The reign of Japan’s “King Kohei” Uchimura, two-time Olympics all-around champion and holder of seven Olympic medals, came to an abrupt end on Saturday when he failed to qualify for the finals and said he could no longer perform as he once did.
At his peak, Uchimura, 32, was one of the best male gymnasts of all time, winning every world and Olympic all-around title from 2009 to 2016 and becoming the first man in 44 years to top the individual all-around podium in back-to-back Olympics with a nail-biting final in Rio 2016.
But age and injury took their toll, and Uchimura, known for his focus on “beauty in motion” and steely resolve towards training, decided late in 2019 to concentrate only on the horizontal bar to have a chance at making the team for his fourth Olympics — one held at home.
On Saturday, the man once known as “Supermura” and “extraterrestrial” was going strong when he suddenly fell and crashed to the floor. He got up and restarted his routine, but the writing was on the wall and he was grim as he finished and left the floor, returning later to watch the rest of the team.
“I don’t want to look back on my performance because I failed,” he told reporters later.
“In the last three Olympics I took part in, I was always able to bring out in competition what I practiced, but I can’t do that anymore.
“I’m past my peak, I just have to accept that calmly.”
He declined to say whether this was his final competition, saying he would have to “think about it”. The gymnastics world championships are set to be held in Japan, in the region where he was born, later this year.
Born into a family of competitive gymnasts — his mother competed in the masters category as recently as 2020, aged 56 — Uchimura began training at three on a trampoline his parents acquired from the United States.
Coming last in his first-ever competition ignited a ferocious appetite for hard work and a strict training regime that included visualising techniques as drawings in a notebook.
“When I was little, I would get nervous and blank out sometimes,” Uchimura once told the Asahi Shimbun daily. “But when I was in high school I thought I could fly if I tried hard enough.”
After moving to Tokyo as a teenager to train, Uchimura first made the national team in 2007 and was chosen for the Beijing 2008 Olympics at 19, helping the team to all-around silver and earning all-around silver himself, the first of his seven Olympic medals.
But as injuries crept up on him he couldn’t even make the national team two years ago and said on Saturday “that was the bottom of the bottom for me.”
He recently told Japanese media that after his deceased coach came to him in a dream and recommended he concentrate on just the horizontal bar, he changed his focus and found his shoulder pain “miraculously disappeared.”
Still, he barely squeaked through to Japan’s Olympic team earlier this year in a tie-breaker after which he ruefully referred to himself as an “old fogey” compared to his teammates, some of them a decade younger, but said he hoped he still had a role to play for them by offering advice and support.
On Saturday, the team — all of them Olympic novices — ended up in first place after two subdivisions had performed, edging ahead of powerhouses Russia and China.
“They’re just amazing. For their first Olympics, they’re almost too amazing for words,” Uchimura said.
“When I came back to the floor after my performance, they were getting together, discussing things and solving problems by themselves. I don’t think I’m needed by them anymore.”