The three-times all-round world champion is regarded as being the best male gymnast of all time and looks a near certainty for Olympic gold.
Gymnastics has not dealt in perfect 10s since Nadia Comaneci’s famous scores of 1976. But this summer, Japan’s Kohei Uchimura may well produce his own slice of perfection. Since taking the all-around silver in Beijing, the 23-year-old has been undefeated in competition, becoming the first male gymnast to win the title at three back-to-back world championships. If he takes gold in London – seen as a near certainty – he will have produced the perfect Olympic cycle, and will be considered by many – including his peers – to be the best male gymnast of all time.
“He’s able to do incredibly difficult things and just make it look easy,” says Kevin Mazeika, the US men’s head coach. “No one’s anywhere near him,” said the British gymnast Sam Oldham. “It’s crazy. He’s too good.”
Uchimura’s father, Kazuhisa, was a competitive gymnast and Kohei began training at the gym his parents own, in Nagasaki, when he was three. The young Uchimura often forgot his routines under the pressure of competition and lacked the strength of his peers, but he made up for any faults with a rigorous work ethic. He left his family at 15 to train in Tokyo with his hero, the Athens gold medallist Naoya Tsukahara, and took silver at Beijing at the age of 19.
Since then he has proved unbeatable, with displays of unprecedented difficulty and unmatchable elegance that are likely to make him one of the YouTube hits of the Games. “He’s outrageously talented,” said Oldham. “It takes people months to learn moves, but he’ll try stuff he’s never done before and just get up and do it.” Jonathan Horton, who took all-around bronze at the world championships in 2010, dubbed Uchimura “a machine” after he won gold despite competing with a shoulder injury; he won his last title, in Tokyo, by more than three points, the gymnastic equivalent of lapping your opponents.
If his all-around rivals find it hard to detect weaknesses, there’s even worse news for Japan’s rivals in the team competition: Uchimura says that team gold, not the all-around, is his priority. “The most appealing thing about gymnastics is that … you can’t ever be perfect,” Uchimura has said. At London, he may get to test his own theory.