Kohei Uchimura: Gymnastics great admires Usain Bolt

By Ollie WilliamsBBC Olympic sports reporter
World Gymnastics: Japan's Kohei Uchimura wins fourth world title

Kohei Uchimura is 20 minutes late. The Japanese television crew is not.

Fuji TV are not here to film him. They are here to film us, filming him.

Uchimura is one of the greatest figures in the history of Japanese sport and he may be the world's best gymnast of all time.

The 24-year-old is big news. If you are talking to him, apparently you are news too.

He has won the past four all-around world titles - a peerless record in the history of gymnastics, achieved in an era packed with talented rivals.

Last year, he won Olympic all-around gold.

But Uchimura does not simply win these titles. He destroys the field, every time, without appearing to particularly try.

"His talent is endless," says Louis Smith, who won silver on the pommel horse for Great Britain at London 2012.

"He wins the all-around competition by two marks, doing routines that are easy for him. He's got skills in the bag that no-one can do - and he doesn't need to do them yet.

"When you're in an all-around final with the top six in the world, to be two marks in front is incredible. He is one of a kind. Everyone can appreciate that, everyone looks up to him. He comes into the gym, everyone stops and looks."

Getting half an hour with Uchimura is not easy. We arranged this interview weeks in advance of the competition.

He arrives unmistakably coiffed and diminutive at 5ft 3in, escorted by a coach. Filming begins: Uchimura, interviewer, interpreter, BBC cameraman, and the hovering quartet from Fuji TV.

Eighteen hours earlier, Uchimura won all-around world title number four. How was that, then?

"I was able to complete all six events without any major mistakes, and the results reflected that. I am not totally satisfied, but I do at least feel that I was able to do my job."

Uchimura speaks softly. When he pauses to think - which is often - he does it with a Hollywood middle-distance gaze.

How can one man dominate a sport for four years?

"I have practised so much for this, so I think it has genuinely been through my own abilities that I have been able to make it to this point - and not through luck.

"I don't think my natural talent is much different to the other gymnasts. It is a matter of how I train, and how I think about my training. I also give a lot of thought to my routines.

"So all this time, I have just been focused on my daily training, and really thinking hard every day about how I should go about my routines and whether I will be able to complete them without any mistakes. I have used my head in my training as well."

Let's try getting inside that head. Everyone has a hero. When you stand alone in your sport - as Uchimura does - who is left to inspire you?

"Usain Bolt. He comes across all cool and says, 'I am going to be a legend,' and then he goes out and actually does it. I really admire that."

But Kohei, aren't you a legend too?

Nervous laughter follows - and then, looking uneasily away, he says: "I can't say that myself!"

It is not Uchimura's way, not the Japanese way, to acknowledge his own - obvious - greatness in the sport. He picks Vitaly Scherbo as the best gymnast of all time. The Belarusian won six gold medals out of eight available to him at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Uchimura has not come close to that feat. But, equally, Scherbo only once won the all-around world title. He does, however, know what it must have taken.

"To win six gold medals at a single Games is something that just isn't normally possible, regardless of how the rules may have changed in the meantime," he says.

"To complete each individual event so perfectly could not have been possible without a huge amount of training and really strong mental, psychological control."

Yet that control is Uchimura's hallmark too - and Britain's Max Whitlock, who finished fourth behind Uchimura in this year's all-around final, has spoken of his desire to emulate that "calm and chilled attitude".

A father-of-one, Uchimura keeps his wife and daughter out of the spotlight. The marriage was held quietly late last year and the baby born in April. Neither his wife's name nor that of his child are public knowledge, some achievement given the height of his celebrity in Japan.

Uchimura deals with it by keeping family and gymnastics separate. At the World Championships in Belgium, half a world away, he used instant messaging to catch up with events back home.

"You don't just pick one to focus on - if you work hard at both, then you can do well at both," he says of fatherhood and gymnastics.

"It is not a matter of either/or. I just want to do my best at both without leaning too much in either direction."

If parenthood has changed anything about Uchimura, it has broadened his perspective.

The man famed for his individual achievements has a new ambition for Rio 2016, driven by embarrassment at how he conducted himself during London 2012.

Video: Dramatic finale to London 2012 team final as Japan & Uchimura appeal (UK only)

At the climax of last year's Olympic team final, an error by Uchimura when dismounting the pommel horse almost cost Japan a medal.

A frantic appeal to the judges earned him and the team a vital extra 0.7 marks to take silver behind China, but leapfrog the Great Britain team (of Smith, Whitlock, Sam Oldham, Dan Purvis and Kristian Thomas).

"The actual competition in London was really tough for me, so to talk about good memories, pretty much the only thing I genuinely enjoyed at the time was having fun with everyone else in the Olympic village," recalls Uchimura.

"It was the first Olympics for all the other team members bar me and I heard afterwards that they had all really wanted a medal. At the time, I had spent my entire career striving for gold medals and so my first reaction was that it didn't really make much difference whether we ended up second or fourth.

"However, when I thought about it properly, we had all worked so hard to get there and I felt very sorry that I had reacted that way. If my mistake had cost everyone else their medals, that responsibility would have weighed on very heavily.

"My main goal now is the Rio Olympics. The desire to compete in Rio and win gold in the team event is a strong source of motivation for me right now."

According to Smith, the only question left is: how long can Uchimura keep doing this?

Smith says: "When you're competing at the top for so long, putting your body through so many different pressures, how long can it stay together?

"Especially Japan, the type of gymnastics they're doing now. For him to justify his place in the team will be harder and harder each year. Six or seven years down the line, can he still produce the goods to stay in the team? It's going to be a very interesting journey to watch."

Six or seven years down the line is Tokyo 2020. How, Kohei, can you resist that temptation?

"I would like to carry on, but first we'll have to see after Rio. If I can keep myself relatively free of injuries every year, then perhaps a path will open up for me.

"Japan had the big earthquake in 2011external-link and the Olympics will be a good opportunity to bring strength to the people of the Tohoku region - and also to show everyone around the world that Japan is doing fine again. These are messages we have to convey through the power of sport."

Japanese gymnastics is no longer solely about Uchimura. Four of the seven men's world titles on offer last week went to Japan, but only two to Uchimura, who won the all-around and parallel bars.

Kohei Kameyama beat Whitlock to pommel horse gold, while Kenzo Shirai - the youngest man competing in Antwerp, aged just 17 - produced one of the most spectacular floor routines ever seen to win that title.

"I see them as a strong threat, but at the same time a real comfort," says Uchimura of his team-mates.

"We will all be competing as part of the same team. In that sense, the team gold medal in Rio de Janeiro becomes that bit closer."