TOKYO (Reuters) -“King” Kohei Uchimura’s distinguished Olympic career came to a shock end on the opening day of the gymnastics competition when he suffered a crash landing and failed to qualify for the horizontal bar final, while Japan pushed on without one of the sport’s all-time greats.
What had been a routine start to the gymnastics competition on Saturday turned into an emotion-packed afternoon as Uchimura, the reigning world and Olympic all-around champion, brought the curtain down on a brilliant Games career in an empty home arena.
The man who reigned supreme in the all-around over two Olympic cycles, winning every world and Olympic title from 2009 to 2016 in the event that tests skills across six apparatus, had opted to concentrate on just the horizontal bar at the Tokyo Olympics after injuries took a toll on his body.
But after losing his grip while rotating around the bar, the 32-year-old had no chance of reaching the apparatus final and a shot at an eighth Olympic medal.
Uchimura’s exit was yet another disappointment for the hosts already dealing with a stream of embarrassing gaffes and COVID-19 woes.
There was, however, some good news as Japan posted the top mark in team qualifying ahead of China and Russia, competing in Tokyo as representatives of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) because the country was stripped of its flag and anthem for doping offences.
Just hours before Uchimura’s abrupt exit, Russia’s 2018 world champion Artur Dalaloyan had shed tears of joy on the same stage having battled through the pain of a surgically repaired Achilles tendon to clinch a spot in the all-around final.
Uchimura, the only active gymnast close to matching American Simone Biles’ gravity-defying skills and popularity – at least in Japan – had hoped to give the home crowd one more thrill and take a glorious final bow.
But with spectators barred from all Olympic venues due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the uncharacteristic slip from the bar meant the Japanese favourite missed out on receiving the rousing sendoff he deserved.
After falling to the mat with a thud, Uchimura returned to complete his routine before walking off forlornly knowing his fate had been sealed with a low mark of 13.866, his Olympic career effectively ending with a whimper in the eerily quiet arena.
“I don’t want to look back on it because I failed,” said Uchimura, who did not rule out competing again at the world championships later this year in Japan. “In the last three Olympics I was always able to perform what I practised.
“I don’t have that skill anymore, I am past my peak I just have to accept that calmly.”
Eight nations advanced to Monday’s team final while 24 gymnasts qualified for the individual all-around on Wednesday and eight to each of the six apparatus finals.
Japan, China and Russia are expected to claim the lion’s share of the medals, as they did at the Rio Olympics and recent world championships, including the team and all-around titles.
Defending Olympic team champions Japan sent notice that even without talisman Uchimura they will not be surrendering their title without a fight after posting the top qualifying mark of 262.251, narrowly ahead of 2008 and 2012 champions China on 262.061.
World champions Russia sit third with 261.945 more than five points clear of the United States on 256.761.
“I don’t think our team was really good today, but we made our best effort,” said ROC’s Nikita Nagornyy, the reigning world all-around champion. “We have a lot to do.
“There are still tasks for us, and to do it much better (in the team final).”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Tokyo. Additional reporting Elaine Lies, Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber. Editing by Karishma Singh and Pritha Sarkar)