London • They were young and relentless, but the U.S. men’s gymnastics team couldn’t overcome a catastrophic start Monday in failing to earn a medal in the Olympic team competition at the 02 Arena on the banks of the River Thames.
With the country’s best performers coming unhinged in the second rotation — the dreaded pommel horse — the Americans found themselves too far behind to catch the leaders in finishing fifth on a night that ended in a judging controversy.
While the Americans finished 1.758 points behind surprising third-place Great Britain, defending Olympic champion China waltzed away with the gold medal for its third team title in the previous four Games.
Japan finished second but only after Britain initially was announced as the silver medalist much to the joy of a partisan home crowd inside the pink-decorated arena. The standings were reversed after Japan challenged the score of three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura on pommel horse, the country’s final of six events.
The scoring didn’t placate Ukrainian coach Yuliy Kuksenkov, who thought his gymnasts deserved the silver medal. Ukraine finished in fourth, .185 points behind Britain.
“We’re not blind,” Kuksenkov said through a translator.
The Americans had little to quarrel about after entering the final as the top qualifier while China was sixth, Japan fifth. The U.S. gymnasts arrived at the arena feeling optimistic with Danell Leyva, 19, and John Orozco, 20, among the top four in the all-around competition.
Then the stars faded into irrelevance shortly after English pop singer Pixie Lott performed to start off the event. After a slow start on the floor exercise, Leyva and Orozco failed to come through during a wild ride on the pommel horse.
First, Leyva slipped off the apparatus before completing a dismount. It was the kind of momentum-zapping performance that took a toll. Orozco proved even worse after he looked slower than a three-cylinder truck.
“It would be a lie to say we weren’t nervous going into the team finals,” said Leyva, a Cuban immigrant coached by his stepfather in Miami.
Leyva knew he was in trouble from the start of the pommel horse program. He felt off kilter as he grabbed the bars and couldn’t relax the way he usually does in the gym.
“Then I rushed it and made myself fall,” Leyva said.
Orozco, who became one of America’s finest gymnasts after growing up in the downtrodden Bronx, increased the pressure on himself after the mishap.
Then “I started really messing up,” he said.
Orozco fared only a little better on his vault, which ended with the gymnast sitting on the mat after botching the landing. That all but ended America’s medal hopes on a night Britain won its first team medal since 1912.
“I like to think it doesn’t get to me but I guess it does,” Orozco said of the pressure. “After the vault I thought, ‘All right, that’s two routines that I destroyed.’ “
The highlight came from the team’s least-known competitor, Jake Dalton of Reno, Nev. The University of Oklahoma athlete offered three clean routines, leading the team on two of them.
“When someone messes up it throws off the group a bit,” Dalton said. “I knew I had to get the fire going.”