Sports

In pursuit of perfection, ‘King’ Kohei created pure art


By the time Kohei Uchimura made his international debut in 2007, the pursuit of perfection in men’s gymnastics had begun to feel like a relic of a bygone era. The perfect 10, the iconic score made famous by Nadia Comaneci and others, had been replaced by a new scoring system, designed to minimize the scandals that plagued the sport at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Under the new system, gymnastics routines were graded on the difficulty of their content and how well that difficulty was executed. Having separate scores for difficulty and execution was supposed to make it fairer for gymnasts who took big risks in their exercises. In reality — at least at the beginning — it rewarded gymnasts who tried harder routines, whether they executed skills well or not.

Then came Uchimura.

Over the next 14 years, he set the standard for brilliance, blending an incredible aptitude for the sport with an artist’s finesse. Uchimura tamed both sides of gymnastics so well that when he announced his retirement on Tuesday, the 33-year-old was widely regarded as the greatest male gymnast of all time.

Among those expressing their appreciation for his innumerable accomplishments was International Gymnastics Federation President Morinari Watanabe, who praised the three-time Olympic gold medalist by invoking difficulty and execution as the “two wheels” of the sport.

“Only those who perform both difficulty and beauty completely can become a true gymnast,” Watanabe said. “Kohei Uchimura has continuously been the true gymnast.”

Kohei Uchimura competes on the pommel horse during the men's all-around final at the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow on Oct. 30, 2015. | REUTERS
Kohei Uchimura competes on the pommel horse during the men’s all-around final at the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow on Oct. 30, 2015. | REUTERS

Uchimura’s philosophy was as simple as a cartwheel: Practice with passion. Strive for perfection. Manage that and the rest will follow. His performances were full of virtuosity, yet he never seemed as interested in winning as he was in the art of his craft.

“Gymnastics is a sport, but as the name artistic gymnastics suggests, you need to show artistry. So when you come to the gymnastics hall, rather than seeing it as a place for competition, it’s more like an art gallery,” he explained before his ninth and final World Championships in Kitakyushu last October.

“Maybe,” he mused, “it’s more an art than a sport.”

Uchimura has never offered an opinion on whether he managed to live up to his own standard of perfection, but in the eyes of the judges, he came closer than anyone of his generation. From his art flowed a cascade of gold medals and accolades that elevated him to something beyond the best.

Kohei Uchimura competes on the rings during the men's individual all-around gymnastics final at the London Olympics on Aug. 1, 2012. | REUTERS
Kohei Uchimura competes on the rings during the men’s individual all-around gymnastics final at the London Olympics on Aug. 1, 2012. | REUTERS

By the numbers, Uchimura is a once-in-a-generation gymnast. His long list of accomplishments includes back-to-back Olympic all-around golds in 2012 and 2016 (the first man to do so since Sawao Kato in 1972), six consecutive world all-around titles collected between 2009 to 2015 (in a sport where no other man has more than two), and 21 world medals (including individual titles on floor exercise, parallel bars, and horizontal bar.)

Under his stewardship, the Japanese men won the world team title in 2015, their first in 37 years and a bright (if brief) return to the heady 1960s and 1970s, when Japanese teams were unstoppable.

His enormous repertoire of skills was augmented by the cleanliness of his technique. The high level of difficulty needed to achieve big scores in the post-perfect-10 world meant that routines could be long, and a gymnast’s effort visibly arduous. The unflappable Uchimura seemed to exist on a separate plane, sailing calmly through a competition, buffeted by a spectacular array of difficulty, all presented with a light but concentrated touch.

His unfailing ability to deliver flawless routines with perfectly stuck landings again and again left would-be rivals shaking their heads.

“I’m in the wrong era,” lamented Philipp Boy of Germany, who twice finished second to Uchimura at the World Championships. As his titles accumulated year after year, admiring competitors took to calling him as “King Kohei,” or more simply, “Superman.”

“He is a superhuman. I think secretly at night he dresses up in costumes and saves people from fires, burning buildings and stuff like that,” joked four-time Olympic medalist Louis Smith of Great Britain in 2015. “The guy is a legend. He is unbelievable.”

Kohei Uchimura competes in the pommel horse during the men's individual all-around gymnastics final at the London Olympics on Aug. 1, 2012. | REUTERS
Kohei Uchimura competes in the pommel horse during the men’s individual all-around gymnastics final at the London Olympics on Aug. 1, 2012. | REUTERS

“He’s my hero,” echoed Carlos Yulo, the reigning world champion on vault, who on his best days shares Uchimura’s crystal-clear sense of execution and extreme difficulty. The Philippines-born 21-year-old, who trains in Japan, credits watching Uchimura compete at the London Olympics as a key moment in his childhood.

“I started to dream when I saw it,” Yulo said. “[I thought] ‘I want to be like him. I want to compete in the Olympics.’ It opened my heart.”

And if in later years some of the luster was chipped away, Uchimura compensated with a dogged determination to continue striving despite lengthening odds. His long winning streak at the World Championships was snapped in 2017, when an ankle injury forced him to withdraw from the individual competition. As he reduced his program to accommodate other ankle and shoulder injuries, he slowly transitioned to a supporting role.

That he was there at all was remarkable. Uchimura was 32 when he was selected for the 2020 Olympic team, becoming the oldest Japanese man to compete in gymnastics at a Games since 1964. As ever, inspiration had nothing to do with medals. He wanted to compete in Tokyo so his two young daughters would remember seeing their dad at the Olympics.

Kohei Uchimura waves to fans during a September 2012 victory parade in his hometown of Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture, after his gold-medal win at the London Olympics. | KYODO
Kohei Uchimura waves to fans during a September 2012 victory parade in his hometown of Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture, after his gold-medal win at the London Olympics. | KYODO

At his fourth Games, he competed as a horizontal bar specialist, but peeled off on a pirouetting element and did not advance to the final. Two months later, he returned for the World Championships, being held for the first time in the city where he was born in 1989. This time, he did make the final, where he electrified spectators with a routine of dazzling difficulty.

Small problems cost him a medal, but the dismount — one last perfect-looking move — was vintage Uchimura. The Olympic performance had been for his children, but this one was for everyone else, in gratitude for the long years of support, he explained.

There in Kitakyushu, the artist dedicated his final piece to the public.

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