“There’s no point in quitting gymnastics now.” — Four-time World champion Kohei Uchimura in Antwerp a few weeks ago
Is Kohei Uchimura the greatest male gymnast who ever lived? Many think so, but if you ask the four-time World champion himself, he’ll tell you that the greatest ever was Vitaly Scherbo, the 1992 Olympic all-around champion who won six gold medals in one Olympic Games, a mind-blowing, Michael Phelps-like accomplishment in gymnastics.
The normally quiet, reflective Uchimura shared that and more details in a revealing interview published recently by the BBC. (Among other things, you learn that Kohei admires star sprinter Usain Bolt and is fascinated by watches, probably a good thing since he’s been twice honored with the Longines Prize for Elegance, which includes a beautiful Longines watch. Kohei can now wear one on each wrist when he goes out.)
But what about Scherbo, the lion of Minsk who dominated his era in the same way that Uchimura is dominating his own? There are many criteria by which “the greatest ever” could be judged, but here are just a few things to think about:
SCHERBO: Scherbo, who now coaches at least one Olympic men’s hopeful in Las Vegas, won six golds at the 1992 Olympic Games (team, all around and everything except floor and high bar) and four bronzes (all-around, vault, p-bars, high bar) four years later in Atlanta. Total: 10 Olympic medals.
UCHIMURA: Though he has dominated the all-around over the past several years, Uchimura owns just one Olympic gold medal, for the all-around in London in 2012. He also captured silvers in the all-around and team competition at the 2008 Beijing Games, and also has silvers with his team and on floor from London. Total: Five Olympic medals.
World Championship medals.
SCHERBO: Scherbo has a whopping 23 World medals, and is the only man in history to have won at least one World title on every event, with his team and in the all-around. Though he competed at six World Championships however, he won the all-around only once, in 1993.
UCHIMURA: Uchimura currently owns 13 World medals, including six gold. Most importantly, he has captured the men’s all-around title an unprecedented four times. Though he shows no signs of being done yet, it is unlikely that Uchimura will be able to equal Scherbo’s feat of becoming World champion on every event — so far he’s two-for-six, with World titles on floor (2011) and parallel bars (2013, with China’s Lin Chaopan. The reason is that Uchimura is an all-arounder in an age of event specialists, while nobody specialized in Scherbo’s day.
SCHERBO: Scherbo competed in two Olympic Games, when he was at his best in 1992 and again in 1996, when he rushed to get back in shape after a bout of depression following his wife’s accident. Accustomed to gold, Scherbo was frustrated by the four bronze medals he won in Atlanta.
UCHIMURA: Uchimura’s rookie Olympics was in 2008 when he was 19. In spite of falling twice from the pommel horse during men’s all-around finals, he finished with the silver medal in the all-around, signalling just how good he was. Gold followed in 2012, and barring injury, it already appears that he will be a force in Rio. In Antwerp two weeks ago, Uchimura said that he would like to compete through the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo.
Note: The gymanst with the greatest longevity in the history of men’s gymnastics is unduobtedly Bulgaria’s Jordan Jovtchev, who competed in every Olympics from 1992 to 2012. At age 38, he qualified for his sixth Olympics at the London Test Event by competing all-around and beating competitors literally half his age. At the Olympics six months later he limited himself to rings, but still made event finals in spite of having stood outside the Olympic stadium for several hours the night before to march in opening ceremonies as Bulgaria’s flagbearer.
Overcoming injury and other obstacles.
SCHERBO: The greatest challenges of Scherbo’s career stemmed not from gymnastics but the misfortunes of those around him. He and his wife Irina left Belarus after someone broke into his home, obviously seeking his Olympics medals, eventually settling in Pennsylvania. Early in 1996 Irina was in a devastating car accident, spent several weeks in a coma and nearly lost her life. Scherbo stopped training to keep a vigil at her bedside, and later confessed that he took to drinking heavily during this period. As a result, he entered the spring of 1996 extremely out of shape and had to rush to get himself prepared for the Atlanta Olympics.
UCHIMURA: The uber-private Uchimura does not disclose much to the media, so it’s unknown what kinds of problems if any have threatened his progress. He’s had a few injuries here and there (one problem kept him from doing anything during podium training at the 2010 Worlds, to the great surprise of the media) but nothing that has kept him from dominating international competitions.
Note: If overcoming obstacles is a criteria for greatest ever, we can’t continue without mentioning 1983 and 1987 World all-around champion Dmirtri Bilozertchev, who won his first World all-around title at just 16, blowing away a deep field that included the Chinese, the Japanese and the USSR at the 1983 Worlds.
Bilozertchev went on to star in the 1984 Olomouc Games (the USSR’s replacement for the Olympics, featuring Soviet and Eastern-bloc held in Olomouc, Czechoslovakia), winning five gold medals where his competition came primarily from his Soviet teammates. The next year, he crashed his car into a tree and broke his right leg in 40 places. It was scheduled for amputation before his identity became known, and then herculean efforts were made to save it.
Miraculously, Bilozertchev regained mobility in his leg and returned to elite gymanstics, pulling off perhaps the most stunning injury comeback ever at the 1987 Worlds, where he recaptured the all-around title over Yuri Korolev and Vladimir Artemov. In one of gymnastics’s biggest “could have been” stories, he was en route to take the 1988 Olympic all-around title when his coach ordered him to do a more complicated high bar routine than planned. Bilozertchev made a mistake and wound up with bronze in the all-around, but won golds on pommel horse and rings and with the Soviet team.
It’s hard to include him in the “best ever” category because his career was so compromised by politics and injuries, but he deserves at least a mention here.
Actually, we’re not going to go there. Comparing gymnasts across different eras, different codes of points and different equipment and technology is always tricky. Suffice to say that both men had extraordinary levels of difficulty for their generations, though in terms of number of skills per routine and the difficulty of skills in the routine Uchimura does more difficult gymnastics. He also has the advantage of all that technology can offer gymnasts today (like a much-improved vaulting table), which Scherbo didn’t have.
SCHERBO: Scherbo was the first man to do a Yurchenko-style vault on the skinny, hot-dog like men’s vaulting table of yore, completing a double-twisting Yurchenko at the 1989 Worlds.
UCHIMURA: While he has never pioneered his own skill, the sheer variety of what Uchimura can do is nothing short of stunning. He has about five different vaults to choose from and has done everything from a triple twisting double tuck on floor to a triple twisting double layout dismount off high bar in training.
One final word.
I’ve written before that Uchimura is the best ever, and one reason for this is that as an all-arounder, he is simply so much better than his competition at all times. But Scherbo could be beaten, and was greatly challenged in international competition before and after his domination at the 1992 Olympics. 1991 World champion Grigory Misutin was the Philipp Boy of his generation, a wonderful gymnast who will always be in the shadow of the guy who was no. 1 in that era.
Your take: Who is the greatest male gymnast ever: Kohei Uchimura? Vitaly Scherbo? Someone else? Please leave a comment below with your opinion.
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