By Pritha Sarkar
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – The man dubbed as the “Michael Phelps of gymnastics” proved that when it comes to showcasing skills across six apparatus there is no equal to Kohei Uchimura.
While other gymnasts have won more medals and more golds, most notably Belarus’ Vitaly Scherbo — who bagged a record six golds at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics — no one has dominated the sport or maintained their levels of excellence for as long as the Japanese.
The 27-year-old has now scooped every Olympic and world all-around title since taking silver at the 2008 Beijing Games, a streak of eight successive global golds unmatched in gymnastics history.
“To keep it going for that long is just crazy,” summed up Britain’s Max Whitlock, who picked up bronze behind Uchimura and Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev.
“To stay at a level and at the top for that many years is a hard job. I feel very honored to stand on the podium with him.”
In a grueling sport that seems to leave champions on the scrapheap faster than it takes Phelps use his giant wingspan to swim a 200m butterfly race, Uchimura’s gymnastics lifespan defies logic.
The bad news for all his rivals is that he is still not done.
With Tokyo hosting the next Olympics, the all-conquering gymnast wants to keep going.
But what Wednesday did prove is that the chasing pack are now breathing down his neck as the margin of his victory over Verniaiev — a tiny 0.099 of a point — was too close for comfort and the narrowest of his eight all around victories.
It was no wonder Uchimura’s mother Shuko could not handle all the tension and missed his moment of triumph as she fainted while watching from the stands of the Rio Olympic Arena.
“At one point, I felt I had lost,” admitted the soft-spoken Uchimura, who has been immortalized in comic strips in his homeland and has an army of screaming teenybopper fans around the world.
Unfortunately for Verniaiev, all it took was one teeny-weeny little bobble on his dismount from the horizontal bar to lose to the man he called “the Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt of gymnastics”.
“Competing with a guy who has not given up his title since 2009 is amazing. I’m quite happy I managed to make Kohei very, very nervous. He is a legend.” said Verniaiev.
While touched by the high praise, Uchimura dismissed the comparison to his hero Bolt.
“I really hope gymnastics will be as famous as swimming by Phelps and running by Usain Bolt. But I am not in the same league as them,” added Uchimura, who owns 26 world and Olympic medals, including 13 golds.
(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar Editing by Alison Williams)