Rio’s Golden Favorites: Kohei Uchimura in Men’s Gymnastics

Uchimura holds up six fingers

At the 2015 World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, after the competition ended, Kōhei Uchimura beamed into the camera and raised one finger at a time, until he showed the world six fingers, one for six consecutive world championships since 2009. Actually, it’s seven if you include the 2012 London Olympics. In fact, he is the only gymnast, either male or female, who has ever won more than two world championships in a row.

Such consistent superiority at the highest levels of gymnastics competition have left experts with little more to say about “Superman” Uchimura, except that he is the greatest gymnast who has ever lived. As USA Today put it:

There have been gymnasts who have won more medals, and those who claimed more golds. But no one – no one – has dominated like Uchimura or done it for so long. That just doesn’t happen in gymnastics, where the difficulty of the skills and the constant repetition required to perfect them means the best gymnasts have all the staying power of a Kardashian marriage. It’s simply too grueling to stay at the very top for more than one Olympic cycle.

Uchimura is amazing because he doesn’t believe he has to show he can make the most difficult maneuvers, which he probably could do. But his goal is perfection, and the beauty that perfection can reflect. Here is a wonderful interview of Uchimura conducted by the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG), in which he says the following:

Beauty of movement is my goal. My father used to say that a hundred imperfect movements cannot match a single beautiful one, and this is something I have always kept in my mind. I could perform more difficult skills, but if I did I would have problems. For instance, I don’t have the energy that I did, and I can’t keep my feet taut, so I always aim for a balance between technical difficulty and execution in my routines. This is where the beauty of gymnastics comes in.

At the ripe age of 27, the Kita Kyushu native believes he is peaking at the right time for Rio, and that this is the last chance for him to maintain this level for all-around competitions, although he does leave open the possibility, as he says in the FIG interview, of competing for Japan at home in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The Rio Olympics will probably be the last when I am at the top of my game. I want to be faultless. As the 2020 Olympics are being held in Japan, I want to carry on until then. [But] the risk of injury increases with age. One can carry on competing on the horizontal [high] bar for longer than the other apparatus. My technique is good, and I’m capable of scoring highly, so I would choose the horizontal bar.

The question is, can he lead the Japan team to its first overall gold championships since 2004, and perhaps spark another golden age of Japan’s men’s gymnastics when they won gold at six consecutive Olympics from 1960 to 1976. Uchimura will have London Olympic teammate, Koji Yamamoto, Ryohei Kato and Yusuke Tanaka, as well as a 19-year-old talent, Kenzo Shirai, who is a world champion in the floor exercise.

But there is no question: Unless Uchimura has an injury in Rio, there is very little stopping Superman from repeating as Overall Champion at the Olympics this summer.