Let the party begin: The Chinese
finally have the medal they’ve always craved. The Americans,
meanwhile, are going home empty-handed.
China, the underachieving silver medalist in the last two Olympics, easily won the men’s team gold medal today. The squad with so many good gymnasts it could afford to leave some home scored 231.919 points, setting off the all-night victory party that’s been in the works since the team arrived.
Ukraine finished second, and defending gold medalist Russia was third.
There will be no parties in the United States — unless pity parties count. Looking for their first team medal since 1984 — and their first in a non-boycotted Olympics since 1932 — the Americans blew it, finishing fifth.
Slipping, Sliding, Stepping Out
It was a bitter disappointment, especially since the Americans finished fourth in the preliminaries. Despite a subpar night from five-time national champion Blaine Wilson, the Americans were only 0.448 points out of third.
But the scores from prelims were tossed out for today’s finals, and the Americans’ momentum went right along with them.
Starting on the floor exercise, normally one of their stronger events, the Americans slipped, slid and stutter-stepped. Wilson and Sean Townsend each stepped out-of-bounds, and Stephen McCain did it twice. Morgan Hamm slipped, almost landing on his backside.
Not huge mistakes, but in a sport where medals are won and lost by tenths of a point, there isn’t any room to give.
Disappointing Outing for Wilson
John Roethlisberger, the emotional center of the team, couldn’t even bear to watch his bumbling teammates, burying his face in his hands on the sidelines.
Things didn’t get much better as they moved around the floor. On rings, Wilson’s strongest event, he took a hop back on his landing. He was grimacing in disgust as he saluted the judges, and he took a slap at the support wires as he left the podium.
On the vault, Townsend hit the horse hard and flew through the air, somersaulting twice as he soared. And then he landed — flat on his backside.
By the time the fourth rotation was over, the Americans were 1.499 points from a medal and more than a point out of fifth place.
They finally got some life in the parallel bars, gliding above and between the apparatus with ease. They made the routines look so easy, just like playing on the jungle gym back home.
They had four scores of 9.7 or better, and Wilson gave a sigh of relief after finishing his routine, which earned him a 9.777, his highest score of the night.
But the respite was brief. Going first on the high bar, Paul Hamm fell twice. Then Wilson fell off, and all that was left was to put on the warmups, watch the final routine of Roethlisberger’s career and trudge home.
For the Chinese, though, the fun was just getting started.
They’ve wanted Olympic gold to go with their five world titles for so long now. They came to the Olympics as the favorite in 1992 and 1996, only to fold under the pressure and finish second to the Russians.
This time would be different, they vowed. Though they finished second to the Russians in the preliminaries, they came out today night like they owned the place. Starting on the parallel bars, they nailed routine after routine and took a lead that they never gave back.
On the high bar, their next rotation, they flew so high in the air they looked like trapeze artists at a circus.
They were slapping high-fives from the first rotation on, pumping their fists like they were cocky Americans.
By the time the fourth rotation was over, they led by more than a point and the rout was on. They were so far ahead that they let their final gymnast simply drop off the still rings instead of doing a dismount.
Egged on by enthusiastic fans who yelled “Go for it, China!” over and over, things got so rowdy the Chinese were actually huddling together for group hugs. This from a people who come from a country where kissing in public is just now being accepted.
As the last rotation was winding down, the Chinese broke out in big smiles, congratulating each other and turning to salute their cheering fans. They walked out of the arena some waving their fists in the air, others flashing No. 1.
Let the party begin; the gold is theirs.