It’s been a long time since Japan’s Kohei Uchimura finished an all-around competition in anything other than first place. An era, really, in gymnastics years. Over six world championships plus the London Olympics, “King Kohei’s” reign has been largely unchallenged.
But it was a different story after the first day of competition at the Rio Olympics. A fall off the horizontal bar in the qualification round left Uchimura in second place, about a point and a half—more than the one-point deduction he received for the fall—behind Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev.
Is this a new world order or a fluke?
If Uchimura repeats as the Olympic champion, he’ll be the first male gymnast since Sawao Kato, also Japanese, won back-to-back gold in 1968 and 1972. He’ll also join Kato as the only male gymnasts ever to win three all-around Olympic medals. Uchimura won silver at the 208 Beijing Olympics and Kato won silver in 1976.
Uchimura already has the gold he wants more from the Rio Olympics. In the team competition, Uchimura and the Japanese men triumphed in their long-standing rivalry with China and took the title.
22-year-old Oleg Verniaiev, on the other hand, finished eighth with the Ukrainian men in the eight-team final after an last-minute injury struck his teammate. Unable to compete or change their line-up, they had to scratch several events and received three scores of zero.
Verniaiev finished 11th in the all-around in London but has grown into one of the world’s best all-around gymnasts. He won all-around gold at the 2015 European Championships, but hasn’t broken onto the all-around podium at Worlds. Instead, he finished fourth in 2014 and 2015.
Despite a controversial moment at the 2012 London Olympics—Ukraine originally placed third in the team final, but was bumped down to fourth after the Japanese team successfully appealed Uchimura’s score on the pommel horse—there’s no animosity between the two. Verniaiev has said that the gymnasts he admires most are Uchimura and Simone Biles.
Rounding out the top-three in qualifications was Russia’s David Belyavsky. He finished fifth in the all-around in London but earned his first Olympic medal a few days ago, a team silver with the Russian men.
The two U.S. men in the final will be Sam Mikulak and Chris Brooks, who placed seventh and nineteenth, respectively, in the qualification all-around. Both fell off the pommel horse that day but could get within striking distance of the podium if they have perfect days.
Mikulak is a four-time all-around champion in the U.S. and has said he wants to be the one to dethrone Uchimura.
He missed his chance at the 2015 World Championships when an Achilles injury took him off the U.S. team.
“It was upsetting, but at the same time, I knew that I was already on the path towards bettering myself for the Rio Olympics,” Mikulak said.
“And as tough as it was to watch—I would have much rather been there—but I was just happy Kohei hasn't been beat yet… This next one, I definitely want to be the one to de-throne him.”
Mikulak will start the all-around final on pommel horse and end on floor, while Brooks will start on still rings and end on pommel horse.
Sure to elicit the loudest cheers in the all-around final are Sergio Sasaki and Arthur Mariano, the two Brazilian gymnasts who qualified eighth and 11th.