NBC's 2012 star, the U.S. women's dominance, Uchimura's legacy
Jordyn Wieber put herself in position to be one of the stars of the London Olympics
The U.S. women's team will be favored to win their first gold since 1996
Kohei Uchimura has a chance to be the greatest ever, but he's not there yet
1. Jordyn Wieber will be NBC's "it" girl in 2012. Wieber, 16, exceeded considerable hype in her first year as a senior gymnast. She capped a 2011 all-around trifecta by edging Russian cofavorite Viktoria Komova, also 16, for the world championship, one of her three medals won this past week in Tokyo. Wieber had put everyone on notice in March, defeating 2010 world champion Aliya Mustafina at the American Cup, and in August, winning the U.S. title by the largest margin since the sport scrapped the perfect 10 in 2006.
Turnover among elite female gymnasts is staggering -- the top U.S. all-around finisher at the Olympics or worlds has been different each of the last eight years -- but Wieber has staying power. She's young enough to still be on the rise, and her primary domestic competition is either coming off major injury or too young to compete in London. Wieber also has the personality that lends itself to NBC's prime-time audience, beginning with her adoration of a certain teen singer with a similar sounding last name. Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson and Alicia Sacramone are all bidding for Olympic returns, but Wieber will be the primary gymnastics attraction next summer.
2. The U.S. women are the best in the world, which is ominous. The Americans captured the team title for the third straight time at a world championships the year before an Olympics. That didn't work out so well in 2003 and 2007, as they were bumped to silver at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. But they should be bigger favorites this time around given their utter dominance in Tokyo. The U.S. led after every rotation despite choosing three gymnasts from a pool of five while every other country had a pool of six (Sacramone tore her Achilles in training, and alternate Anna Li was out with an abdominal injury). Only one member of the U.S. quintet had been to a world championship before -- Aly Raisman. Now they're all proven big-meet performers.
Then consider who could be swapped into the lineup next year: Liukin, Johnson, Sacramone, 2005 world champion Chellsie Memmel, 2009 world champion Bridget Sloan and two-time world all-around medalist Rebecca Bross. In 2012, every country will be limited to five gymnasts (down from seven in the 1990s and six in the 2000s), making the competition for spots on the U.S. team every bit as tough as the Olympics themselves. The U.S.' biggest flaw going into the world championships was a lack of depth on uneven bars, which just happens to be a strength for Liukin, Memmel, Sloan and Bross. At this point, Russia looks like the only nation with any hope of keeping the U.S. women from their first Olympic team gold since Atlanta's Magnificent Seven.
3. Kohei Uchimura may become the greatest of all time, but he's not there yet. The Japanese superstar won four medals and steamrolled to his third straight men's all-around title, winning by a whopping 3.1 points, the same margin separating second place and 13th place. No other man or woman has won three straight world titles, and here's the kicker: Uchimura is just 22 years old. The other recent dominant men's gymnasts -- Alexei Nemov, Yang Wei -- didn't hit their Olympic peak until their mid-20s. So he will probably be even better in London.
Uchimura's routines aren't the most difficult, but nobody can match his precision. His closest pursuers don't compete with him -- they are in awe of him. The way he smiles after each breathlessly stuck routine, he, too, may be a little astonished. But to call him the perfect gymnast, or to anoint him as the greatest in history, is premature. By his stratospheric standards, Uchimura at times looked human in Tokyo. He fell on his most pressure-packed routine, high bar in the team finals, which almost allowed the U.S. to overtake Japan for silver. Uchimura then ran out of gas in event finals, spinning off the pommel horse and having a major form break on rings, missing the medals in both.
There's no doubt Uchimura is as close to perfection as it gets. But he hasn't won more than four medals at a single world championships, and he was a silver medalist in his first Olympics in 2008. Vitaly Scherbo won six gold medals in 1992, and Nemov won six medals each in 1996 and 2000. Uchimura must have the greatest meet of his career at the 2012 Olympics to enter the historical debate, and he probably will.
4. The U.S. men haven't been this strong in 27 years. No U.S. men's team has won the Olympic title since 1984. This team, which won bronze in Tokyo, has an outside shot at 2012 gold, and it can easily be more talented than the 2004 U.S. silver medalists. The roster reduction from six to five will only help the U.S. reel in China and Japan. The five-man team puts greater importance on all-around gymnasts that can contribute on several events, and the U.S. had three of the top five all-around qualifiers in Tokyo -- John Orozco, Danell Leyva and Jonathan Horton. Japan had two in the top five, while China had one in 18th place. Though it must be noted the U.S. men faltered in the all-around finals, while the Japanese won gold and bronze.
For years, the U.S. met its demise on pommel horse. But Leyva, Orozco and specialist Alex Naddour -- flown 5,000 miles for that one routine -- actually outscored Japan and came within one tenth of China on pommel horse in the team final. Who knows if those problems have finally been put to rest, but this was the kind of meet the U.S. needed heading into the Olympic year. When the Americans won a surprise bronze at the 2008 Olympics, Horton's refrain was that nobody believed they stood a chance. Now, everybody believes they will contend, including China and Japan.
5. Romania hit rock bottom. The nation that produced Nadia Comaneci and the Karolyis went medal-less at a world championships for the first time in 30 years. Romania has been steadily sliding over the last decade, but it had pegged hopes on bringing two leaders out of retirement as well as the architect of its past champions, Octavian Belu.
It didn't work. The women were fourth and the men eighth. Marian Dragulescu, 30, an eight-time world champion twice retired, pulled out of the all-around finals and two individual event finals due to injury. Triple 2004 Olympic champion Catalina Ponor, in her first major competition in four years, could only muster seventh place on balance beam. The Romanian women were without 2008 Olympic gold medalist Sandra Izbasa (foot injury), so the cupboard is not totally empty.