Oh, the shifting fortunes of Japanese men’s gymnastics!
The talented Kakeru Tanigawa won the prestigious NHK Cup -- and a spot on Japan’s men’s world team -- Sunday in Tokyo, scoring a respectable 84.098 in the all-around. That score, added to his scores from capturing his second Japanese national title last month (where he averaged around 85 points in the all-around) easily gave the 20-year-old the NHK title, only 0.2 ahead of his older and slightly better known brother Wataru.
Kazuma Kaya, the 2015 world bronze medalist on pommel horse, finished third in the NHK rankings. All three have qualified to compete as part of Japan’s world team for October’s World Championships in Stuttgart, the last major global event before the Tokyo Olympic Games, with two more to be added closer to the event.
The younger Tanigawa’s accolades, which include being Japan’s youngest ever national champion, have gone a bit under the radar due to the star power of Japan’s men’s team, led by two-time Olympic champion Kohei Uchimura and twistmaster Kenzo Shirai.
But recent results have thrown the established hierarchy into turmoil: Uchimura came to last month’s Japanese Championships injured and had the worst meet of his career, falling several times to finish 37th, missing the cut for the all-around final for the first time since his debut as a 16-year-old in 2005. A photo of Uchimura clutching his left shoulder in agony after a fall off the parallel bars remains the enduring image of the competition.
Shirai, dealing with a foot injury, didn’t fare much better, finishing 30th all-around, or dead last among the finalists. Uchimura did not compete Sunday, though not exactly by choice: only the top 30 in the all-around from the Japanese Championships qualified to compete at the NHK Cup.
This is a strange turn of events for the Japanese, and gives them an unusual problem to deal with as their first home Summer Olympics in 56 years approaches. Shirai and especially Uchimura have underpinned the team with fabulous results and incredible performances. But Uchimura, now 30, and Shirai, now struggling with an injury that limits him on his best events, are no longer the ones delivering the highest quality performances -- not even close -- though they remain among the faces of the sport.
So if you’re deciding who you put on your world and Olympic teams, where do they factor in?
Uchimura may make it easier to solve the problem than it seems. Saying he finished in 37th place at the Japanese Championships smarts, but the reality is that he only trailed Tanigawa by five points. Had he simply stayed on the apparatus, he’d have at least three of those points back, which would have stood him in the middle of the pack among the finalists. From there, it’s a much smaller jump to being among the major team contenders.
“I don’t have any feelings of frustration,” Uchimura told the media afterwards. Training before the event had not gone particularly well either, it seems. “I mentioned a few times that you can’t compete what you can’t do in training, yet I somehow fell into that situation.”
With two Olympic all-around titles and GOAT status, Uchimura has already lived a thrilling life in gymnastics. His is a rare career even by the standards of the great champions. All that he needs to pad his legend now is a nice comeback tale, and with his results this spring, he’s certainly given himself the opportunity for that.