Five-ring Circus

We Shall Not Look Upon His Like Again

An elegy for the remarkable gymnastics career of Kohei Uchimura.

Japan's Kohei Uchimura on the mat looking to the side, a Tokyo 2020 logo in the background
Japan’s Kohei Uchimura after competing in the horizontal bar event of the artistic gymnastics men’s qualification during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Saturday. Lionel Bonaventure/Getty Images

While most of you were warily consuming the eerie, empty opening ceremonies of the postponed 2020 Olympics on a 13-hour broadcast delay, I was watching aghast, in real Tokyo time, as a venerated gymnastics career ended in heartbreak.

In an otherwise fairly predictable men’s qualifying competition—Japan, China and the Russian Olympic Committee are top three heading into the team final; two U.S. men qualified for the all-around (low on the list) and several also made it on individual events—the greatest male gymnast of all time, 2012 and 2016 all-around gold medalist Kohei Uchimura, fell off the horizontal bar (or “high bar”), the only event he was set to compete in at his valedictory Games.*

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Now 32 years old, “King Kohei”—winner of an astounding 28 world and Olympic medals—sought to swing high one final time, on his signature apparatus, in front of his theoretical home crowd. It promised to be a magnificent exercise: Previously, in fact, Uchimura had clocked the highest high-bar score of the year, an astonishing 15.766, and, had he hit, he would have been a medal contender.

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Instead, the nigh-unthinkable happened: After nailing most of his rafter-kissing release moves, Uchimura’s normally precise hand slipped off during a dizzying, intricate pirouette sequence, and he found himself smacking mat before his dismount. With a 13.866—the fall, as they do, cost him an entire point—the King was deposed.

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The consummate sportsman even at the end, his face was inscrutable. The shock and grief on his teammates’ visages, however, more closely mirrored the emotional state of the entire gymnastics world, as we swallowed yet another heartbreak in what has been an incessant year of them.

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Because with few exceptions, this “year”—19 months long and with no end in sight—has been an abject garbage nightmare for gymnastics. It’s been an abject garbage nightmare for humanity, so why would a sport with an elite training regimen so precise that athletes planned out 2020 in 2015 escape the carnage?

Some of 2020’s pain was palpable on the Tokyo livestream (when it wasn’t cutting away to ads midroutine). The ROC’s absolute beast of an all-arounder, Artur Dalaloyan, was once a near-lock as a medal threat amid a formidable field—until he ruptured his Achilles in training in April. This is a devastating injury in gymnastics, normally treated with the reverence of a death, because normally it kills a career. He clawed his way back through surgery and training, and Friday made it to the all-around final in sixth position, but it’s impossible to watch him without feeling terror over the risk he’s placing on his body. (Dalaloyan’s injury, and the career end it somehow did not portend, reminds the gym world of yet more 2020–21 heartbreak: the Olympic absences of such venerated athletes on the women’s side as Britain’s Becky Downie, and the U.S.’s Morgan Hurd and Riley McCusker, who were either sidelined or injured out during this punishing “year.”)

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And yet, much of this pales compared with Uchimura’s fall. The King was self-aware about his impending retirement—in fact, he knew he was at the end of his career last year, before the postponement—and he’s been hanging on by his proverbial hand-grip dowels just for this moment: the once-in-a-lifetime chance of Olympic glory in front of an (absent) home crowd. But to understand just how devastated those who know gymnastics are that its greatest male athlete (its vice GOAT, if you will) has gone out like this, you need to understand his run of greatness.

Before Simone Biles became an international household name for her once-in-a-century combination of power, form, difficulty, work ethic, and air awareness (knowing where you are even whilst spinning upside down), Uchimura was beloved in fewer—albeit dedicated—households for a similar combination of gifts and sportsmanship.

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After joining the Japanese national team in 2007 at age 18 and helping that squad earn silver at the 2008 Beijing Games—as well as taking individual all-around silver, the first such individual medal for a Japanese athlete in more than two decades—Uchimura entered the 2009 season an indomitable force. He won the World Championships that year—and again in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. In 2012, when worlds weren’t held, he won gold at a little thing called the Olympics. In the pre-Biles era, an athlete that dominant was simply unheard of. They called him Superman.

For almost a decade, he was practically untouchable. First, there was his twisting speed:

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Then, there was his impeccable form and gorgeous body line, which was on masterful display on events such as the parallel bars, where his legs just somehow looked straighter and longer and together-er, his pointed toes pointier, his back stretched-er, his splits split-ier. He’s the kind of athlete that, even if you’re a random schmo watching a meet for the first time in your life, you watch him fly and you catch your breath. And then, above all, there was his difficulty, most notorious on events such as that dastardly high bar, where that recent 15.766 came in no small part due to a stratospheric 6.6 difficulty rating. He was stunning, in every sense.

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For some reason, this end to his career has come to symbolize, to me at least, all of the grief and pain and lost opportunity of the pandemic. The redemption narrative we’ve been expecting for a year and a half, in the insipid plot to this real-life disaster movie, is not necessarily going to come. In the same way, it seemed like the prewritten, perfect story to have Uchimura overcome it all, and once on the stage—at home and at the Olympics—he was going to wow us all and triumph in the end one last time. Instead, Superman—and, you know, the world—ate mat. I’m feeling emotional watching Uchimura fall not just because of his glorious past, but because of everything around the present. Sure—it’s just gymnastics. But as a symbol for everything else, the flop at the big important moment is almost too on the nose to handle.

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No one in the gym world­—least of all Uchimura—wanted to see this end for his career. But now that fall is etched into his own permanent story arc as indelibly as the memory of the empty arena that bore witness to it. How can this be absorbed into his astonishing legacy—and into the legacy of this difficult year in gymnastics?

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It’s tempting to simply say we have to concentrate on his remarkable reign, not the way he went out. It’s tempting to lament the fact that—in the words of the Hamlet line I have tattooed on my left forearm in memory of my father—we shall not look upon his like again, yet we have to rejoice that we ever had the privilege. Someday, this era of gymnastics and world history will be framed and historicized, and we’ll be able to situate the surreal Tokyo Olympics within it. Then, the meaning of the greatest-ever male gymnast’s final face plant will seem obvious. But right now, the only things that seem obvious are that it’s sad that it happened this way and that dammit, regardless, the gymnastics world ought to honor its King.

Correction, July 25, 2021: This article originally misstated that no U.S. athletes qualified for the men’s individual all-around final. Two did, but they did not place in the top eight.

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