China's Gymnasts Finally Reign Supreme

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Jamie Squire / Getty Images

China's Xiao Qin competes on the Pommel Horse in the men's team gymnastics final on August 12

For the past four years, China's Olympic Waterloo has haunted the men's gymnastics squad. Consistent world champions, China's tumblers disintegrated at the Athens games, finishing a shocking fifth, with Japan's gymnasts snatching the gold.

This time around, China, the reigning world champions, wanted vengeance — and they got it by a gaping 7.250 margin over their Japanese rivals. In a packed stadium where a giant T.V. screen repeatedly lauded the Chinese performances with the word "wonderful" — only one American merited a "fantastic" — the team got down to the business of winning gold for China. The start was shaky. In the second rotation, Huang Xu fumbled on the pommel horse, earning a score of 14.750 and putting pressure on pommel world champion Xiao Qin, who redeemed the squad with 16.175. (Xiao had slipped on the pommel four years ago in Athens, contributing to the team's implosion.) Despite Xiao's clutch routine, at the end of the second rotation, China was in fifth place, with France and the U.S. in first and second, respectively.

But it was the rings that brought redemption to the Chinese team. Huang Xu made up for his pommel bobble with a 16.00, while three-time Olympian Yang Wei, who is engaged to another Chinese Olympic medalist gymnast, scored 16.3 on one of his strongest apparatuses. Chen Yibing wrapped up the Chinese rotation with 16.575.

By the fourth round, the Chinese had found their Olympic groove and never faltered from that moment onward. On the vault, Li Xiaopeng scored a mindboggling 16.775, the highest score of the competition. Indeed, the Chinese ended up earning the highest scores on all apparatuses except floor. The Japanese tried to keep pace but couldn't match their hosts' technical difficulty and skillful execution. Meanwhile, the Americans — who weren't favored for a medal after the withdrawal of twins Morgan and Paul Hamm, two of the team's top gymnasts — found themselves, for a moment, in contention for the silver. But a 12.775 fumble on the pommel horse by Kai Wen Tan cost the U.S. team a possible second-place finish. The team went home with a bronze, and the defending champion Japanese claimed the No. 2 spot. "I feel ashamed that we didn't win the gold," said Koki Sakamoto. "But I am proud that we tried to the very end and never gave up."

When the scoreboard showed the final tally for the host team, an awe-inspiring 286.125 under a scoring system that debuted at this Olympics, the Chinese squad dissolved into tears — a rare show of emotion. The tears flowed particularly freely for Zou Kai, a 1.5m tall Olympic first-timer, whose fluid performance on the horizontal bar capped the night's performance. "It's fantastic," said the native of Sichuan province, who spent nervous hours waiting to hear that his parents were safe after the May earthquake struck. "I told myself, 'Feel free and be yourself,' and it worked." (Zou, evidently, isn't always this free. Among his hobbies, the 47kg gymnast has listed: "Keeping my weight down.")

Gymnastics is a punishing sport, and training through injuries is particularly common among Chinese athletes. The high-scoring vaulter Li, for instance, continued competing on the parallel bars in the qualification round even though his arm began bleeding. "My arm bleeds every time I practice," said the athlete, who has also suffered a string of foot and ankle ailments. "It is normal for me."

A little spilled blood was nothing compared to the intense pressure on gymnasts in need of redemption on their home turf. The relief upon striking gold was palpable among the Chinese men. "There were many expectations of us," said Huang, who started training in the sport at age five and is competing in his third — and likely last — Olympics. "I'm so relieved that we got the gold and realized China's dream."