As the U.S. team’s captain and chief cheerleader, Horton, 26, pulled his fellow gymnasts together to share his gilded vision, telling them shortly before the team final that they could return to the Olympic Village that night as Olympic champions.
After a disastrous performance relegated the Americans to fifth, their worst showing since finishing fifth at the 2000 Sydney Games, Horton was left to wonder if he hadn’t pushed the wrong emotional buttons in his pre-competition pep talk.
“Maybe that was a little bit of my fault,” said Horton, the lone holdover from the U.S. team that won bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games. “Maybe I should have kept everyone a little more relaxed.”
As the U.S imploded at North Greenwich Arena, China crushed all comers, defending its 2008 gold with performances that were technically rigorous and soundly executed across the board to finish with 275.997 points. No other country got within four points of that mark.
Japan (271.952) took silver, successfully appealing a pommel-horse score to deny Britain second-place honors. The host nation settled for bronze — an achievement that British fans met with wild enthusiasm, nonetheless, given that their men’s gymnasts hadn’t won an Olympic team medal since 1912.
The Americans’ fifth-place finish represented a stunning fall for a team many felt would make history Sunday. No U.S. men’s squad had ever won gymnastics’ prestigious team gold in a non-boycotted Games. The Americans took top honors at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, but Russia, then a gymnastics power, didn’t take part.
Whatever self-recrimination Horton felt in the aftermath Sunday was entirely misplaced. The Americans’ collapse was total, with every gymnast (save Horton himself) underperforming to breathtaking degree.
The team’s two best gymnasts, Danell Leyva and John Orozco, who qualified for the individual all-around competition, had particularly bad days.
Orozco lost his composure entirely and “sat” on the pommel horse, incurring a costly deduction on a routine in which only the hands are allowed to contact the apparatus. His score, 12.733, was 23rd among all 24 competitors. Then he fell on the landing of his vault. And Leyva flew off the pommel horse midway through his routine, earning a sub-par 13.400.
“It just didn’t go as planned,” said Orozco, 19, of the Bronx, who posted the lowest score for the Americans on four of the five events in which he competed.
Midway through the competition, after three of the six mandatory events were complete, the U.S. men were dead last among the eight nations vying for the team crown, out-performed by such non-gymnastic powers as France, Germany and the determined host nation.