Strange indeed

A. VINOD

IT is certain to be remembered as one of the strangest championships in gymnastics, one which had a farcical finish to it as a freakish series of ties produced 17 winners from 10 finals! Thankfully, the team events of the 14th Asian Games had only one winner in the men's and women's sections - China.

China's Liang Fuliang on the Roman rings. Led by Liang, the Chinese proved far superior to their rivals in the team event.-V. SUDERSHAN

In the men's section alone, there were 10 gold-medallists for the six individual finals, as the Asian Gymnastics Federation decided that this was not the occasion for breaking ties but to promote friendship among the various nations in the continent. A decision which predictably did not go down well with the gymnasts who were furious and were quite harsh with their comments on what they termed an "outrageous situation."

Led by Liang Fuliang, the Chinese proved far superior to their rivals in the team event, winning the gold on a canter and with a healthy lead of a good two points and more over second-placed South Korea. This, despite the poor form displayed by the World all-around champion Feng Jing, who was just a pale shadow of what the world had seen of him in the last year's championship in Ghent, Belgium.

China's Teng Haibin performs on the pommel horse in the men's apparatus individual finals.-REUTERS

The Chinese, as they cruised to retain the gold, also led the field in all but one of the six apparatuses, trailing behind South Korea (38.450) and Japan (37.950) in the rings with a tally of 37.250. In the other five, the Chinese, with their powerful routines, were dominant as expected and accumulated a total of 228.825 points for the title. South Korea (226.700) and Japan (225.600) finished in that order for the silver and the bronze.

With only two gymnasts allowed to be fielded from each country, the race for the individual all-around title gave Kim Dong-Hwa (South Korea) the opportunity to land a shared silver with Liang Fuliang, whose hunt for a second gold was shattered by a streak of ill-luck. The winner here was the other Chinese gymnast in the fray, Yang Wei, who took full advantage of the poor display of his seasoned compatriot in the rings and the vault. Liang was in the lead almost all through before a shaky dismount from both the rings and the vault shattered his chances.

The Chinese superstar had scores of 9.600 (floor), 9.675 (pommel horse), 9.750 (parallel bars) before he hit the unexpected trough and settled for silver - gaining only 8.825 and 9.475 from the rings and vault respectively. Yang Wei, who had looked only good enough for the second spot all along, was benefited by this and he finally had a total of 57.375 compared to the 56.875 compiled by Liang and Kim. Yang's winning total came from the scores of 9.300, 9.550, 9.650, 9.600, 9.625 and 9.650 that he gained on the floor, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bars respectively.

South Korea's Kim Seung-Il came up with a near flawless performance to take the floor exercise gold.-AFP

Then came the bizarre part of the show wherein the Chinese also met with some unexpected reverses. The most surprising among them came on the floor where Kim Seung-Il (South Korea) produced a near flawless performance to upset the applecart of his Chinese rivals. Kim averaged 9.525 as he took the gold ahead of North Korea's Jo Jong-Chol (9.450) while Yang Wei, though coming up with an improved display, was third with 9.400. Liang once again disappointed, managing just 8.975 (compared to the score of 9.600 he had gained during the all-around competition) before finishing a distant seventh.

The pommel horse competition saw Liang fail once again and finish in sixth place even as team-mate Teng Haibin and North Korea's Kim Hyon-Il shared the gold with an identical score of 9.750. Takehiro Kashima (Japan) was third with 9.700. The battle for supremacy in the rings also produced two gold-medallists in China's Huang Xu and Kim Dong-Hwa (both 9.800) while Hiroyuki Tomita (Japan) and Lai Kuo Cheng (Chinese Taipei) were jointly awarded the bronze with 9.600.

However, what really upset the crowd and the gymnasts in equal measure was the outcome which came from the horizontal bars, the event producing as many as three gold-medallists in Teng Haibin, Hiroyuki Tomita and South Korean Yang Tae-Seok, each with a score of 9.800. This, after Teng had been initially credited with only 9.775, which was later clarified by the chief judge, Gwo Fong Way, as a computer error. The Chinese gymnast, however, said he was unaware of the reason for the scoring change and initially thought he had lost the gold. ''I was told only just before the medal ceremony that I had won. The medals are the business of the judges. It is not my business."

Huang, like Teng, won a second individual gold as he shared the parallel bars title with Sydney 2000 hero Li Xiaopeng, while Li won another gold by topping the field in the vault final, the only event, other than the floor, which saw a lone winner. With Huang, Teng and Li having figured prominently in China's successful campaign in the team event earlier, the double in the individual events enabled all the three, eventually, to finish with a haul of three golds.

China's Zhang Nan, who won four golds, in action on the beam during the women's team final.-V. SUDERSHAN

China was a runaway winner of the women's team title, finishing with an astounding nine-point lead over North Korea. The Chinese en route to glory led the field in all the four segments of the competition - floor, vault, uneven bars and beam - as they totalled 147.750 and left the North Koreans and the Japanese (the bronze medallists), who could manage only 138.825 and 137.825 respectively, far behind.

It was again a one-horse race for the individual all-around title as Zhang Nan, who later emerged as the most be-medalled gymnast of the meet, was hardly challenged either by veteran Oksana Chusovitina (Uzbekistan) or compatriot Kang Xin. The Chinese teenager, however, gave a scare to her camp as she faltered badly in the vault before recovering well to post the best scores of the day on uneven bars and beam. Zhang, as she comfortably won the gold, had a tally of 37.025 while Oksana and Kang could manage only 36.400 and 36.225 respectively.

Between Oksana and Kang, it was the Uzbek who looked capable of pushing Zhang but a poor performance on the beam spoilt whatever little chance she had to bring off a major upset. Starting off with a score of 9.175 on the floor and placed second behind Kang (9.225), Zhang slipped to the third spot gaining only 8.975 from the vault. The Uzbek, a former Olympic and world champion, had the best score in this apparatus (9.525), which also vaulted her to the top position, albeit temporarily.

Yang Wei of China performs on the parallel bar in the men's individual all-around finals.-REUTERS

But when Zhang scored an impressive 9.500 in the uneven bars and 9.375 in the beam, the 27-year-old Uzbek - mother of three-year-old Alisher and as such a phenomenon in this sport of pixies - had to give way to her Chinese rival and settle for the second spot. Oksana had scores of only 9.075 and 8.775 in the uneven bars and beam respectively. Kang, having led the field after her initial routine on the floor, finished third best, returning an identical card of 9.000 over the next three apparatuses.

The 16-year-old Zhang, plucked from the depths of China's talent pool earlier this year, won two more golds in the individual events but had to share the title on both the occasions. First with Oksana on the floor, with a tied score of 9.350, and then with North Korea's Han Jong-Ok in the uneven bars. The Uzbek too, won a second gold as she topped her Chinese rivals, Liu Wei and Huang Jing, in the vault and thereafter a silver as she finished behind Kang Xin on the beam.

At 27, Uzbekistan's Oksana Chusovitina proved that age and motherhood are not obstacles for gymnasts. She clinched the gold in the floor event in the women's apparatus finals.-AFP

But for all that, Oksana was still peeved over the AGF decision not to break ties. ''I don't like this ruling. There should be only one champion."

Interestingly, it was only a fair reflection of a common viewpoint shared by all the gymnasts at the end of the topsy-turvy competition. Perhaps other than the strictly regimented Chinese, who, despite all the setbacks, still found themselves better placed in their endeavour to stamp their country's prowess once again at the continental-level. In the process they might have lost some, but they did win many. The big smiles on their faces were just a proof of that.