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China Wins a Nailbiter in Nanning
(12 votes, average 3.83 out of 5)

Just when Japan appeared to have won its first world team title since 1978, China did what it has done so often in the past. This was Lucy pulling the football out from under Charlie Brown, and the hurt registered on the faces of the entire Japanese team, which had led throughout the meet.

As the top two seeds, China and Japan competed together, and both had finally succumbed to the growing pressure of an all-scores-count format in the fifth rotation. Deng Shudi's legs landed on the parallel bars during his Bhavsar, and Japan's Yusuke Tanaka was forced to take intermediate swing. So when Japan and China moved to their final event, the entire arena reached fever pitch.

Japan's Ryohei Kato appeared tight and coughed up some of Japan's lead when his Takemoto finished on the wrong side of the bar. Tanaka redeemed himself on high bar with the highest D-score of his team (7.0) for a 15.266, and Kohei Uchimura anchored with an impeccable 15.400 (6.9). (How the E-panel judges gave him only 8.50 is a mystery.) His fist pumps afterward indicated that he thought Japan had done enough to win. And to do it in Nanning would be sweet revenge, after China defeated Japan in Tokyo three years ago.

Not so fast. After Deng and Lin Chaopan got through their 6.9-value sets, each with an assortment of minor flaws, the 2010 world high bar champion waited to finally perform his only routine in the Team Final. Zhang Chenglong (pictured here), who towers above his teammates, literally did the same during his 7.5-value high bar routine. His Cassina soared well above the bar, eliciting a roar from the crowd. Each successful trick did the same, with the loudest eruption coming after he nailed his dismount. Suddenly Japan was not smiling, and when Zhang's 15.966 was flashed, a No. 1 was placed alongside of China for the first time during the meet. China had slipped ahead of Japan, 273.369-273.269, confirming the old axiom that every tenth really does count.

Was the highest score of the meet for the final routine home-cooked? Was it a tactical mistake for Japan to use Tanaka on parallel bars instead of defending world p-bar co-champ Uchimura? Was the new Code to blame for rewarding raw difficulty over clean execution? (China entered with a 2.20 advantage over Japan, based on prelim D-scores.) These questions will likely be debated until the 2015 worlds in Glasgow.

For now, however, China will celebrate its sixth consecutive world team title, and Japan will wonder once again what it has to do to win. That Japan had recently won the Asian Games over China meant little to the host team in Nanning.

"We were competing with the second team (at the Asian Games)," Zhang said. "But this time, we were competing with our best team … we prepared well, physically and mentally."

That strategy could also describe the bronze-medal team from the U.S., which had the best hit percentage of the three medalists. Embroiled in a battle for third with Great Britain and Russia, the Americans refused to crack. Their biggest mistake was probably on p-bars, where Donnell Whittenburg had to muscle through a peach-half—and he has strength to spare. So when the sixth and final rotation was at hand, the U.S. was able rise above the Brits on floor to claim third, its second consecutive world bronze (2011).

"We tried to stay within ourselves," said Sam Mikulak, who competed on floor, pommels and vault. "[We] didn't really look at scores, just [stayed] in our own little zone."

Said U.S. head coach Mark Williams: "We learned some lessons from London," he said, referring to the U.S. winning the Olympic qualification round but collapsing in the Team Final. "We made some improvements … and I think this team understood that they didn't need to watch the scoreboard … just do your gymnastics."

The U.S. scored 270.369, 3.0 behind the champions, while fourth-place Great Britain tallied 269.170, the result of low D-scores on rings and p-bars. The Brits did, however, win pommel horse behind Daniel Keatings, Max Whitlock and Daniel Purvis. And European junior champion Nile Wilson filled in well on four events.

Russia (266.503) had a shot at the bronze, but it finished on pommel horse with the second-lowest total on the event (42.933) and the lowest on p-bars, where David Belyavsky and Nikita Ignatyev fell on their dismounts.

Brazil, Switzerland and Germany completed the standings in sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively.

For the next year, at least, China will enjoy its status as six-time defending world champions, with Japan settling for silver in the last four. Perhaps Glasgow will produce a different result. But if history is any indication, it would be wise not to bet against China.

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