TOKYO (Reuters) - Kohei Uchimura could become the first man in over 40 years to win back-to-back Olympic all-around titles in Rio but the Japanese gymnast says his first priority is team gold, not personal glory, at the Summer Games.
Uchimura won silver in the all-around at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 but was on top of the podium four years later in London.
At Glasgow last year, Uchimura won a record sixth world title and he heads to Rio heavily tipped to become the first winner of consecutive gold medals in the event since 1972 when compatriot Sawano Kato pulled off the feat in Munich.
Winning the team title at last year’s world championships after a 37-year drought fulfilled one dream for Uchimura, but now he wants the same thing at the Olympics.
“I feel the individual all-around isn’t something I should even think about until after the team event,” Uchimura told Reuters after a recent training session in Tokyo.
“All I can think about is how much I want team gold. That’s everything.”
Japan took team gold at five successive Olympics from 1960 to 1976 but had to wait until Athens in 2004 to reach the top of the podium again.
In Beijing and London, they had played second fiddle to China, whose risky moves often outshine the more cautious Japanese approach.
Uchimura agrees China is their biggest rival, followed by the United States and Great Britain, and said Japan had to step outside their comfort zone to push for gold in Rio while maintaining the level of perfection they showed in 2004.
“The difficulty of Japanese routines hasn’t been as high as China’s but we’ve emphasized perfection, which is, I think, why the team won in Athens, and that’s something I think we need to continue,” said Uchimura, who so far is the only gymnast guaranteed a team place for Rio.
“We’ll raise our difficulty level a bit but I think it’s best if we emphasize perfection ... We need to aim for beauty and perfection.”
Japan’s win at the championships in Glasgow gave the team confidence, but it was a win tarnished by errors – including Uchimura crash-landing from the horizontal bar – and hampered by injuries. China’s performance was also far from their best.
Japan head coach Hisashi Mizutori, a member of the gold-winning 2004 team, said they had to introduce more difficult elements and build confidence under all conditions.
While this has often been a problem for Japanese athletes at higher levels of competition, the current crop of gymnasts might be something special, he added.
“What’s unique is beauty and youthful vigor. There’s a definite youthful energy,” he said, as gymnasts did warm-up stretches on mats behind him in an echoing gym.
“Japanese gymnastics has always been known for its beauty, and now it’s a matter of combining these well.”
Uchimura attributes his success to rigorous training, which he does five days a week. On his days off he stays mainly at home, avoiding anything that stresses his body and spending time with his two small daughters, who he says “refresh” him.
“After the London Olympics, I felt there were parts of my routine that I really hadn’t done that well. My goal in Rio is to use my reflections on London and turn in a solid performance,” he said.
“How much of an impact can gymnastics have, that’s what I think of as I train these days ... It would be great if the names of our national team could become household words.”
That is a dream shared by Kenzo Shirai, who won an individual gold in floor exercises last year and, at 19, already has four moves named after him – most featuring gravity-defying tumbles.
Shirai, who coach Mizutori called a “special presence,” says he is successful because he dares, refusing to scale back his routines in competition due to nerves.
“The happiness of winning gold with the team was many times greater than my joy for winning floor alone, so I really want to concentrate on that,” he added.
“Because it’s a goal that Kohei Uchimura has often spoken of, I’d like to make his dream come true.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford