THE BEST: Members of the Chinese men's gymnastics team celebrate after winning the Olympic team gold
On August 13, the Chinese women's gymnastics team took their first Olympic gold in the Beijing Games. Led by veteran Cheng Fei, the six girl gymnasts scored 188.900 points in four events. Just the day before, the Chinese men's gymnastics team won back the Olympic gold medal that they lost four years ago in Athens. In the process China became the first country to clinch both men's and women's team gold medals in Olympic gymnastics in 16 years.
Men: making a comeback
The men's team finished fifth, its worst result in history, in the Athens Olympics. Performances riddled with errors scuppered their medal chances, and many team members thought of retiring after returning to Beijing. In that year, 24-year-old Yang Wei wanted to quit. Huang Xu, the captain, also considered to end his career. Olympic gold medalist Li Xiaopeng was seriously injured and could not train even he wanted to.
Reviewing the failure in Athens, Gao Jian, Director of the Gymnastics Management Center under the State General Administration of Sport, thought it was a series of ripple effects that came from poor preparations. Huang Yubin, head coach of the Chinese men's team, tried to persuade the veterans to stay. "Have you achieved your dreams yet? You can take advantage of your edge under the new scoring system and new rules. You can perform better if you practice more in the training," Huang said to his team.
Yang Wei returned to training and won individual all-round titles in the 2006 and 2007 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. Huang Xu and Li Xiaopeng chose to stay, too.
"Everyday is nothing but hard training. Almost none of us had time to rest," coach Huang said when recalling the days before the Beijing Olympics. Criticisms from 17 different media organizations were hung on a wall in the gymnasium. The purpose of establishing a "wall of shame" was to remind the whole team of the crash in Athens.
Chinese gymnasts regained their dominance after two years of hard training. They overwhelmed their rivals at the 2006 World Gymnastics Championships in Aarhus, Denmark; however, their floor exercises still lacked stability, and they were also inferior to Russia and Japan on the horizontal bar. In the 2007 World Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, the Chinese team remarkably improved its weak points by scoring 46.175 points in the floor exercises and 47.025 points on the pommel horse. In the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, they gained all of the leading positions on the pommel horse, rings, vaulting, parallel bars and horizontal bar.
"We've been depressed for four years by the defeat in Athens. All of the athletes and coaches are eager for the team gold in the Beijing Olympics. The victory is the reward for our painstaking efforts over the past years," Huang said.
For 27-year-old Li Xiaopeng, this gold medal is more than special. It is his 15th world championship, which means that he has finally overtaken Li Ning, one of China's sports icon, who lit the cauldron of the Beijing Olympic Games, to become the Chinese gymnast with the most world titles.
Although this Olympics might be the last time for triple Olympians Yang Wei, Li Xiaopeng and Huang Xu, it is a comfort for all Chinese to see upstarts Chen Yibing, Xiao Qin, Zou Kai, and other young athletes in China's gymnastics team showing world-class skills. Five days after his team's success at the National Indoor Stadium, 20-year-old Zou Kai won the men's floor exercises gold medal with 16.050 points.
Women: more balanced skills
Before 2008, the Chinese women's gymnastics team claimed two bronze medals in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and the Sydney Olympics in 2000. In 2004, it finished seventh in Athens. For a long time the team could only rely on individual performances on the uneven bars and balance beam, for gold. Just before the Athens Games the team adjusted its strategy, understanding it would never reach the dream of team gold if it was only strong in certain disciplines.
Cheng Fei joined the national team in 2003, leading the way in overcoming the traditional weakness in vaulting and floor exercises, in which only gymnasts with great power and strength in their legs can succeed.
Ma Yanhong, winner of the uneven bars at the Los Angeles Olympics, said, "Cheng Fei has the greatest lower body strength in successive Chinese women's gymnastics team." This may explain why Lu Shanzhen, the head coach, placed high expectations on Cheng and made her team captain. Meanwhile, a group of younger athletes with the same traits as Cheng, such as Jiang Yuyuan and Li Shanshan, were recruited as backups for the Chinese gymnastics team. In the Beijing Olympics, from the qualifiers to the finals, China almost evened the scores in vaulting with the United States and caused a major upset by 1 point in the floor exercises.
Russia and Romania, two traditional superpowers in gymnastics, were less impressive in the team finals of the Beijing Olympic Games. The Russian and Romanian men's teams finished sixth and seventh, respectively; while Russia's girls lost bronze to the 2004 champions Romania.
The new scoring system effective after the Athens Olympics has also imposed negative impacts on Russian and Romanian gymnasts.
By adopting an A+B scoring system, the International Gymnastics Federation dropped the "Perfect 10" in 2006, which works against Russians and Romanians, who previously excelled in error-free performances, but favors the Chinese gymnasts who are more proficient in difficulty of movement. The A score measures the difficulty and represents an athlete's capacity, while the B measures the quality of performance. In the team finals of these Olympics, the Chinese men's team beat Japan by 7.25 points and the women's team led the United States by 2.375 points. Both the men's and women's teams took advantages of the A score.
Besides, success rate matters a lot to the gymnasts, especially the female gymnasts, who competed in only four events (men in six). Any tiny error may fail the whole team. In the finals of the Beijing Games, the United States made two errors while China made only one.