Kohei Uchimura: What Makes “King Kohei” the Best Ever
I distinctly remember the first time I saw Kohei Uchimura. It was May 2008. I watched a Youtube video of a young Japanese gymnast competing at the Tianjin World Cup and was mesmerised. And then I watched it again. And again. And again.
I can’t recall exactly what it was that captivated me. Was it the casual confidence with which he stuck his landings? Was it the way he kicked out of his Thomas (now trademark Uchimura)? Or was it the perfect form in the air?
While he certainly grabbed my attention then, it wasn’t until a few months later that the 19-year-old Uchimura truly arrived on the global gymnastics stage, winning silver in the All Around final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics behind the great Yang Wei (the 2006 and 2007 World All Around Champion).
Uchimura has achieved a lot since then. If he wins the All Around gold at 2016 Rio Olympics (which he is strong favourite to do), he will remain unbeaten for two consecutive Olympic cycles: 6 consecutive World Championships subdivided by gold at the 2012 London Olympics. In the increasing globalisation of modern gymnastics — and particularly men’s artistic gymnastics — many considered such dominance to be impossible.
Debate over whether Uchimura is the greatest gymnast of all time has been simmering since he became the first gymnast to win three consecutive world titles in 2011. (The most serious challenger for the “best ever” title is Belarusian Vitaly Scherbo, who won an unprecedented six gold medals at the 1992 Olympics and is the only male gymnast ever to have won a world title on all six apparatus.)
Following his 2012 Olympic victory, Uchimura was crowned “King Kohei”. Dwight Normille considered then that Uchimura’s perfect Olympic cycle had ended the debate: at 23, Uchimura was “the best ever”. Some took a little longer to proclaim a winner. For instance, after Uchimura lead Japan to the team title in 2015 — its first world title in 37 years — Nancy Amour proclaimed that “there can no longer be any doubt: Uchimura is the greatest gymnast ever”.
For me, there is also no doubt. But leading in to Rio, I have been thinking a lot about what exactly it is that makes Uchimura such a champion. Yes, there is the flawless execution. In this regard, Uchimura was awarded the Longines Prize for Elegance — presented since 1997 to the most elegant and charismatic gymnast at a World Championships or Olympics — in 2011, 2012 and 2013. As Amour notes: “Watch Uchimura, even in slo-motion, and everything is done perfectly.”
But Uchimura also makes gymnastics look easy, so easy that you sometimes forget he’s performing some of the most difficult gymnastics around. He matches extreme difficulty with perfect control. No one can compete.
Uchimura’s best All Around performance was without doubt in the All Around Final at the 2011 Tokyo World Championships. Competing in front of his home crowd, only seven months since the earthquake and tsunami devastated northeast Japan, Uchimura scored a remarkable 93.631. Not only is this the highest All Around score he has received at a major competition (even after 1.0 is deducted to reflect the devaluing of Vault values in the current Code of Points), he won by more than 3 whole marks over Germany’s Phillip Boy. But perhaps even more remarkable was his combined execution score over the six apparatus: 54.531 (i.e. averaging more than 9.0 on each apparatus). This is the only time in the last two Olympic cycles that Uchimura (or any other gymnast, for that matter) has scored greater than 54.0 for execution in a major international competition. I think the last skill of the competition — his High Bar dismount — sums up Uchimura’s perfection that night.
In this article, I try to unpack what makes Uchimura the greatest gymnast ever. First, I analyse Uchimura’s unparalleled execution. Then I take a deep dive into how Uchimura’s gymnastics has evolved over the last 8 years, and finish by casting my predictions for what will happen in Rio.
Execution: The Pursuit of Perfection
I think the surest way to understand Uchimura’s brilliance is to compare and contrast his execution scores with the gymnasts who are likely to be his closest competition in Rio. I consider the following gymnasts to be the strongest medal contenders, with all gymnasts having the ability to score more than 91.0.
In the chart below, I set out the average execution score for each gymnast on each apparatus from both the qualification and All Around competitions at the 2013, 2014 and 2015 World Championships.
As you can see, Uchimura stands head and shoulders above his rivals when it comes to execution. He scored more than 53.0 in 5 of the 6 rounds of competition, the exception being qualifications in 2015, where he fell on Floor (double double tucked, 4th pass).
