Beijing: The Chinese women’s gymnastics team displayed a rare bout of nerves but held on to lead the Beijing Olympic qualifiers on Sunday, 10 August, when arch-rivals, the United States, made their own mistakes.
Head Chinese coach Lu Shanzhen wanted more from his charges, rating their performance at only 70% after a number of errors gave a glimpse of the immense pressure the Chinese face in winning gold in Beijing.
But the world champion Americans failed to capitalize when its own gymnasts committed uncharacteristic faults.
China led the qualifications after two of four rounds on 248.275, with the US on 246.8, Japan 233.175 and Romania 238.425.
Chinese’s He Kexin drew gasps from the 18,000 crowd at the National Indoor Stadium when she fell on her final apparatus, the uneven bars, then a rousing ovation upon completing her routine.
“It’s a big shame, we felt very sorry for her,” Lu said through an interpreter.
Chinese gymnast He Kexin falls down after performing at the uneven bars during the women’s qualification rounds at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, 10 August. Photo: Julie Jacobson / AP
“It was just a small mistake, it’s quite normal for the young athletes who lack some experience. We took a risk on the uneven bars and except for He, the other athletes were quite good.”
He appeared close to tears as team-mates rushed to console her after the routine but still received 15.725, the third highest score of the round.
The Chinese women confirmed their status as the main rivals confronting world champions the United States, mirroring a dominant display by their male counterparts in Saturday’s men’s qualification.
But He was not the only Chinese athlete whose nerves betrayed her.
Yuyuan Jiang, 16, looked stricken as she stumbled dismounting from the beam but received hugs from her coaches and a creditable 15.25 from the judges.
The tiny athlete was all smiles on her next apparatus, the floor exercise, where she had the crowd clapping to her music score are she tumbled and pirouetted through her routine.
World champion vaulter Cheng Fei, who said before the Games the weight of expectation to deliver gold at home sometimes left her breathless, clenched her fists in relief after nailing her first vault to score 15.912.
The Americans were also jittery in a competition schedule that has been moved forward to the mornings to coincide with US prime-time television slots.
Chellsie Memmel fell off the uneven bars then Nastia Luikin landed heavily dismounting from the same apparatus and tripped over.
Luikin then went on to record a strong performance on the balance beam where she is world champion.
The US snatched the team title from China by less than a point at the world championships in Stuttgart last year and the home side are intent on revenge.
The Chinese women are also seeking to make amends for their 2004 Olympic display, when they failed to win a single gold despite dominating the world championships a year earlier.
Their lead up to Beijing was marred by allegations that three of their six team members were under the minimum age of 16 set down for gymnasts at the Games, claims rejected by the International Olympic Committee.