It’s been four years since Chinese men’s gymnastics occupied the top step of a team medal podium. After losing the team world title to Japan at the most recent team worlds in 2015 and then earning only a team bronze in Rio (and no individual medals), since Rio, the Chinese men have clearly been focused on reasserting their dominance over gymnastics.
That started at last year’s worlds, which didn’t feature a team competition, but did see Xiao Ruoteng win the world all-around title, the first non–Kohei Uchimura world all-around winner since 2007. (Uchimura had withdrawn due to injury.) Teammate Lin Chaopan placed second.
Today in Doha, the Chinese men defeated a powerful Russian team by half a tenth. You can’t really call it a comeback—I mean, they haven’t missed a world team medal since 2001—but for the Chinese men, after their four-year exile from team gold, this meet probably felt like one.
They were not, however, without major errors. The Chinese counted three falls, the most of any team in the top four. But huge scores on the parallel bars helped offset those mistakes.
The Russian team’s silver medal is its first world team medal since 2006, which may come as a surprise for those whose understanding of men’s gymnastics is stuck back when the Soviet Union existed, and was dominant. Since the breakup of the USSR, the Russian team has had flashes of brilliance—team gold in 1996 with athletes all trained under the Communist regime—marred by a lot of inconsistency. But in Rio, they surprised many and took the silver ahead of China. And in Doha, they got as close to the gold as one can get without actually winning it.
Russia’s return to the top of the sport has been fueled by big tricks, especially on floor and vault. They’ve taken advantage of the upgraded point value of the insanely difficult triple back somersault on floor exercise and throw some huge vaults, too.
Here’s video of Nikita Nagornyy and Artur Dalaloyan drilling their vaults in the final.
And here’s David Belyavskiy with some painful looking German giants on high bar.
Nearly three full points behind the top two teams was Japan, the defending world and Olympic champion.
Beyond medals, also at stake in Doha were guaranteed Olympic berths for the top three teams. So the results from today mean China, Russia, and Japan are set, team-wise, for Tokyo 2020. They could fall apart next year at worlds—they won’t—and they’re still going to the Olympics with a full team. The remaining nine team berths will be awarded based on the results of the 2019 world championships.
Just missing out on automatic Olympic team qualification was the U.S., which placed fourth. I can’t tell you much about how the U.S. performed in the men’s team finals since very few of the Americans’ routines were shown on the livestream. I suppose I can’t complain though; it’s typically the opposite, with NBC only showing U.S. gymnasts performing, or even just standing around at the expense of broadcasting the top competitors. But based on reading tweets from people actually in the arena, it seems that the U.S. turned in a really strong performance.
The U.S.’s only miss was a fall from Sam Mikulak on their first event, the pommel horse. Mikulak is the best gymnast on the U.S. team, and in preliminaries he had turned in a stellar performance, qualifying into the all-around final in third place and making four apparatus finals. He has a real shot at a medal in the all-around and on high bar. Mikulak’s performance today wasn’t quite as good, but in the end, it didn’t really matter. Given the point spread between third-place Japan and the U.S., you can’t really argue that Mikulak’s mistake truly cost the U.S. the bronze. A fall is a point deduction and the U.S. was about 1.8 behind the Japanese team. The best they could hope for in Doha was fourth place. This was their destiny.
The U.S. team has a glaring weakness on the high bar. With the exception of Mikulak’s exceptional routine—he had the highest score of the field in the team final—the other routines set them back nearly a point each because of low difficulty. If the U.S. wants to get back on the team medal podium—their last appearance was a bronze in 2014—they’re going to have to find at least one more high bar worker.