By Alexandra Ulmer
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - A nervous Russian female gymnastics team slipped up time and again in qualifying on Sunday in the Rio Olympic Arena and not until they mounted the asymmetric bars did the former powerhouse redeem themselves.
They were provisionally second behind China by the afternoon with 174.620 points, but are likely to slip down further once the all-star American team makes its first appearance later in the day.
Russia's Aliya Mustafina, who earned 15.833 on the bars but just 13.033 on the beam, blamed the disappointing performances on opening-day nerves at the first South American Olympics.
"We performed not so good but not so bad either, I think it's normal for the first day," Mustafina told reporters through an interpreter after the second of five subdivisions.
While the Russian female team got a silver medal in the London 2012 Games, they failed to make the podium at the 2015 world championships in Glasgow and there has been speculation they may not do much more in Rio.
"I think we have become better (since Glasgow) and the program and everything is solid but we really need to work on our nerves and get over our nerves," said Mustafina, 21.
The sports doping scandal engulfing Russia was an "inconvenience," she said, but stressed the team was doing its utmost not to be distracted by the frenzy.
There were some good performance by Russians, who have a strong Soviet-era tradition of gymnastics, including Seda Tutkhalianst, although she was penalized for stepping outside the mat during her buoyant routine.
None of Sunday's scores will be carried through to the team final. In qualifying, four competitors from each country compete on each apparatus with only the top three scores counting toward the total. In the final each nation will put forward three athletes and all three scores will count.
But regardless of efforts to get jitters under control, Mustafina echoed what nearly the entire gymnastics world is saying in Rio: Gymnast Simone Biles and her fellow American competitors are destined for gold.
"It's going to be really difficult to compete against the American team, they are unbeatable at the moment," said Mustafina.
"We need to fight, we need to do our best, and we'll see what happens."
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer)