Tokyo: Japan delighted its home crowd by taking the early lead in men`s qualifying on Sunday at the world gymnastics championships.
The Japanese finished with 364.291 points, 2.7 points ahead of the United States. But this was only the first session of men`s qualifying, with Germany, last year`s bronze medalist, competing later Sunday and China, Olympic champion and winner of the last four world titles, going Monday.
The top eight teams earn trips to next summer`s London Olympics as well as spots in Wednesday`s team finals.
Kohei Uchimura, who`s been untouchable since the Beijing Games, is on track for a third straight all-around title, topping the individual standings. American John Orozco was next, followed by U.S. champ Danell Leyva.
"It is just the first competition," two-time world champion Uchimura said through an interpreter. "But I have the full confidence to get the gold medal."
The Americans have been saying they believe they can contend for the gold medal in London, and there`s no question they are much, much improved. They had only one fall — Steve Legendre landed his vault on his knees — and posted higher scores than Japan on vault and floor exercise.
John Orozco, who is not even 15 months removed from a blown Achilles, and U.S. champ Danell Leyva showed they`re game for giving the stylish Uchimura a rare challenge, finishing about 2 points in the individual standings.
"We`re a much stronger team in three-up, three-count," said Jonathan Horton, a double medalist at the Beijing Olympics. "Not to put down my team at all, but our fourth score up on every single event is much lower than the top three guys. So when we go with our top three, we are as good as anyone in the world and we know it.”
"Not to be cocky or overconfident, but we have that belief in us that we are as good as these teams."
Still, there is a reason Japan has battled China for supremacy in men`s gymnastics the past decade.
On still rings, gymnastics` version of a torture chamber, Uchimara did three somersaults and came to a dead stop, the cables not moving a millimeter. He could have been a model in an art class on parallel bars, holding his handstands with statue-like stillness.
On the high bar, his release moves were massive, bringing sighs from the crowd.
"I had some mistakes," Uchimura said, who fell on his vault landing and hurt his leg.
Japan got a scare on floor exercise, when Yusuke Tanaka landed his first tumbling pass on his head. Tanaka was clearly dazed, but still attempted his next skill before the Japanese coaches could climb onto the podium and pull him off the floor. He walked down under his own power and took a seat on the sidelines, putting his face in his hands.
He was later taken to the hospital for tests.
Tanaka was leading the all-around at that point, and it will be a big loss if Japan doesn`t have him Wednesday. But they have plenty of depth — as Makoto Okiguchi showed. Okiguchi wasn`t supposed to compete on pommel horse, but he had little choice because of Tanaka`s injury and a fall off horse by Tanaka`s older brother, Kazahito.
With the home fans urging him on, Okiguchi put on a solid show and earned a more-than-respectable 14.533.