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Men’s World Team Battle…Japan or China?

That question will be answered very soon at the upcoming world championships in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, but we’ve got enough data to at least speculate.  The 2010 worlds will be the first world team competition since the Beijing Olympics, where China dominated the competition, and Japan and the U.S. took silver and bronze.  There have been quite a few changes to the Chinese men’s team since Beijing, including the retirement of world and Olympic all-around champion Yang Wei as well as three other 2008 olympic team members – Xiao Qin, Li Xiaopeng, and Huang Xu.  Even without these veterans, China still managed to dominate the individual world championships last year in London, winning gold on four out of the six events and two additional silvers.  A few new stars like pommel horse phenom Zhang Hongtao, rings stud Yan Mingyong, and p-bars champ Wang Guanyin served notice that China’s winning ways weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

But having multiple individual stars doesn’t guarantee an equally spectacular team effort under today’s competition format, and it’s important to keep in mind that China has lost 13 out of its 18 team finals routines from Beijing and didn’t put up a single all-around gymnast at the 2009 worlds.  With Japan appearing to have more strong all-around gymnasts than China, including 2009 world champion Kohei Uchimura, who has been invincible over the last two years and has replaced Yang Wei as the world’s top all-around gymnast, many have begun to speculate that Japan may actually now be the team to beat.

In Beijing, China outscored defending Olympic champions Japan by a whopping 7.25 margin en route to one of the easiest team gold medals in history.  While the two teams were equally matched on floor and high bar, China bested Japan by about 2 ½ points on vault, 2 points on rings and p-bars, and a half a point on pommel horse.  It seems unlikely that China’s revamped team will be capable of that kind of dominance, though, and Japan does seem to have some new scores that can help fill some of those gaps – Koji Yamamuro scored mid-16’s on vault at this summer’s NHK cup, and Kazuhito Tanaka put up 16’s on p-bars, for example.

China has now won the last three major world team competitions – the 2006 worlds, the 2007 worlds, and the 2008 Olympics, with Japan winning bronze, silver, and silver at those competitions, respectively.  Although we haven’t had a world team competition since Beijing, we do know that Japan did beat China at last year’s Japan Cup by 1.65 points, and that China didn’t show up to the same competition this year.  A battle between these two teams for the world title next month seems inevitable.  Although it’s very difficult to predict the winner just yet, I expect it will be a much closer contest than the one we saw in Beijing.