MONTREAL, Canada—Tonight a new men’s gymnastics world champion will be crowned for the first time since 2009. With six-time defending world champion Kohei Uchimura forced to withdraw from the competition with an ankle injury, the men’s field—like the Simone Biles-less women’s field—is wide open. The question: Who will be the new king?
If you had asked this question before the world championships, the question would’ve been phrased differently. It would’ve been, “Can anyone beat Kohei?” And the most popular answer would’ve been “Oleg Verniaiev.” Despite an unfortunate crotching incident at the recent University Games, the Ukrainian is the defending world and Olympic champion on the parallel bars. And he came within a tenth of a point of defeating Uchimura in the all-around at last summer’s Olympics. Many were hoping for a rematch here in Montreal.
And Verniaiev still has a very strong chance of becoming the next men’s world champion, even if the hoped-for showdown between him and Uchimura won’t materialize. Though he placed fifth in qualifications, he had mistakes on two events, which means he can certainly improve his scores and his all-around ranking.
But another strong contender—perhaps the strongest—is Cuba’s Manrique Larduet. There wasn’t a whole lot of buzz around Larduet heading into this year’s worlds despite the fact he is the defending world all-around silver medalist. In 2015, he placed second behind Uchimura, but unlike Verniaiev’s second, which was just a hair from first, Larduet’s was more than a point behind the Japanese superstar.
Still, it was a huge accomplishment for the Cuban men’s program. It was their first all-around medal in world championship competition. (Their first medal period came in 2001 when Charlie Tamayo won a bronze on vault.)
Another reason there wasn’t a ton of talk about Larduet is because the Cuban gymnasts don’t get out much. By that I mean they don’t get the opportunity to travel far for competitions due to a lack of funds. Typically, they only compete in competitions that are held in the Western Hemisphere, so things like the Pan-American Games or the Pan-American Championships or anything Pan-Am really.
What this means is that it’s hard to know what to expect from the Cuban gymnasts until they actually show up somewhere to compete. Though Larduet looked incredible in 2015, he was injured at the Olympics the following year and didn’t have a great competition. Larduet did a small meet this summer in Guatemala and he didn’t look awesome. Also, these kind of competitions are not the most competitive so even a stronger performance there wouldn’t have made it clear how he’d stack up against a strong international field at the world championships.
It turns out, he stacks up pretty fucking well. He qualified in first place into the men’s all around final.
In the mixed zone after preliminaries, the Cuban seemed pleased with his performance, if a bit subdued. He had competed in the first subdivision of four. He knew he had done well. His eventual qualification to the all-around final in the top group did not seem to be in doubt. But it was highly questionable whether his score would hold up through the next three rounds of men’s qualifications. Little did he know that the Uchimura would get injured halfway through subdivision three and that the floor would break in subdivision four.
Larduet, speaking in Spanish, also addressed the ongoing crisis in the Caribbean after the region was pummeled by hurricane after hurricane. “The situation is hard. It’s very hard,” he said. “So hard that the Puerto Rican athletes didn’t have the opportunity to participate in this global competition because of how they were affected by the storm.” There was, in fact, at least one Puerto Rican gymnast in Montreal, but this athlete trains in Miami.
When he was asked what we could expect from him in finals, Larduet answered, “You’re going to see a spectacle.”
The “spectacle” Larduet spoke of could refer to his gymnastics on the mat or his performance after the routines are done. Larduet is an incredibly stylish performer. He tumbles high, rotates quickly, and kicks out of his somersaults before he lands. During the prelims, he did a simple front layout on floor exercise that seemed to hang in the air for a moment before turning over to his feet. It was beautiful.
But the “spectacle” could also refer to the performance that comes after the routine, too. At the Pan-American Games in 2015, Larduet stuck his dismount from the parallel bars and started encouraging the crowd to cheer for him. The “problem” was that he did this before he showed deference to the judges, i.e. saluting. While this wasn’t exactly a raucous end-zone dance, it was enough to supposedly earn him a warning. Gymnastics is still a staid sport mostly run by old white men.
It will not be easy for Larduet to win. The men’s field, even without Uchimura, is intensely competitive. The top five are bunched within a point of each other and any one of them could take the gold. It all comes down to who has a really good day. But if Larduet is the one who ends up having the best day, here’s hoping gymnastics powers that be let him celebrate any way he likes.