LONDON - Before he even took the floor Monday afternoon, John Orozco worried about his ability to land a strong vault in the most pressure-filled competition of his life. The U.S. gymnast had done it cleanly only once since he got to London, during the qualifying for the men's team final at the Olympic Games.
The U.S. had dominated that opening competition, finishing atop the standings by a comfortable margin and stirring hopes it could win its first team gold since 1984. But in the Olympics' unforgiving format -- three gymnasts compete in each event, and all three scores count -- even the smallest mistakes can make a difference. After Orozco made two big ones, all he could do was fight back the tears.
The U.S. vision of gold dissolved into a fifth-place finish as a flurry of errors, including Orozco's fall on vault and his shaky pommel horse routine, kicked off an afternoon of surprises at North Greenwich Arena. China rose up from a poor preliminary performance to reassert itself as the strongest program on the planet, taking the gold with 275.997 points. Great Britain raised the roof with a bronze, its first Olympic medal in the men's team event in 100 years.
Japan aced the Brits out of silver when it challenged the score given to the final routine of the brilliant Kohei Uchimura. His 13.466 was upgraded to a 14.166, lifting the Japanese from fourth to second and pushing Ukraine off the podium. Japan finished with 271.952 points, and the Brits' 271.711 earned the bronze by only .185 of a point.
Princes William and Harry were in the house, too, surrounded by a crowd eager for the home team to collect medals of any color. The U.S. was left to sort through the wreckage of a stunning fall, with the all-around and individual finals yet to go.
"On my vault, I don't have the best technique," said Orozco, a rising young star and current U.S. all-around champion. "I wasn't exactly confident, but I tried my best, and that's all I can do.
"The team just kept fighting. Jon [Horton, Orozco's U.S. teammate] told us to stay positive and finish with three good routines and end on a good note. I think we did that."
The Americans did rally, posting the third-highest team scores on the parallel bars and high bar in their final two events. But the steadiness of the teams ahead of them gave them little chance to move up. It could have been worse; they were in last place at the halfway point, just before their erratic vaulting all but ended their chances to medal.
On their first event -- floor exercise -- Sam Mikulak landed short on his final tumbling pass and pitched forward, planting his hands on the floor. On their second, pommel horse, Danell Leyva fell off. Orozco ran out of steam on his routine and sat on the horse, earning a score of 12.733 -- the second-lowest of the meet.
The U.S. could have made up significant ground on the vault, a high- scoring event. Orozco landed unsteadily and plopped down on his seat, trying not to cry as his teammates tried to comfort him.
Some had written off China after an uncharacteristically ragged performance in the qualifying. The defending Olympic champions finished sixth to slip into the eight-team field for the final, but that only inspired them to do better.
"After getting out of bed this morning," captain Chen Yibing said, "I knew we were going to win it, because in qualifications, we didn't do very well."
The Chinese moved into the lead after two events and continued to build it with their masterful execution of high-difficulty routines. The Brits, fueled by a crowd draped in Union Jacks, briefly celebrated a silver medal before Japan's coach submitted an inquiry into Uchimura's pommel horse score.
A three-time defending world champion in the all-around, Uchimura questioned the difficulty value the judges assigned to his dismount. The judges reviewed video and added .700 points to his score, enough to boost the Japanese into second place. That did not sit well with the home crowd, which booed and hollered as the judges left the floor.
U.S. coach Kevin Mazeika gathered his team before it departed, forming a huddle and giving a speech to lift their spirits. With the all-around and individual event finals coming up, Horton and Orozco promised they would take a tip from the Chinese, who drew strength from their disappointment.
"I'm so proud of their ability to fight till the very end," Mazeika said. "That's what I told them. It was just one of those days where we were a little bit off. But they never gave up."
China 275.997 pts.
Japan 271.952 pts.
Britain 271.711 pts.