He finally has gold to prove it
BEIJING - Yang Wei blew kisses to the crowd, then stretched out his arms and turned slowly as the roars of appreciation grew to a crescendo. Satisfied everyone had gotten a good, long look at the new champion, he raised his hands above his head and clapped.
He didn't wait for his Olympic gold medal - or his final score, for that matter - to take a curtain call, leaping back onto the podium and thrusting his fists into the air. He mugged for the cameras and hammed it up, all those years of frustration and anticipation breaking free.
Eight years in the making, he finally had his moment.
A moment so glorious he never wanted it to end.
A moment he once feared would never come.
"The result is very good, tremendous," Yang said. "That is the feeling I have been looking for, and it feels very good."
There were 24 men in yesterday's all-around gymnastics competition, but Yang's gold-medal performance had no peer. He was so superior the margin between him and silver medalist Kohei Uchimura was 2.6 points, a chasm in a sport decided by 10ths and 100ths. Benoit Caranobe of France won the bronze.
It took Yang four events to climb to the top of the standings, but everyone knew the real score. Yang has been untouchable the last two years, so much better than everyone else it's almost not fair.
No one was foolish enough to think the Olympics would be any different.
"I said to him, 'For today's competition, just let it go. You don't have any competition here but yourself. Just trust yourself and your training,' " coach Huang Yubin said.
"It's like training," Huang added. "You are out there by yourself. If you think about competing with others, that is when the mental mistakes can happen because you are not so strong psychologically."
Those earlier disappointments hardened Yang, making him tougher than forged steel.
He was dismissively nicknamed "the silver collector" after whisker-thin finishes at the Sydney Olympics and 2003 world championships. Worse, the gold was there for the taking in Athens and he couldn't deliver. Couldn't even come close, finishing seventh while old foe Paul Hamm staged a spectacular rally to win it.
The failure was devastating, and Yang wondered if it was his destiny to always be the man in the shadows, never the one in the spotlight.
"After the Athens Games, I wanted to retire," Yang said. "I was in very good shape back then. If I couldn't win a gold then, I thought I could never get a gold. Extra training would not have had an effect."
But Yang's coach, Huang, knew better. He coaxed and cajoled Yang back into the gym, encouraging and badgering him until Yang saw it, too. He was a champion, his time just hadn't arrived.
"He's been encouraging me, saying, 'You didn't win, but this does not mean you cannot win in 2008. It is a good opportunity for you,"' Yang said.
To be a champion, Yang knew he needed to be the strongest gymnast on the floor, mentally and physically. The new scoring system, implemented in 2006, was open-ended, allowing gymnasts to pack as much difficulty into their routines as they could manage.
This would be how Yang would set himself apart.
He doesn't have the beautiful style of 2005 world champion Hiroyuki Tomita, who finished fourth Thursday. He doesn't have Hamm's polished perfection. There is someone on every event whose routines are more mesmerizing, and arena floors are littered with Yang's little mistakes.
But his brute strength is unmatched, overpowering everything - and everyone - in his wake.
He is not a big man - just 5 feet 3 inches and 119 pounds - but he wrings every last ounce of power he can out of his body, and stuffs it into his performances.
On still rings and parallel bars, his routines are the most difficult in the world. Only one or two gymnasts have tougher ones on pommel horse and vault. With that kind of difficulty, everyone else is playing catch-up before they even begin.
Take still rings, an event so physically demanding it can cause a muscle strain just watching it. Yang's start value - the measure of the routine's difficulty - is a 7.3. Contrast that with world silver medalist Fabian Hambuechen, who has a 5.9 start value on rings, or Tomita, who has a 6.3.
Yang can do a sloppy routine, and he'll still finish ahead.
"It's going to be really tough to catch Yang Wei," Hamm said earlier this week.
His weakest event is usually his last, high bar. But just as he did Thursday, Yang builds up such a big lead that he can afford a fall or two and still finish on top. He won his second straight world title last year despite falling so hard he almost rolled off the podium.
Yesterday, he was so off-balance on one of his pirouettes it looked more like a corkscrew, and he banged into the bar when he came back down from a release move. His 14.775 was almost a half-point lower than his next-worst score, a 15.25 on floor that included a penalty for going out of bounds, and he still won easily.
"Anyone who knows me knows in the all-around, I once had a failure in the very first apparatus and then did well to catch up. I also have done very well for the first five events, then failed in the last," Yang said. "I prepared for any difficulties and expect any difficulties. I will never give up."
Indeed, maybe the only person who could have given him a challenge was Hamm. But he was back in the United States nursing a broken hand and a strained shoulder, leaving the spotlight all for Yang.
Finally, it was his time to shine.