TOKYO — Nikita Nagornyy could barely keep it together on the medals podium on Monday night after Russia won the men’s gymnastics team event at the Tokyo Olympics.
He rubbed his eyes as tears dampened his white face mask and took deep breaths to calm himself. Eventually, he resorted to taking off the mask and using it to wipe his face dry. When the gold medals arrived on a platter for the athletes to put around their own necks — a change in tradition because of Covid-19 — his teammate Artur Dalaloyan felt obliged to do it for him.
Nagornyy was in disbelief. He and the other three Russians on the team had won the gold medal over Japan. China was third. Six months ago, they had made a plan to improve and win Russia’s first men’s gymnastics team gold medal since the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Their plan was less dramatic than what happened. Monday’s win in the team final came down to a tenth of a point, 0.103 points to be exact. That amounts to just one gymnast making one tiny mistake, like a slight bend of the knees when they should be straight, during just one of the 18 routines that counted.
It’s nothing, really. But on Monday it was everything.
The gold medal was still up for grabs when the final two gymnasts performed their routines. Daiki Hashimoto, of Japan, went second to last. After a spectacular routine, the thud of his dismount echoed through Ariake Gymnastics Center. His score was 15.1 and seemed good enough to win it for his team.
As his teammates jumped with joy, Hashimoto waved to the smattering of fans in the arena, and to the many Japanese volunteers, to coax them to their feet. His admirers leapt up and cheered back at him. The team was feeling good about defending its Olympic title from 2016 at the Rio Games.
“His landing was perfect,” Takeru Kitazono, one of Hashimoto’s teammates, said. “I thought we had won gold.”
Yet they had to press pause on their celebration because Nagornyy’s floor exercise routine was left. In the end, they would not be celebrating at all.
Nagornyy ruined what promised to be a glorious Olympic moment for the Japanese home team, tumbling and twisting as well as he could on the floor exercise — indeed, better than he had planned because he added extra tumbling to increase his score. After that, he was nervous waiting for the final tabulations, he said, sure that the Japanese would get the edge from the judges because they would want to give the gold medal to the host country’s athletes.
When he saw that his score of 14.666 was good enough for the Russians to eke out the win, he dropped to the ground and wept. The Japanese gymnasts buried their heads in their hands and others stood frozen, stunned by the unexpected loss.
Nagornyy explained that the team was like the typhoon that earlier in the day was headed to Tokyo, and that “the typhoon has just won gold.”
Teammate David Belyavskiy said, “To beat Japan in their home country was a great result for us.”
Going into the team final, there was no clear favorite. The top three teams in Saturday’s qualifying — Japan, China and Russia — were separated by only three-tenths of a point before the scores were cleared for the final. It’s no surprise that three countries were in a close battle for medals.
Japan, Russia and China are perennially at the top of men’s gymnastics, and only once in 73 years has another country won Olympic gold. That was the United States in 1984, the year of the Soviet boycott, and the U.S. team has struggled to keep up since then.
On Monday, the American squad, led by three-time Olympian Sam Mikulak, did not have any major mistakes, but still finished fifth to match their finishes at the last two Olympic Games. The American men haven’t won an Olympic medal since they won a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the reason is clear: Their routines aren’t hard enough to yield competitive scores.
After the final, the U.S. team shared an epiphany. Its gymnasts had focused too much on making easier routines perfect, rather than taking a risk and trying harder ones that would yield higher points.
“Playing it safe is not worth it,” Shane Wiskus, from Spring Park, Minn., said. “When it comes to advancing U.S.A. Gymnastics and getting us on the podium, it’s not going to help us.”
The Japanese men, however, had difficult routines and had no major mistakes in them, too. Considering that their night went so smoothly, they said they were disappointed not to win the gold medal, but were proud of their performance — especially proud of Hashimoto, who was under enormous pressure but delivered a big routine when it counted.
The Russians were simply better than anyone, albeit by a tiny margin. How they got to the top of the podium could be considered somewhat of a miracle.
Denis Ablyazin fractured both of his shins in a training session after the 2019 world championships and needed titanium plates affixed to them, Nagornyy said. And Dalaloyan tore one of his Achilles’ tendons in mid-April.
Dalaloyan didn’t think he could continue with the Olympics after a training session last week because he was still recovering from the injury. His leg felt tight and inflexible. But his coaches convinced him to proceed.
After finishing the floor exercise during qualifying on Saturday, he sobbed for several minutes because he couldn’t believe he had made it this far so soon after his injury. After winning the gold medal, he cried yet again.
“My emotions overwhelmed me and were bigger than any pain or problems I’ve experienced,” he said.
At the news conference afterward, though, the Russian team was less overwhelmed and more giddy. When asked where they would keep their gold medals, Nagornyy said he would build a special case for his, with laser-triggered alarms surrounding and protecting it. Then he would make six copies of it, so he could wear those fake medals in case someone stole one. His teammates laughed along with him.
“In the end, we won the gold medal,” he said. “We did it. Our entire team did it today.”