To put this in perspective, none of the other six gymnasts broke 53.0 in execution in this period (Mikulak came the closest in qualifications in 2013, where he scored 52.732). In fact, only two of Uchimura’s rivals managed to break 52.0: Mikulak twice (2013 qualifications, 2013 All Around final) and Belyavskiy once (2014 qualifications). Verniaiev, who many consider to be Uchimura’s fiercest competition for gold in Rio, had a high execution score of 51.198 (2014 All Around final).
But it is not only Uchimura’s excellence, it is also his consistency. Of the 36 routines counted in the above analysis, Uchimura scored less than 8.0 only once (Floor qualifications in 2015). Verniaiev, by comparison, scored less than 8.0 in 11 of the 36 routines counted in the above analysis (once on Floor, four times on Pommels, once on Rings, and five times on High Bar). As any Verniaiev fan (and there are many) will tell you, inconsistency is undoubtedly his biggest weakness. (At the Rio Test Event in April 2016, Verniaiev scored 52.007 in execution, with a low score of 8.3 on high bar. Maybe he’s turned a corner?)
I suggest that Uchimura is actually part of the reason why his competitors struggle with execution. They know that that they can’t match his execution brilliance, so in order to try and beat him, they have to push their difficulty score to the limit, which doesn’t allow them any room for error. I call this the “Uchimura effect”.
But as we all know, gymnastics isn’t only about execution. Difficulty matters too, especially in the era of the open Code of Points. In fact, Uncle Tim ran an analysis of the results from the 2014 All Around final, and suggests that (for the men) the difficulty score is a stronger predictor of your final all-around rank. While I’m not necessarily sure I agree, in the next section, I explore how Uchimura’s difficulty on each apparatus has developed and evolved over the last two Olympics cycles, before comparing Uchimura’s current difficulty score with that of his closest rivals.
Difficulty: The Evolution of a King
Over the course of this Olympic cycle, Uchimura has gradually increased his difficulty score on Floor. For example, in 2014 he added a double twisting double tuck as his fourth tumbling line (E value, 0.5), replacing a double twist (C value, 0.3). In 2015, he increased the difficulty of his first three twisting passes (I like to think this is Uchimura’s attempt to keep up with twisting superstar Kenzo Shirai). Uchimura appears to have left his routine unchanged this season (see his routine from the 2016 All Japan Championships here).
It is also interesting to note that, despite this gradual increase in difficulty, the second half of his routine has remained remarkably constant over the last 8 years: 1080° Russian; splits; tucked Thomas; triple twist dismount.
In 2008, pommel horse and rings were clearly Uchimura’s weakest events. After he added a Roth (D value, 0.4) to his routine in 2011, he has made virtually no change since.
The primary reason for this is what is most likely the lowest point in Uchimura’s career: his pommel routine in the Team final at the 2012 London Olympics. Or more specifically, his “dismount”.
While the judges did not originally credit Uchimura with a dismount — putting Japan off the medal podium (behind China, Great Britain and Ukraine) — Japan successfully appealed, which was enough to move Japan from fourth to second.
But this wasn’t a one off in London either. Uchimura had a very underwhelming performance on pommels in qualification. In addition to falling on his single-pommel sequence he also missed his dismount, scoring 12.466 (the 2012 blip in the chart above). This resulted in Uchimura finishing 9th in qualifications (89.764) — the only time in the last 8 years that he has scored less than 90.0 — and Japan qualifying for the Team final in 5th place. (Uchimura had a few nervous moments in his Pommel routine in the All Around final too, particularly on the flop sequence, but managed to get through.)
Following these dramas, Uchimura has decided to play safe on Pommels this Olympic cycle and focus on maximising his execution score. In fact, he actually shortened his routine after London (removing a half sivado prior to his dismount) and has performed exactly the same Pommels routine for the last four years (see, for example, his identical routines from 2013 Worlds and 2016 All Japan Championships).
This is not to say Uchimura cannot perform a more difficult pommel routine. For instance, when Uchimura qualified for the 2011 Pommels event final, he upped his difficulty score from 6.3 to 6.7 (by adding a spindle and a second scissor to handstand). Although he fell, you can see clearly see in the video that he was having fun.
While Uchimura clearly has the capacity to increase his difficulty, and has actually been spotted training a Busnari element recently, I suspect that the ghosts of London still haunt him and will compel him to play it safe. That is, Uchimura will almost certainly compete his 6.2 difficulty routine in Rio.
