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Associated Press

BEIJING — The Chinese men stood on the podium biting their medals. Yes, guys, they are real. And yes, they are Olympic gold.

The bronzes around the Americans' necks must have been just as tasty.

China's triumph Tuesday was as much a vindication as a coronation. It ended a four-year journey built on the failures of Athens, and carried through a crucible of unfathomable expectations. The Chinese arrived at the Beijing Games as such overwhelming favorites that anything less than a spectacular gold-medal performance would not have been enough.

Mission accomplished — magnificently.

"After four years and many nightmares, I have white hair," China coach Huang Yubin said. "It doesn't matter. The gold medal is what matters."

Not that bronze doesn't immeasurably brighten the outlook for a U.S. team that was in tatters a few days ago. Without the Hamm twins, both sidelined with injuries, the Americans had no Olympic experience and, according to many, no chance to medal. So all the survivors did was finish behind silver medalist Japan and ahead of some more-heralded opponents.

"It bothers me a lot, especially if people from home kind of put down our team, saying, 'Count the U.S. out. We can't wait to see how China, Japan and Germany do,"' Jonathan Horton said, both hands clutching his medal. "I wish more people in the U.S. believed in us like we believed in us. Now I hope more people realize the U.S. is a force to be reckoned with."

But China is the force, as it has been for most of this decade. What it needed was affirmation — Olympic gold affirmation. After flopping to fifth place in 2004 at Athens — the first time since 1988 they failed to win a medal — the Chinese won two world crowns.

Then they honed in on these home games.

"This team gold medal is very important to us," Huang said. "All these years, there was only one gold medal for us in team final, in Sydney. In Athens, we wanted to have some result. Unfortunately, we fell.

"This gold medal is good recognition of six person's efforts. Each had to do his utmost."

Under the utmost of pressure. The gymnasts' surpassing skills and techniques never were questioned. Their moxie was.

There was only one response that would work: Give the packed house at the National Indoor Stadium, and the billion countrymen watching elsewhere, something unforgettable.

How unforgettable? Well, halfway through the six rotations, after Yang Wei and Chen Yibing approached perfection on still rings, everyone else pretty much was chasing silver and bronze.

Not that the Chinese got cocky. Their routines on vault, parallel bars and, in their crowning achievement, high bar, were star turns worthy of Broadway.

The crowd, getting every twist and tumble it coveted while shouting "Jia You (literally "Add Fuel"), ate it all up. Indeed, the gymnasts began celebrating even before their last event was finished. When little Zou Kai's feet hit the mat with a thud, his teammates jumped up and down, hugging each other and saluting the fans. Before Zou's marks could be displayed someone had handed the athletes a large Chinese flag. Soon, they stood together holding it, tears flowing.

"No, I was not scared (going last on high bar) because all my big brothers had a big performance," Zou said. "I really relaxed, did my routine and felt no pressure."

Well, maybe a little pressure. But certainly not the stress Zou and his teammates dealt with before emphatically proving themselves once and for all.

The Japanese couldn't say the same, never really challenging China. In fact, they needed to rally in the final two rotations to pass the Americans for silver.

"We actually had eight camps and we tried to increase our difficulty at each of them and we couldn't catch up," Japanese coach Koji Gushiken said. "We want to learn from the Chinese and get better."

What U.S. gymnastics fans should have learned is that a lack of Olympic experience and a disjointed buildup to Beijing merely made Horton and company more resolute. From Raj Bhavsar's opening rings routine to Sasha Artemev's flashy finish on pommel horse, the Americans were in the medals hunt.

When the bronze officially was theirs, the celebration — while not nearly the rollicking rejoicing of the Chinese — was vigorous. And almost defiant.

"I'd have bet on our country any day," Joey Hagerty said. "It's a team that'll never give up."

The bronze was won despite the absence of reigning Olympic champ Paul Hamm, who withdrew from the team on July 28 because of hand and shoulder injuries, and Morgan Hamm, who dropped out last Thursday with an ankle injury.

Artemev replaced Morgan Hamm; Bhavsar had replaced Paul Hamm.

Horton credited the Hamms and remaining alternate David Durante for the bronze as much as what he, Artemev, Bhavsar, Hagerty, Justin Spring and team captain Kevin Tan achieved on Tuesday.

"Those guys are incredible athletes and irreplaceable," Horton said of the Hamms. "They are some of the most successful U.S. gymnasts ever. I definitely wish those guys could have been here.

"Like we have said, we are a nine-man team, and they were here with us today. Dave Durante was in the stands rooting us on, and they all pushed us through these performances. Anyone could have been up here from that nine-man team. I couldn't be prouder of what we accomplished."