Olympics: China Vaults to Gymnastics Superpower Status

China muscled aside the competition to proclaim itself the gymnastics world's new Olympic superpower at the Beijing Games, dominating the sport in a manner not seen since the Soviet era.

China's Dong Dong stands on the podium after the men's trampoline final of the artistic gymnastics event of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing on August 19, 2008.

In a competition that was at times overshadowed by judging controversies and questions about the age of China's female gymnasts, the host nation finally converted its success at world championship level into Olympic gold.

China's gymnasts hit form as they were cheered on night after night by 18,000 screaming fans at the National Indoor Stadium, snaring nine of the 14 gold on offer, second only to the USSR's 10 in Seoul in 1988.

The Chinese men won all but one of their eight events, redeeming a poor performance in Athens that yielded just one gold.

"Four years ago we had a large failure in Athens and we blamed ourselves," head coach Huang Yubin said. "Today, we're all proud of ourselves. This success is due to the hard work, mental toughness and excellent skills of our gymnasts."

The US pair of Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson ensured China's women did not have the same stranglehold on their competition, but they still chipped in with gold in the team event and uneven bars.

The uneven bars final on Monday night neatly encapsulated the two main controversies that dogged the competition -- its winner, China's He Kexin, was allegedly underage and she took gold with exactly the same mark as runner-up Liukin.

He was one of three Chinese female athletes who persistently faced questions about their age after media reports said online records and profiles showed they did not turn 16 this year, as required under Olympic rules.

Doubts remained even after the Chinese produced passports for the International Olympic Committee showing the trio were the correct age and the media peppered the gymnasts with questions on the issue at every opportunity.

As the IOC admitted there was no definitive way to test an athlete's age, a frustrated He wished the controversy would go away.

"How can I do more? Explain more? No matter what people say, I'm still 16," she said.

The uneven bars final also threw the spotlight on the IOC's complicated tiebreak system, which caused mass confusion when He and Liukin received the same score but the American had to settle for silver.

Incredibly, a similar situation occurred in the men's vault final, when France's Thomas Bouhail missed out on gold despite earning the same score as the winner Leszek Blanik of Poland.

Even FIG president Bruno Grandi said the system was unfair and blamed the fiasco on rules imposed by the International Olympic Committee.

"For me, it’s not correct," Grandi said. "When two people arrive at the same level, why not make them both champions?

"I believe it’s correct to have two gold medals, but this is my modest opinion. The IOC is different."

Liukin could take consolation in her individual all-around gold and an overall medal tally of five, exceeding the four won by her father and coach Valeri competing for the Soviet Union in 1988.

Her compatriot Johnson won three silver medals before finally finishing on top of the podium with her last routine of the Games on balance beam.

The US women lost the team event to China after a series of uncharacteristic mistakes, but team coordinator Martha Karolyi said their success in the individual events showed their strength.

"It proved the supremacy of American gymnastics," she said.

Romania looked a shadow of the side that won four gold in Athens, with just one win on floor exercise in the women's competition, while Japan fielded a promising young team in the men's but fell short of China's mark.

Chinese women's head coach Lu Shanzhen said the success in Beijing would make the sport more popular among youngsters, laying the foundation for a golden era in Chinese gymnastics.

"In China we will have more people coming into gymnastics, I'm sure of this and we will be even stronger in the future," he said.

Source: AFP

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