It was a night of role reversals. The Americans, usually jazzy and jocular, were stony-faced. The Chinese, masters of Olympic chokes, were rocking, pumping their fists in the air after nearly flawless routines and passing high-fives around the team. With a feisty pro-Chinese crowd cheering them on, six men in tights finally captured what had been eluding China for so long: the nation's first Olympic gymnastics team gold.
Chasing a Dream It was, said Chinese coach Huang Yubin, something the men's gymnastics team had been anticipating for 40 years. "We knew we were the strongest team," he said. "We just had to prove it in the Olympic field." As the current world champs, the Chinese knew they had the talent to prevail over the Ukrainians and Russians, who captured silver and bronze respectively. But a similarly strong position at Barcelona and Atlanta had only resulted in silver.
The pressure on Monday night there were rumors that the entire team would be sacked if they came up short this time around didn't seem to affect them, though. While the Russians bobbled and the American team bombed, the Chinese seemed to grow stronger as the evening progressed, even triumphing on the vault, one of their weaker events. By the time charismatic dynamo Li Xiaopeng landed a 9.712 vault, shouts of "China, No. 1" were bouncing off the walls of the Sydney SuperDome.
Still, by the time the medals had been handed out, and the Chinese filed in for a post-victory press conference, the mood was more controlled. Each of the athletes predictably dedicated their gold medal to their coach. A couple branched out and thanked their country for their chance to attend the Games. None mentioned their families, perhaps unsurprising, since most gymnasts leave home for a state sports school by age six or seven.
In private, though, the athletes cherished their victories. Waiting for a bus to take him back to the Olympic Village, Li clasped his gold in both hands and grinned. "It's very heavy, isn't it," he said. "But I'm pretty strong, so I can handle it."