Kohei Uchimura of Japan practices during a training session ahead of the… (Julie Jacobson / Associated…)
LONDON — The men's gymnastics Olympics team qualification competition begins Saturday at the North Greenwich Arena and, surprisingly, the rock stars aren't the high-flying Chinese men who won seven of eight available gold medals in Beijing, or the toast of Twitter, the U.S. men, who seem to be asked by every girl in the world for a retweet.
Kohei Uchimura, a modest 23-year-old from Japan who bows his head when spoken to and always points his toes, even when he's doing two or three twists on a particular apparatus, will be the focus even during the team competition.
Uchimura has won the last three all-around world championships after he finished second to China's Yang Wei at the Beijing Games.
John Orozco, who is one of the American men who might have a chance at an all-around medal, said after watching Uchimura at the world championships in Tokyo last year, "It was almost like a show. It was like we all would have paid money to watch him. It's amazing."
Germany's Philipp Boy, who won all-around bronze in Tokyo, said, "For him to win three worlds in a row, that is history. I just can't say anything more."
Tim Daggett, an NBC commentator and a former U.S. gymnast, said if Uchimura were to win all-around gold here, he might be considered the greatest gymnast ever. "The argument could easily be made," Daggett said.
Uchimura demurs from speaking about that yet.
"My first goal is the team," he said Wednesday after podium training.
On Saturday, besides qualifying for team finals, the men will also qualify eight gymnasts for each apparatus final and 24 for the all-around final. No more than two competitors from each country can participate in the individual finals or all-around.
Eight of the 12 full teams will qualify for Monday's team finals.
The U.S. men and Japanese men will compete in the same subdivision -- the second of three -- that begins at 3:30 p.m. in London (7:30 a.m. PDT).
Jonathan Horton, the only returning gymnast from the 2008 U.S. squad that won team bronze, will be the first American gymnast to perform, starting on the parallel bars. Horton, too, could not say enough great things about the 5-foot-3 Uchimura, who wears his hair in the floppy, long-bangs style once made popular by the Beatles.
"He is so secure and has such high difficulty on every event," Horton said. "Sometimes you do have to fight yourself from watching him as if you are a fan. He's just so good."
U.S. men's coach Kevin Mazeika shook his head when asked about Uchimura. "He's able to do incredibly difficult things and just make it look easy," Mazeika said. "Sometimes it almost feels as if it's a privilege to watch him."
Uchimura's father, Kazuhisa, was also a competitive gymnast and, like U.S. gymnast Danell Leyva, Uchimura's family also owns its own gym (in Nagasaki).
Leyva, whose family came to the U.S. from Cuba, and U.S. teammate Orozco, are considered the best U.S. hopes to advance to the all-around finals.
Even though Uchimura had some trouble in podium training for these Games, falling three times, he is the first gymnast, male or female, to have won three consecutive world championships.
"Think about that," Horton said. "Just staying healthy, much less at the top of the world for that time. He's an amazing guy."