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TOKYO -- The 2011 World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo were scripted to be the home country's grand re-emergence as a powerhouse gymnastics nation, recapturing the spirit of the 1970s, when the Japanese men's team was so technically superior it was considered almost unbeatable.
Japan, led by two-time world all-around champion Kohei Uchimura, is favored to win the men's team title, and Uchimura, whom many believe is the greatest male gymnast of all time, will attempt to become the first man to win three consecutive world all-around titles. The Japanese women aren't at the same level as the men, but their star, Koko Tsurumi, was ranked third best in the world in 2009, and is a potential medalist on bars.
Victory this week would mean more than gold medals and worldwide acclaim for the Japanese teams and their federation, which fought hard to keep the worlds in Tokyo after the devastating Tohoku earthquake on March 11. The 9.0-magnitude quake, one of the five strongest earthquakes on record, triggered a tsunami that ravaged cities in northern Japan and a partial meltdown of multiple reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
|Kohei Uchimura is Japan's best gymnast ever, and he could win a third consecutive world all-around title in Tokyo.|
Only one gymnast -- Hungary's Tunde Csillag, a floor finalist at the 2011 European Championships -- is known to have refused to travel to Tokyo. She was suspended from the Hungarian team for a year as a result, and told Hungary's Sport Geza in June, "I'm following the situation in Japan and the news coming out of the country and I decided with my family -- not the influence of the coaches -- that I do not want to travel to Japan. I expected that my decision will have consequences, but despite the disciplinary measures against me, I feel that my decision was right."The rest of the team has not been concerned, said Austin Sheppard, who has dual citizenship with the United States and Hungary and is competing at her first world championships. "I don't think we had hesitation at all," Sheppard said. "We want to go to the Olympics." The Japanese teams are aware that representing their country in Tokyo this week carries added significance; that they are also a symbol of the Japanese people standing strong in the face of adversity. "I want to come up with a strong performance to encourage the people in Japan," said Rie Tanaka, who has become somewhat famous in the Japanese media after winning the Longines Prize for Elegance -- given to the gymnast who displays great showmanship and elegance -- at last year's worlds. The organizing committee has paid for 300 schoolchildren from Miyagi, Fukushima, and Iwate prefectures -- all among the hardest hit by the disaster -- to travel to Tokyo with their families to watch this weekend's event finals competition. They will be able to watch proudly from the stands as Uchimura performs in five events in men's finals, and Tsurumi and Asuka Teramoto compete for gold on uneven bars in the women's final. Uchimura, who had a surprise fall on vault during the preliminary competition, considered not performing on floor exercise afterward in order to protect his slightly injured left leg. When asked why he opted to continue, Uchimura touched the patch on his shirt, an emblem with the word "Tohoku" and a pink heart that all gymnasts have sewn onto their competition apparel, and said simply, "I wanted to do my best performance."