It was Kohei Uchimura’s grip that slipped but it may as well have been his crown.
“King Kohei” – probably the greatest male gymnast of all time and perhaps Japan’s most iconic sportsperson – was supposed to get his fairytale ending.
The absence of adoring fans, entranced by his balletic brilliance and roaring him on one last time at a home Olympic Games, seemed cruel but a high bar gold would make up for that.
Instead, an audible gasp went round the Ariake Gymnastics Centre as Uchimura, not only unbeatable but seemingly infallible for so long, fell in qualifying – his grip on the high bar failing him and the crash mat providing physical, if not emotional, solace.
Plenty of other gymnasts were competing at that moment but as they had been for so long, all eyes were on 32-year-old Uchimura – who had already announced his retirement after these Games – and the deflation around the Tokyo Olympics venue was palpable.
Even fellow competitors couldn’t help but acknowledge what was happening around them.
“I did see him on the high bar,” admitted Team GB’s Max Whitlock, who was doing his rotations in the same session and qualified for the pommel horse final. “I was waiting on the vault and you couldn’t really not notice it.
“Obviously it’s a huge shame in his home country, he’s going to be massively gutted.
“In the warm-up gym he’s looking great, looking amazing, so I’m massively gutted for him.”
So few Olympians get the Mark Spitz or Sir Steve Redgrave ending – retiring at the very top, gold medals tightly in their grasp – but the prospect is tantalising and fans, media and Uchimura himself were desperately willing the Japanese legend to capture that unicorn.
If any Olympics deserved that moment, it’s Tokyo 2020, given everything the world has been through to get here.
Live sport rarely follows the script, however.
All of Uchimura’s eggs were in the high bar basket – the all-around champion from London 2012, who became the first gymnast in 44 years to defend his title at Rio 2016, had been slowed by injuries since and was unable to go for an unprecedented treble, competing on a single apparatus instead.
Even reaching Tokyo 2020 was a battle for the all-time great, only making the Japan team ahead of vaulter Hidenobu Yonekura via tiebreaker and saying after trials: “I don’t feel that after today’s performance, I really deserve to be called ‘King’.”
Given his accomplishments, including an incredible streak of winning all eight Olympic and world all-round titles between 2009 and 2016, he’ll always be King and for a moment on Saturday, the crown was glittering once more.
A blistering start to his high bar routine had him on course for qualification to the final and a huge score to boot but one hand slipping off the bar on a pirouette, causing the body to follow, was the starkest of reminders that Father Time remains undefeated.
That Uchimura got back to his feet, back on the bar and finished his routine demonstrated the heart that made him such a formidable champion and the 13.866 points he scored despite the fall, while not enough to reach the final, showed the quality of his routine aside from that fateful moment.
“Hopefully he’ll be back for some more, he’s definitely got lots left in the tank,” added Whitlock after the event broadcast live on Eurosport and Discovery+, although that hope feels slightly forlorn.
The sporting gods decided that on this occasion, there was to be no glorious swansong. Perhaps King Kohei, with his seven Olympic medals and 21 world championship podium finishes, had already accomplished enough.
New champions will be found at these Games, the gymnastics world will keep spinning and the crown will pass on.
The King is dead. Long live the King.
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