The names were Teng Haibin, Chen Yibing, Yan Mingyong, Lu Bo, Feng Zhe, and Zhang Chenglong…one returning Olympic champion from Beijing, one from back in Athens, a rings world champion, a world p-bars silver medalist, and two worlds rookies. The results that evening in Rotterdam were no surprise to the gymnastics world, but it allowed the world to once again see the undeniable depth of this stunning team that simply refuses to be beaten.
The Chinese men have won every world championship team title except for one since 1991, as well as Olympic team gold medals in 2000 and 2008. China’s world team title last year was its fourth straight, having also won gold in 2003, 2006, and 2007. The number of individual gold medalists from China in the past decade have been nearly too numerous to count, ranging from Yang Wei’s three consecutive all-around golds from 2006-2008, to Xiao Qin’s stunning streak of pommel horse golds from 2005-2008, to Chen Yibing’s ongoing domination of rings – from 2006-2008, in 2010, and likely this year as well. There are numerous other individual world and Olympic champions from China in recent years – Li Xiaopeng, Teng Haibin, Zou Kai, Zhang Hongtao, and Zhang Chenglong – just to name a few – but the greatest pride and ambition for the Chinese will always lie in its quest for world and Olympic team gold.
China’s gold medal winning team in Beijing in 2008 was absolutely legendary. The six men who represented their host nation those two weeks will go down in history as some of the greatest gymnasts who ever lived – Yang Wei, Li Xiaopeng, Xiao Qin, Huang Xu, Zou Kai, and Chen Yibing . That summer, these six phenoms put together the most dominant Olympic team performance in history, winning the team title over Japan by 7.25 points – including the top team score on five out of six events. They went on to not only produce the all-around gold medalist, but five out of the six possible event gold medalists as well.
China’s world team from 2010 was very strong, but not nearly as dominant as the team from Beijing. The Chinese outscored Japan in Rotterdam by just 1.228 – about six points closer than the Olympic team final in 2008 was. China also demonstrated some rarely seen weaknesses in Rotterdam, posting some relatively low pommel horse scores and being outscored by a couple of teams on vault and high bar. In the end, they did once again wear gold around their necks, but there’s no doubt the other top teams left Rotterdam with some hope that gold medals were perhaps within reach in the near future.
That future may be here. Many fans are anticipating an intensely heated showdown in Tokyo between the last two Olympic team champions – Japan and China. This year Japan will enjoy the same home court advantage that China benefited from in 2008, and will do so with one of its most powerful teams of all time. Armed with a gymnast many are beginning to argue is the greatest male gymnast in history – two-time world all-around champion Kohei Uchimura – and backed by a tremendously proud home crowd, the Japanese are fully capable of putting an abrupt end to China’s near twenty-year-long celebration on top of the world podium. This battle could become even more interesting if things fall into place for the United States, Germany, or Great Britain, all of whom bring some of the strongest teams they’ve ever fielded to Tokyo.