Britain will have to go to 2nd Olympic qualifier

October 10, 2011 - 8:40 AM
Japan World Gymnastics

China's Feng Zhe performs on the parallel bars during the men's qualifying of the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, Japan, Monday, Oct. 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

TOKYO (AP) — The British men will have to take the long route to the London Olympics.

China finished a surprising third in qualifying at the world gymnastics championships Monday night, the first time they've finished anywhere but first at a major competition since the 2004 Olympics. Still, it was enough to bump Britain's men down to 10th place — and out of the running for the eight spots at next summer's London Olympics that are available here.

Japan finished first in qualifying with 364.291 points, followed by the United States (361.583) and China (359.126). Germany, last year's bronze medalists, were fourth and Russia fifth.

"Of course we want to get the best" score," Chen Yibing, who owns two gold medals from the Beijing Olympics and six from the world championships, said through a translator. "But it's competition. It happens sometimes."

At least the Chinese get a do-over in Tokyo, with team finals Wednesday night. Britain will now have to wait until the January test event at the O2 Arena to try and qualify for the London Olympics, something they — and everyone else — desperately wanted to avoid.

Britain has not qualified to send a full men's team to an Olympics since 1992.

"We don't really fancy canceling Christmas to work through the holidays and compete in the test event," Louis Smith said. "But if that's what we have to do, then we have to do it."

And the British have no one to blame but themselves.

After making its best showing by finishing seventh at last year's worlds, Britain melted down in spectacular fashion over its final three events. Daniel Keatings fell on both high bar and pommel horse, the event on which he won the European title in 2010, and Kristian Thomas made major errors. Britain had to count four scores of 13.633 or lower in the last three events.

Compare that to the Americans, who counted only one score below 14.3.

"It wasn't exactly like it was technical errors, it was just flukey errors," Keatings said, clearly exasperated with himself. "I can't really explain what happened. But I'm annoyed it did happen."

Even after high bar, where Keatings and Ruslan Panteleymonov peeled off and Thomas had several stalls, an Olympic spot seemed safe. The British rebounded with one strong effort after another on floor, posting the third-highest team score, and wrapped up the meet on pommel horse, typically one of their best events.

But Thomas stalled as he went into his dismount and had to put his feet on the horse, drawing a gasp from the crowd. Thomas let out a moan as he walked off the podium — and probably gave another when he saw his score of 12.333.

Teams drop their lowest score, however, and Britain was anchoring the event with Keatings, the 2010 European champion on pommels, and Smith, the bronze medalist at the Beijing Olympics. But Keatings' hands slipped as he worked between the pommels, sending him spinning onto his back and then tumbling to the mat.

That brought up Smith. With Britain's Olympic hopes hanging in the balance, the pommel horse specialist needed to wring every possible tenth he could out of his routine, the toughest done in Tokyo so far, and he was almost flawless.

Most gymnasts grind their way through horse, simply praying to stay on the apparatus. But Smith is so fluid he's almost hypnotic, and the elegance of his routine masks its difficulty. He displayed perfect control as he worked his way around the pommels, the slap of his hands on the horse the only sound in the silent arena.

When he pressed into his final handstand, his teammates exhaled, and he finished with a flourishing pirouette. He flashed a big smile as he saluted the judges and screamed, "Yes!" as he trotted off the podium.

Smith's 15.6 gave the British 348.742 points — putting them in sixth place, just 0.017 points ahead of Spain.

"That was very stressful," Daniel Purvis said. "Well done for Louis. He was last up, we needed a big score and he came through. That was great."

It would not be enough. France passed the British in the next qualifying session, Russia knocked them down to eighth place.

And the Chinese hadn't even taken the floor yet.

China has produced more gold than a mine since a dismal showing at the 2004 Olympics, winning the team title at the Beijing Olympics and all but one of the seven individual medals. It added a fourth straight title at last year's worlds, along with golds on still rings, parallel bars and high bar. With four members of that team here in Tokyo (a fifth, Yan Mingyong, is the alternate), a similar gold rush was expected.

But the Chinese didn't look all that imposing Monday night.

Oh, they weren't bad, and they had no major errors. Aside from a few routines here and there, however, they didn't seem to have their usual swagger.

"I'm not so surprised," Chen said. "The result was not so good."

Scoring starts over in the team finals and the format changes, with three gymnasts competing on each event and all three scores counting. And Germany's Philipp Boy said he fully expects to see a different China — the China of old.

"With the final, China is very, very strong," said Boy, who watched Monday night's competition in the stands with his teammates. "They have three persons on each apparatus who are very, very strong. I don't think about (catching) Japan and China."