After slowly increasing his difficulty score on rings in the 2009–2012 Olympic cycle, Uchimura has actually watered down his routine in this Olympic cycle (in 2013, he removed the press from L-cross to maltese (E value, 0.5) following his Azarian). While Uchimura tinkered with his routine in 2014, he reverted to a 6.2 difficulty routine in 2015 and it looks likely that he will perform the same routine in Rio (see his routine from the 2016 All Japan Championships here), preferring to focus on maximising his execution score.
Uchimura performed a Yurchenko with 2 ½ twists throughout the 2009–2012 cycle. (While he attempted a 6.0 vault in qualification at 2011 Worlds, he received an 8.5 in execution and a 0.3 line deduction, after which he reverted to his safer Yurchenko 2 ½ twist in the Team and All Around finals).
After performing a handspring layout 2 ½ twist in 2013 and 2014 (a 0.4 increase in difficulty), Uchimura reverted to a round-off entry vault in 2015, performing the Li Xiao Peng (round-off onto the board, ½ twist onto the horse, front layout 2 ½ twist off the horse). While he has had some difficulties with this new vault (see his routine from the 2016 All Japan Championships here), he is likely to perform this vault in Rio.
Vault is the only apparatus final that Uchimura has not qualified for over the last eight years, although this is not for his lack of his excellence on this apparatus. It is simply that he has never competed the required two vaults in qualifications. In fact, he received the highest qualification score for his first vault in both 2013 and 2015.
And in case you were wondering, he can definitely perform two vaults: in addition to Yurchenko 2 ½ twist, handspring layout 2 ½ twist, and Li Xiao Peng, he can also perform a handspring double front and a Dragalescu.
Parallel Bars is probably the apparatus where Uchimura has tinkered with his routine the most. For example, he added a Makuts in 2013, and he removed his Dimitrenko (from upper arm, double back to upper arm) after 2014. One of the signatures of Uchimura’s Parallel Bar routines is the number and variety of flight elements that he performs, all with full control and extension on regrasp.
Another surprising thing to note is that, as with Floor, the final part of Uchimura’s routine has remained constant since 2008: front salto straddled to upper arm, front uprise, swing to handstand, double pike.
Uchimura has gradually increased his difficulty score throughout this Olympic cycle. (NB The 2015 dip in the graph above reflects the fact that his Makuts was not paid in Qualifications, as he held the intermediate handstand for too long. In the All Around final, where his Makuts was paid, he was awarded a 6.8 difficulty score.) He performed the same routine at the 2016 All Japan Championships, and is very likely that he will perform this 6.8 difficulty routine in Rio.
Uchimura has gradually increased his difficulty score on High Bar over the last two Olympic cycles. For example, in 2010 he added stoop full twist to Yamawaki; in 2012, he added Cassina; in 2013, he added stoop ½ twist to Kolman; and in 2015, he added a piked Kovacs.
Actually, High Bar appears to be the only event that Uchimura is considering increasing his difficulty score for Rio. After performing his 2015 World Championships routine at the 2016 All Japan Championships, he attempted a 7.3 difficulty routine in June 2016 (connecting Cassina and Kolman, although missing the connection between stoop full twist and Yamawaki).
As a final note, High Bar is probably the event where Uchimura is close to performing at his limit. However, it should be noted that while he often goes big in qualifications (in order to qualify for the apparatus final), he often performs a safer routine when the stakes are higher in the Team and All Around finals. For example, in 2015 he reverted to a 6.5 difficulty routine in the Team and All Around finals, rather than competing the 7.1 difficulty routine he performed in qualifications and the apparatus final.
The chart below summarises the gradual evolution of Uchimura’s combined difficulty score over the last two Olympic cycles.
But how does Uchimura compare with his main rivals?
As you can see, Uchimura has the top difficulty score on Vault and Horizontal Bar, and is only trumped by Deng Shudi on Floor by 0.1.
At the other end of the spectrum, by playing safe on Pommels, he is likely to concede 1.0 in difficulty to Max Whitlock and 0.8 to Oleg Verniaiev (although he will hope to make up some of this deficit with an execution score in the vicinity of 9.0).
Oleg Verniaiev is likely to have the highest total difficulty score in Rio (40.4) — a 1.0 buffer over Uchimura that is unlikely to be enough to overcome Uchimura’s superior execution. And while Sam Mikulak, David Belyavskiy and Max Whitlock all perform clean gymnastics, all three will start the competition behind Uchimura on difficulty, making it almost impossible for them to overtake him on execution.
