By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 12 -- It was an unlikely band of Olympians that marched onto the floor of Beijing's National Indoor Stadium in red, white and blue on Tuesday.
With no Olympic experience and no appreciable international credentials among them, the lightly regarded U.S. men's gymnasts were considered fortunate simply to breathe the same air as reigning world champion China, having barely qualified for the team finals after injuries sidelined its twin stars, Paul and Morgan Hamm.
But with heads held high, the hastily assembled cast of understudies and supporting actors staged a gritty performance -- brave, inspired but hardly error-free -- to win bronze.
It was only the fourth time a U.S. men's gymnastics team had earned a place on an Olympic podium. And it's doubtful an Olympic medal of any color has meant more.
"Every tear shed, and all the toil in life -- it's all worth it," said Raj Bhavsar, 27, who had twice been passed over for an Olympic berth before being plucked from the ranks of alternates two weeks ago.
China, as expected, won its first Olympic gymnastics gold, rallying from a shaky start to vindicate a choke-filled performance at the 2004 Athens Games.
With a different gymnast delivering its top score on five of the six mandatory events, China finished with 286.125 points, cheered on by a flag-waving, capacity crowd that alternated between chants of "Go China!" and "Go Yang Wei!"
Japan, the 2004 Olympic champion, took silver with 278.875 points.
And the Americans, who were well positioned for silver with two events remaining, held off Germany for the bronze with 275.850 points.
Houston's Jonathan Horton, 22, proved the Americans' chief asset, pacing his teammates on the rings, vault, high bar and floor.
Justin Spring of Burke threw himself into his high-bar routine with such vigor that he almost flew off the apparatus. But he hung on, thanks to fingertips of steel. And his daring whipped his teammates into a fist-pumping celebration.
But the clutch performance of the day came from Alexander "Sasha" Artemev, named to the squad less than 24 hours before the Games began, who salvaged the Americans' medal hopes on the team's final routine of the day.
China got off to a disastrous start, with none of its gymnasts nailing his floor routine's final landing. The crowd fell silent, scarcely believing that China was sixth among the eight countries competing.
The Americans started surprisingly strong, standing in third after a clean, solid showing on rings.
Under the sport's new scoring system, gymnasts are graded by two measures: the difficulty of their routines and the quality of the execution.
Each gymnast's routine is assigned a "start value" based on its difficulty, which varies widely.
On nearly every apparatus, China's start values exceed other countries, which means its athletes begin with a higher score.
But the final score is what remains after deductions are taken for errors of execution. As a result, it can be just as prudent to perform moderately difficult routines perfectly, as it can to perform dazzling routines with a few errors.
Fully aware they couldn't match China's acrobatic prowess, the Americans put a premium on consistency. And it served them well in the early going, as they crept from third, to second and then to first.
But China surged ahead on the vault and solidified its lead with a marvelous display of power and control on the parallel bars.
Meantime, the Americans stumbled on the floor, setting an ominous tone for their final event -- the pommel horse, their well-known weakness.
But that's precisely why U.S. coaches tapped Artemev to replace Morgan Hamm. It was a gamble, given Artemev's penchant for high-flying stunts he can't always control. But it was a necessary gamble.
The pressure couldn't have been greater. Just minutes before, Joey Hagerty's missteps on the floor exercise dropped the United States from silver to bronze.
With their medal prospects eroding, the U.S. men gathered in a group embrace. Someone said it felt like an NCAA championship rather the Olympics. And that's the spirit they adopted, forgetting any notion of medals and banding together as if fighting for school pride.
"We knew no one has ever had a perfect meet," Spring said. No one pointed a finger of blame. Instead, they put their faith in the three teammates about to perform on the pommel horse.
"I told the pommel-horse guys, 'I love you, no matter what happens,' " Spring said. "And that's true."
Artemev was their closer, having waited all morning to compete on this one apparatus.
"We said, 'Let go and swing big!' " Bhavsar recalled. "He tends to do better when he swings big."
And Bhavsar clasped his hands and hoped for the best.
The tiny Artemev stood tall, delivering a routine that lacked the technical difficulty of China's best but soared with passion.
"It's absolutely phenomenal," U.S. assistant coach Miles Avery said. "I don't know how many other teams could have done that, given what this team went through. A lot of people thought that without Paul and Morgan, we had nothing. But we did. We had a lot."