The most impressive gymnast in Rio is not Simone Biles

The best.
The best.
Image: AP/Julio Cortez
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If you’re an American who depends on NBC for your Olympics coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking Simone Biles is the only champion gymnast in Rio worth celebrating.

Her women’s all-around title is indeed impressive. But she has a ways to go before she matches the accomplishments of Japan’s Kohei Uchimura, who won his second consecutive men’s all-around title on Aug. 10. It was his seventh Olympic medal and third gold. (He also led Japan to the men’s team title earlier this week.) He has a trophy case full of world championship hardware, too.

Uchimura, 27, may be all but ignored in the US, but he’s a superstar in Japan. Newspapers there published special editions and Japanese television has given him wall-to-wall coverage, according to the New York Times.

He’s the first gymnast to successfully defend an all-around title since Sawao Kato did it in 1968 and 1972. (The last women to do it, Czechoslovakia’s Vera Caslavska, did it in 1964 and 1968.) Consider the roster of superstar gymnasts who didn’t do it: Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, and even Vitaly Scherbo, who won six gold medals in one Olympics.

How hard is it to repeat? Ask the US’s Gabby Douglas, who won the gold in 2012, but was denied the opportunity to defend her championship in Rio after Biles and Aly Raisman outscored her in the qualifying rounds (only two athletes per country can compete in the all-around final). More than most sports, gymnastics rewards the young and supple; experience is no match for fresh legs.

Age doesn’t have to be an insurmountable barrier. Michael Phelps, another superhuman, is proving it in the pool, and Oksana Chusovitina, of Uzbekistan, will be competing in the vault final on Sunday at age 41, 24 years since she debuted in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (and five years before Biles was born).

Uchimura is already under pressure to go for the three-peat in 2020, when Tokyo will be the host city. He’ll be 31—in his prime if he was a golfer, but ancient for gymnastics. He says he’d be happy just to make the 2020 team, if only so his kids can see him compete.