Uchimura praises "thorough" testing ahead of "Springboard to the Games"

After a rollercoaster week over his COVID-19 test results, the three-time Olympic champion is determined to make Sunday's international meet a success.

By Shintaro Kano

Three-time Olympic champion Uchimura Kohei said on Saturday (7 November) he never believed he tested positive for the coronavirus but was accepting of the fact that false alarms like his are part of the new norm and could happen to anyone.

"Being honest here, when I first heard I tested positive I was absolutely convinced it wasn’t true", Uchimura said during an online press conference on the eve of the four-way Friendship and Solidarity artistic gymnastics competition in Tokyo.

"To begin with, I just could not figure out how I could have possibly been infected. I was doubtful from the start. When we were being briefed on the PCR testing, we were told that false positives - and negatives - do turn out from time to time.

"I’ve been speaking to (FIG President Watanabe Morinari) a lot and we were saying that a false positive wasn't a bad thing because it's good experience for the Olympics.

"But everyone is doing their part for this event so you can’t blame anyone. Trying to do what’s normal in these not normal circumstances is the challenge we face".

Kohei shocked by initial test result

On 28 October, as he was preparing for Sunday's meet at Yoyogi National Gymnasium, Uchimura produced a positive test for COVID-19 - despite having been in quarantine at the intensely guarded National Training Center, according to gymnastics' world governing body.

The mixed competition involving the United States, China, Russia and Japan - which will be the first international sporting event in Japan of the global pandemic era - suddenly hung in a delicate balance.

But three days later following further tests, Uchimura was cleared as the initial result was deemed a false positive and the meet itself was saved.

The 31-year-old said he could not believe his luck as all seven teammates turned out negative results.

"I stopped training for two-and-a-half days, stuck in my room", Uchimura said. "I did loads of research on the virus, PCR testing and I learned that one to two per cent of all results are false positives. And I thought, the odds of that being me.

"But it’s better than being false negative, which apparently happens 20 to 30 per cent of the time. I’m no expert on testing but you do wish you can get it right. I was false positive but felt bad for my teammates because it stopped the entire team for two days".

U.S. gymnasts arrive in Tokyo for Sunday's Solidarity and Friendship competition under intense scrutiny.

Daily COVID Testing "just right"

Despite the hoopla surrounding his test results, the man they call King said he has been impressed by the organisation of the competition which will house a crowd of 2,000.

In the eyes of the Japanese public - including Uchimura - Sunday is a de facto test for next summer's Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

"It’s been very thorough - PCR testing every morning, the type you stick up your nose which kills" Uchimura said.

"But it goes with the turf since this is the first international event of any kind in Japan. If we want the Olympics to succeed, then we have to make this a success.

"Some think we might be overdoing it in terms of countermeasures but it's better to overdo it than come up short. Personally, I think it’s just right.

"Sure, there’s a lot of risk. But someone has to be the first one to open the door. I didn’t think it would be gymnastics but you have to credit Morinari-san’s drive to make this happen. As athletes, all we can do is go out there and perform to the best of our ability".

Uchimura getting his groove back

In September, Uchimura returned to competition after a one-year absence at the All-Japan Senior Championships, reborn as a horizontal bar specialist after telling Olympic Channel he was "pain free" for the first time in years. He finished sixth.

For Sunday, however, the 31-year-old is entered in four events - the horizontal bar, vault, pommel horse, and floor.

Uchimura said the lesson from the senior championships was that he still needed the other events occasionally to help him for the horizontal bar - without taxing his creaky shoulders.

"What I found out after the seniors is that if I have an opportunity to do other events, I do it - primarily to get a feel for the crowd, the atmosphere so I can perform better on the [horizontal] bar", he said.

"I’ve been doing six my whole career so I think this might work better. It’s why I’ve entered for four this time.

"It’s my first international competition in two years. I’m starting to get it back. I haven’t been able to compete much because of the pandemic so this will be a step towards the Olympics.

"I know this event has special significance but to me, it’s very much a springboard for the Games".