita. They didn’t really show much of him except when he was on pommel horse, so I assume that is his best apparatus. I may be mistaken though, because the people handling the coverage may just be messing with my head. Anyway he’s a bit of a goofball, because every time he finishes his routine he’ll have a big smile on his face and he’ll stick his tongue out in a sheepish way. Very cute. And it’s not like he did very badly on the routine either. It’s just his thing I guess.

Zoo Kay-Aye

Zoo Kay-Aye

Cutie pie Zou Kai! He’s a really cute little boy who happens to be a gymnast. That’s not how it actually is, it’s the other way around, hehe. He looks so small and cute among the other gymnasts (and mind you, gymnasts are not usually very tall, so he’s even smaller than small). Apparently he’s under 5 feet. His best events should be floor and high bar, in which he won gold. Come to think of it, he’s the most successful male gymnast in his team in Beijing. He’s the only one who got 2 individual golds, and plus his team gold, that comes up to three. Wow. And this is just his first Olympics. Four years later he’ll still be around, so that makes for a good future watch. =) I come across certain blogs complaining about biased judging and all in the Olympics. Gymnastics is a subjective sport, the gymnasts themselves know that. I don’t think that the judges at the Olympics were biased towards the Chinese though. To give Zou Kai credit, his routine was packed wtih difficulty, and even the commentators themselves acknowledged that. Plus, they get bonus points for linking difficult elements together, so that increases the difficulty score. And although Zou Kai was not perfect in execution, he didn’t fall or make big mistakes in both his finals. You gotta give him some credit for that. Although I must say, if you compare Japanese gymnasts with the Chinese, the Japanese gymnasts have more beautiful and smooth movements, but they usually lose out in terms of difficulty. The Chinese are more technical, and they know how to link those tough moves together to earn more points, so even if they don’t execute that well, at least the difficulty is there.

Yang Wei

Yang Wei

Cannot miss out this guy, he’s the star of his team. Yang Wei, the all-around champion. He is pretty good on rings and pommel horse. I think he’s good at parallel bars also, but he didn’t make the final. Anyway he won the all-around by a wide margin, mostly because everyone else made huge mistakes when he didn’t. He just performed his set and scored well and got to the top. Not discounting his win whatsoever, though. He scored very high on the rings and pommel horse, and was so sure of winning that gold that he didn’t really perform to his max on his last apparatus, the high bar (which he is not that great at). After winning the all-around, he seemed more relaxed in the apparatus finals, maybe he wanted to let his teammates get a chance at the gold? After all, they’re more of the specialists compared to him.

Li Xiaopeng

Li Xiaopeng

Li Xiaopeng is great too. He’s one year younger than Yang Wei, but he’s been an Olympic gold medallist since Sydney in 2000. So he’s been around for quite a while, and won a lot of titles while at it. He’s a parallel bars and vault specialist. But in Beijing I think he focused more on parallel bars, instead of vault. So maybe that’s why he wasn’t in the vault final. In the parallel bars final he was just so perfect. His moves are very polished and he’s a strong solid performer. I think he really deserved his win, no matter what the judging system is. Apparently after winning two golds in Beijing he has more world titles than Li Ning, who is China’s most celebrated gymnast. Li Ning was the guy who lit the torch in the opening ceremony, by the way. He owns a sportswear brand which is the sponsor of the Chinese gymnasts, I think. All of them have the logo on their outfits. But now, technically, Li Xiaopeng is the most successful gymnast in China right now. Hurray for him. Aha, but he’s taken.

Regret not watching the Olympics now, anyone? Hehe. I don’t think there’s anywhere to watch online, even short clips of performances are removed by youtube very quickly. I guess they want you to watch the official highlights and all (which probably won’t show the non-winning gymnasts like Jihoon).