So what have we learnt from all this analysis?
- While Uchimura’s overall difficulty score has gradually increased over the last 8 years, he has not made significant changes on all events. While he has made substantial increases in his difficulty score on Vault (+0.6) and Horizontal Bar (+0.7) and moderate improvements on Floor (+0.4) and Parallel Bars (+0.4), he has played safe on his weakest events: Pommel Horse and Rings.
- Another way that Uchimura plays safe is that he hasn’t changed a dismount on any apparatus over the last two Olympic cycles. That’s right, he’s performed exactly the same dismount on each apparatus (except Vault) for the last 8 years. While he can definitely perform a more difficult PB dismount (double front ½ twist) and HB dismount (triple and even quadruple twisting double layout), he elects to stay in his comfort zone, preferring to focus on sticking his landings instead.
- The counter-point to playing safe is that Uchimura always has a little left in the tank — he can add difficulty whenever he wants. For example, in the 2011 Floor final he increased his difficulty, performing a triple twisting double back on his first pass. He took the judges by surprise too, who originally gave him the same difficulty score as qualification (i.e. 6.5, for a final score 15.433), which would have put him in 4th. After his difficulty score was successfully appealed and increased by 0.2, Uchimura won gold. (You can see Uchimura’s reaction to the original score at 2:40.)
- Uchimura is not only supremely talented, but he also knows the rules and minimises his weaknesses. For example, Uchimura’s excellent execution scores on pommels can, in part, be attributed to his routine construction. For the past two cycles, there has been a particular focus for execution judges on skewing in circles. This is not Uchimura’s strong suit, so he performs his Wu and Roth elements from side support, and limits the number of loops that he performs as much as possible (i.e. to Magyar and Sivado).
- Finally, I have no doubt that Uchimura could perform the highest difficulty score if he wanted to. But that would entail greater risk, and it is a risk that he doesn’t need to take. Instead, he chases perfection. Perhaps he says it best himself:
Beauty of movement is my goal. My father used to say that a hundred imperfect movements cannot match a single beautiful one, and this is something I have always kept in my mind. I could perform more difficult skills, but if I did I would have problems. For instance, I don’t have the energy that I did, and I can’t keep my feet taut, so I always aim for a balance between technical difficulty and execution in my routines. This is where the beauty of gymnastics comes in.
So what’s going to happen in Rio?
There is every possibility that the All Around final in Rio will go right down to the wire. Over the last eight years, Uchimura has typically had a large lead after five events, and he generally chooses to play it safe on the final event (i.e. Horizontal Bar). While Max Whitlock is likely to be in the lead after two events, given his strength on Floor and Pommel Horse, I expect that Oleg Verniaiev will be neck and neck with Uchimura after three strong events (Rings, Vault and (his pet event) Parallel Bars).
While Uchimura’s superior difficulty on Horizontal Bar (and Verniaiev’s weakness on the same event) should carry Uchimura to victory, he is not infallible: he can show weakness when under pressure. For example, in the 2015 Team final — a big moment for Japan, who was seeking to win its first team world title in nearly 40 years (particularly significant after the heart break of losing the 2014 team gold to China by 0.1 on the final routine of the competition) — Uchimura was up last on High Bar. He went for his full difficulty, but fell on Cassina. While he went on to nail the rest of his routine, and stick his dismount cold, the look of disappointment on his face when he sticks the landing says it all. Although Japan ended up winning gold (by less than 0.5 over Great Britain and less than 0.9 over China), he can’t believe he almost let it slip.
If Uchimura were to make some uncharacteristic errors early in the All Around competition in Rio, perhaps leaving Verniaiev in the lead after 5 events (a not entirely unlikely scenario), he may be forced to put all his difficulty on the table, and risk falling. But I think he’s up to the challenge.
While clinching the All Around title would cap another perfect Olympic cycle, it is not Uchimura’s #1 goal in Rio. Rather, after the Japanese team fell apart in both the 2008 and 2012 Team finals (effectively handing the gold medal to China), he craves team success for Japan: “All I can think about is how much I want team gold. That’s everything.”
If he wins in Rio, and leads Japan to the team gold, there can be no more “arguably” (sorry Vitaly): Uchimura will undeniably be the best (male) gymnast ever.