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Olympic Gymnastics: China Stunned By Britain In Men's Gymnastics Qualifying

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LONDON -- The British men sure know how to kick off a party.

The host country, which was only good enough to send two gymnasts to Beijing four years ago, upset Olympic champion China and took the early lead in qualifying Saturday at the London Olympics. A spectacular pommel horse by Louis Smith capped the day for the British, who finished almost 2.5 points ahead of China with at a total of 272.420.

China scored 269.985, followed by France (265.759) and South Korea (255.327). Japan, the silver medalist in Beijing, and the United States go later Saturday, as do Germany and Russia.

Team finals are Monday, and everyone gets a do-over. Still, this was a stunning result for the Chinese, who have won the last five world titles and were so dominant four years ago in Beijing that they left with all but one of the men's gold medals. When the standings flashed before the final rotation, showing Britain ahead of China, Feng Zhe looked into the camera and gave a little shrug, as if to say, "Oh well."

The British, meanwhile, could hardly contain their happiness – and, for Smith, a few tears.

Britain doesn't exactly have an impressive tradition in gymnastics. Smith's bronze on pommel horse four years ago was the country's first Olympic medal in 80 years, and this is the first time Britain qualified full men's and women's teams to the Olympics since the boycotted 1984 Games.

But Smith and three-time world champion Beth Tweddle have sparked a resurgence in the sport, and the British are now a team to be reckoned with. The Brits may not have Japan's style or the Americans' flash, but they are steady and solid, with dashes of brilliance thrown in – like Smith's pommel horse routine.

Most gymnasts simply pray to stay on the horse, looking as if they're trying to wrestle it to the ground as they work their way around the apparatus. But Smith is so smooth he's almost hypnotic, swinging slowly and in perfect circles. He had the consistency of a metronome as he worked on one pommel, his legs glued together, his rhythm never flagging. He picked up speed as he moved around the horse, giving the impression of a plane readying for take off.

He finished with the flourish, his legs hitting the mat without moving an inch. As his teammates whooped and clapped, Smith gave a big smile and exchanged a hand slap with Kristian Thomas. When his score – a monstrous 15.8 – was announced, he began crying as the crowd roared. That was enough to ensure the British would finish ahead of China.

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