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China’s Yang finishes the job

Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- This gymnastics meet has become a big Chinese swinging, dancing, somersaulting, fist-pumping, high-fiving, in-your-face celebration.

It has also been redemptive for the men.

First the Chinese team won gold in an authoritative, doubt-erasing rout after crumbling under pressure in Athens in 2004 and finishing fifth.

Then today Yang Wei, a slight 28-year-old with thinning hair and an impish grin, won his first Olympic all-around gold medal. He finished his night on the high bar where, four years ago, he fell off and plummeted from first to seventh, from almost-champion to earning a reputation as a cheery choker.

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Yang did his high bar routine last today. It was nervous and slow and there was a big step on the landing but that didn’t matter this time. He didn’t fall.

The crowd chanted, “Yang Wei, Yang Wei, Yang Wei,” and Yang began a victory lap while waiting for his mark of 14.775 to post. He shook his fists and flexed his muscles

His gold medal total was 94.575. Winning silver was 19-year-old Kohei Uchimura of Japan, who American team alternate David Durante had touted as a dark-horse contender. The bronze went to little-known French veteran Benoit Caranobe, who was 33rd at last year’s world championships and 17th at the 2004 Olympics.

A pair of 22-year-old Americans, Jonathan Horton and Alexander Artemev, were ninth and 12th, respectively.

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Horton, who finished fourth at last year’s worlds, didn’t have big falls but instead a series of step-filled landings and untidy positions.

For Artemev it was a triumph just to qualify for the all-around finals after he had originally been named only an alternate to the U.S. team.

Horton and Artemev each have one more chance to add to their U.S. team bronze medal. Horton is in the high bar finals and Artemev is on pommel horse.

Germany’s Fabian Hambuechen, who had been the all-around silver medalist at last year’s world championships and came here with big hopes, had a dramatic fall off the high bar, where he is defending world champion, and he finished seventh.

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There were few more dramatic moments at the Athens Olympics than watching Yang fall off the high bar on his final routine of the men’s all-around final. The mistake opened the way for Paul Hamm of the U.S. to complete his own recovery from a bad vault landing and sent the Games into a controversy when Korea’s Yang Tae Young protested he had been underscored and should have won the gold medal.

China’s Yang has won the last two world championships and again other athletes had spoken of him as being unbeatable coming into the Olympics.

If he made no major mistakes.

Before he had to withdraw because of a broken hand, Hamm said his own strategy was to perfect routines of less difficulty than Yang’s, hope to do them flawlessly and hope that Yang made mistakes.

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If anyone else had that strategy Thursday, it didn’t work and that was a stark contrast to Athens.

Yang had also been the big favorite when his top competitors including Hamm had conceded him first place because Yang had more difficulty in his routines combined with incomparable elegance.

Nerves were Yang’s downfall though. He took a horrifying fall off the high bar and fell to seventh. He was a disconsolate soul walking through the mixed zone in Athens, an area where media members hang over ropes shouting questions at the losers, the athletes who don’t win a medal and aren’t invited to the main interview area.

It seems as if the computer that draws the start lists has an ironic sense of humor because Yang finished off this competition on high bar, sending the full-house crowd at National Indoor Stadium into a frenzy before he jumped onto the bar.

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After he had scored a 16.100 on the parallel bars on his fifth rotation, Yang thrust his arms toward every area of the stands. If Yang had any bad memories from Athens, he was confronting them with bravado.

Yang also won an all-around silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Games after his team won gold.

Artemev finished with his highest-scoring pommel horse routine of the Olympics, 15.525, a score that if he achieves it in the event final would put him in medal contention.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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GYMNASTICS

Men’s All-Around Competition

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*--* Medal winners G: Yang Wei (China) Score: 94.575 S: Kohei Uchimura (Japan) Score: 91.575 B: Benoit Caranobe (France) Score: 91.525 *--*


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