LONDON, July 30 (Reuters) - The raised index fingers of China’s gymnasts left no doubt which men’s team had won the Olympic title but for 15 minutes, British fans clapped and cheered as the hosts snared an unexpected silver on Monday.
Except they had not.
Three-times world champion Kohei Uchimura could not believe his eyes, or the scoreboard, when his pommel horse score of 13.466 flashed up to show that Japan, who had been lying second going into the final rotation, had dived out of the medals to fourth.
That left Louis Smith and his British team mates leaping for joy while the quintet from Ukraine exchanged high fives as they celebrated grabbing a last-gasp bronze.
However, even as the roaring fans stamped their feet in approval and Princes William and Harry joined in to give Britain’s famous five a standing ovation, Japanese officials scrambled to lodge an appeal against Uchimura’s score.
Suddenly all celebrations came to a standstill as 15,500 pairs of eyes turned to the giant screen hanging from the domed roof of the North Greenwich Arena as gymnasts, fans and media waited for the verdict.
For 15 minutes, officials huddled around a video screen as they reviewed again and again Uchimura’s dismount from the pommel horse.
As the giant scoreboard flashed the message, “Men’s pommel horse inquiry accepted”, Uchimura and his team mates sat stone-faced as officials scrutinised the image of the 23-year-old completing a messy dismount after going into a handstand with legs splayed on the block of wood.
When the judgement was finally announced, it showed that Uchimura’s score had been increased by 0.7 of a point, enough to bump Japan up to silver and Britain down to a bronze.
The crowd booed, Uchimura and co, who had been going for gold, smiled in relief and Ukraine’s dejected gymnasts stormed out in disgust.
Smith, Daniel Purvis, Kristian Thomas, Max Whitlock and Sam Oldham could not care less as they whooped in delight, knowing Britain had won their first Olympic team medal in a century.
“We knew whichever way it went we were getting a medal,” coach Eddie Van Hoof told a news conference. “A silver would have been nice but we will take the bronze anyway.”
The whole episode revived memories of the 2004 Athens all-around judging scandal when it transpired that the gold medal would have gone to South Korea’s Yang Tae-young and not Paul Hamm had it not been for a scoring error.
While Hamm had to wait for three months before discovering he could keep the gold medal after being drawn into a legal wrangle, the presence of the instant replay system on Monday settled the dispute before any medals were handed out.
“I think it is the first Olympics where this happened, that we had to change a score which changed a ranking in the medals, as far as I remember,” Andre Gueisbuhler, secretary-general of the sport’s ruling body FIG, told reporters.
All the late drama stole the spotlight away from the triumphant Chinese, who obliterated the opposition by 4.045 points to win their third team crown in four Olympics.
Reports of the Chinese team’s demise, following a sloppy performance in qualifying when they finished sixth, turned out to be greatly exaggerated as they kept their poise on all six apparatus to finish with a total of 275.997.
Asked if they had been trying to fool people with their qualifying performance, Zou Kai, who along with Chen Yibing is one of the two survivors from the class of 2008 which won seven of the eight golds up for grabs in Beijing, said: “It was not a smokescreen.”
Monday’s awe-inspiring display, when they were the only ones not fall off any apparatus, meant the team who have won five successive world crowns and two successive Olympic titles have not been beaten for eight years.
“From the Beijing Games we have been watching the back of the Chinese and even though the athletes have changed, they are still strong. The Chinese team had no mistakes at all,” observed Uchimura.
Mistakes, and lots of them, cost the United States dear in one of the most action-packed Olympic men’s finals.
Tipped to become the first American men’s team to win the title since 1984, they spectacularly imploded and finished fifth after the pommel horse again proved to be their nemesis.
Danell Leyva fell off during his swivels while John Orozco sat down on the wooden block and failed to regain his momentum as he wobbled through the rest of his routine to draw 12.733 - the lowest mark earned amongst the top six teams.
The man nicknamed Silent Ninja due to his inability to show any emotions - win or lose - struggled to hold back his tears on Monday and a few minutes later, they were welling up again as he crash landed from the vault.
It was a feeling all too familiar to Japan’s Koji Yamamuro who drew gasps after landing on his face and knees.
Pain etched on his face, Yamamuro hopped off the platform on his right foot and was given a piggy-back ride out of the arena as his day ended.
But when it was time for the presentation ceremony, he was hopping back out again, with his arms around two team mates as they made their way to the podium.
Russia, Germany and France finished sixth, seventh and eighth respectively. (Additional reporting by Clare Fallon, editing by Alison Wildey)