To find the last time Japan’s Kohei Uchimura didn’t win the all-around gold medal at a major gymnastics competition you’d have to go back — way back — biblically back by gymnastics standards. All the way back to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Uchimura, in just his second year as a senior athlete, didn’t win the all around title at those Olympics games. He came in second.
It was the last time anyone would beat him. Uchimura won the gold medal at every world championship (2009, 2010, 2011) leading up to the 2012 Olympics. He won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympic games. And then he won the world title again in 2013, marking his fifth consecutive all-around title. Tonight in China, he will start the journey for his sixth.
To an athlete, winning never gets old. It’s the driving force that keeps many going, even if it’s been years since they last reached the top. To stand alone as the best, after years of soul (and bone) crushing work — there’s not a single way in life to duplicate the feeling (no matter how seriously you decide to take Fantasy Football).
To the media, and even to fans, relentless winning can become an anti-climatic drag. When one team or one athlete keeps dominating year after year, stories aren’t as exciting; matches, games and competitions become more predictable; the race for minor medals becomes the dominant storyline. Everyone loves an underdog. Everyone loves a surprise. Roger Federer, Serena Williams, The Yankees in their heyday, the Lakers in the 80’s — each got nearly as much hate for winning as they did praise (and Serena and Roger are still winning).
Dominance exhaustion is real. Particularly in a sport such as gymnastics, where there are so few competitions, it can begin to feel as though you’re watching the same meet on a constant loop. It can be argued that complete, utter, dominance can actually hurt a sport and isolate some fans.
But some athletes make their sport better by winning. Athletes whose victories electrify fan bases and make even the most fickle viewers crave to see them keep on winning. Tiger Woods is one. Another is Kohei Uchimura. Uchimura has given gymnastics a true superstar with longevity — a long-term rooting interest in a sport where careers rocket upwards quickly and fizzle even faster.
Gymnastics is a particularly emotional beast for fans. In major sports — football, soccer, basketball, baseball, golf, tennis — a career can span a decade or more. But due to the intense physical and mental demands of gymnastics, careers are often short, and thus, so are the storylines. The chance for attachment is fleeting. We fall in love, and then we must move on a year or if we’re lucky, two or three years later.
Longevity is perhaps even more rare than an Olympic gold medal.
2014 marks Uchimura’s seventh year on the international stage. He’s competed in an era where talent for male gymnasts is at an absolute peak. And while he lost the Olympic gold in 2008 because of two falls, Kohei hasn’t won because of others’ mistakes. He has won every all around competition by two or more points over his competitors. It’s enough to make Philipp Boy of Germany, twice the world silver medalist to Uchimura, shrug his shoulders and say to a reporter, “I’m in the wrong era.” But this isn’t just Uchimura’s era. It’s now his sport.
For years there were a few answers to “Who is the best gymnast of all time?” Vitaly Scherbo of the Soviet Union won six of the eight available gold medals (including the all-around) at the 1992 Olympics, and the all-around bronze in 1996. He’s an Olympic all-around champion. He was also a world champion. But he only did it once. Svetlana Khorkina of Russia has three world all-around titles and a career spanning more than a decade, but missed out on the elusive Olympic title. Nadia Comaneci is in the conversation, a perfect 10.0 and an Olympic title in 1976, a silver in 1980, but never a world all-around champion.
There’s as little room in arguing that Uchimura is not the greatest gymnast as there is for error in his routines. No gymnast male or female has ever held the number of titles he holds consecutively. No gymnast male or female has ever been able to stay so far ahead of the field for nearly a decade. His career has been perfect. But his Olympics, have not been. And until Kohei gets the Olympic experience he’s been searching for, it’s unlikely the word “arguably” will be removed before the words “the best ever” whenever he’s written about.
This is what keeps him in the game.
Uchimura wants to return to Japan what they once won at five consecutive Olympics between 1950 and 1976 and what they haven’t had since 2004, the Olympic team gold medal. Uchimura wants what he hasn’t had at either of his Olympic games, perfection from start to finish. The Japanese team fell apart in both the 2008 and 2012 team finals, essentially handing the gold medal to China. In London, Uchimura faltered badly, falling twice, in the qualification round and made a massive error in the team final that for a moment, until a last minute frantic inquiry, cost the team a medal. Japan walked away with silver. Uchimura walked away with regrets.
At 25, Uchimura is still relatively young for men’s gymnastics. He’ll be 31-years-old when the Olympics return to Japan in 2020, could that be the year the team gold medal also returns to Japan? Or will Uchimura get what he’s been searching for his entire career in a place called Rio? The greatest career in all of gymnastics will come to an end eventually. The only question remaining: will it be perfect?