By Clare Fallon
LONDON, July 28 (Reuters) – The United States men raised hopes of winning their first gymnastics team gold medal since 1984 when they outclassed defending champions China and 2008 silver medalists Japan in qualifying at the Olympics on Saturday.
A series of errors and stumbles made China look vulnerable and, after finishing second behind fired-up hosts Britain in the morning qualifying session, they slipped to fourth once the U.S. and Japan had taken to the apparatus in the afternoon.
Going into the evening’s final session, with Russia among the teams still to come, the U.S. led Britain by 2.922 points with Japan third.
Consistent performances by Danell Leyva and John Orozco across the six apparatus gave the Americans, cheered on by enthusiastic, flag-waving fans at the North Greenwich Arena, the edge.
Scores are reset to zero in Monday’s team final, for which the best eight teams qualify, so China, who have not been beaten since the 2004 Athens Olympics, still have a chance to preserve their reputation.
However, Saturday’s showing gave cause for concern to a nation which won seven of the eight men’s gymnastics titles on offer in Beijing four years ago.
With 2004 Olympic pommel horse champion Teng Haibin missing because of an arm injury, China tottered from one mistake to another.
Zhang Chenglong overbalanced on the pommel horse and somersaulted off, Guo Weiyang – Teng’s stand-in – banged his head in a clumsy landing from a tumble on the floor and Zou Kai stumbled as he landed his vault.
“We should have beaten Britain but Teng’s late withdrawal affected us and we did not perform as well as we should have,” Chen Yibing, one of the 2008 team champions, told reporters via a translator.
“Guo came in as a substitute and he made quite a few mistakes because he has a lack of experience.”
The British team, basking in home advantage, were elated.
“It was just a dream competition,” said Louis Smith who contributed a smooth pommel horse routine to earn 15.800, by far the highest mark on the apparatus in the first two sessions. “It is just unbelievable.”
Smith had tears in his eyes after completing his routine on the apparatus that gave him a bronze medal in Beijing. Britain have not won a team medal since bronze in the 1912 Stockholm Games.
Saturday’s qualifying also determines the 24 finalists for the all-around event and the final eight on each apparatus.
After the second session, Leyva led Orozco by 91.265 points to 90.597 in the all-around, with Briton Kristian Thomas third and Japan’s three-times world champion Kohei Uchimura fourth.
“It’s definitely very big (to finish ahead of Uchimura),” Leyva told reporters. “I’m very excited and I know for a fact that he’s going to come back super strong.
“I think it’s going to be a historic team final. We’ve been telling the world for the longest time (that winning gold is possible) and now everyone is finally realizing how much we believe in it and feel it in our hearts.”
Uchimura, who scored a low 12.466 on the pommel horse after a fall and a half-hearted dismount, said Japan had been below their best.
“There were a couple of mistakes at the start and it sort of created a domino effect and carried on until the end of the day,” he told reporters through a translator.
China’s poor showing had also had a knock-on effect, he said. “Perhaps their poor performance affected us. From now on we won’t think about the Chinese but just concentrate on ourselves and do our best.”
Filip Ude, who became Croatia’s first Olympic gymnastics medalist four years ago with silver on the pommel horse, lost his chance to compete in another final when he lost his grip and slipped off the apparatus.