| Ashley Postell of the US performs in the women’s beam final in Debrecen
Debrecen: They came, they saw, they flopped.
Two years on from their remarkable medal haul at the Sydney Games, the Russians are becoming an endangered species in the world of gymnastics.
For the second year running, Russia’s men had a rotten time at the world championships and left Debrecen on Sunday empty handed.
Nikolai Krioukov was the only Russian who managed to secure one of the 48 places up for grabs in the men’s apparatus finals but finished outside the medals on the pommel horse.
Mighty Alexei Nemov, who won six medals at the Sydney SuperDome to take his Olympics medal count to 11, appeared to be unfit in Hungary and paid the price.
He exited the championships after losing his grip during the semi-finals of the horizontal bar — the discipline in which he is Olympic champion — while his floor display was also lacklustre.
The Russian women fared only marginally better. Elena Zamolodchikova ended two seasons of poor form by jumping her way to gold in the vault but Svetlana Khorkina lost her grip on a major asymmetric bars title for the first time in eight years.
The 23-year-old drew gasps from a stunned audience when she suffered two falls off her signature event during the final.
Like her ordeal during the team competition at the Sydney Games, Khorkina was again left traumatised after failing to execute a move invented and named after her.
In what turned out to be the shock of the championships, Khorkina, the blonde pin-up of gymnastics who had looked in fine form during two qualifying rounds, finished seventh out of the eight finalists with a lowly score of 7.387.
While the Russians have to go back to the drawing board to plan for next year’s championships, China’s Li Xiaopeng underlined his credentials for the Athens Olympics by becoming the only gymnast to claim two gold medals.
To the delight of the Chinese supporters in the crowd, the 21-year-old left the rest of the field in his wake by demonstrating his superiority on both the vault and parallel bars.
“It’s a fantastic feeling to have won two gold medals,” said Li, who hails from the famed Hunan gymnastics school.
“After winning the vault, it was much easier on the parallel bars because the first medal gave a real boost to my confidence.”
Teenagers Ashley Postell and Courtney Kupets spearheaded a revival in the United States’ fortunes by taking gold on the balance beam and asymmetric bars.
Both benefited from mistakes made by the favourites to lay to rest the bitter memories from Sydney, where the US failed to win a gymnastics medal for the first time since the 1972 Munich Games.
“This is the happiest day of my life — I knew I had to come up with something breathtaking to have a chance of dethroning Svetlana,” said 16-year-old Kupets, whose winning score of 9.550 was well below Khorkina’s two qualifying efforts.
“When she fell from the bars I felt bad because I know how it feels to make such a huge mistake. But she’s still a great athlete despite the fall.”
Although the Romanians also enjoyed a double celebration after Marius Urzica and Marian Dragulescu confirmed their top billings on the pommel horse and floor exercise, Andreea Raducan suffered an ignominious exit at her last major event before retirement.
She fell off the beam in the semi-finals and the error cost her a place in the final.
The most popular winner at the championships was undoubtedly Szilveszter Csollany, who sent the home fans into a frenzy when he edged out defending champion Jordan Jovtchev to win the rings gold.
Elena Gomez became the first Spanish woman to win a world championships gold with an energetic floor exercise to rock ’n’ roll music.
“I was hoping for a gold but this is unbelievable,” she said.
Greek student Vlasios Maras confirmed his status as master of the horizontal bar by retaining his title.