BEIJING In a showdown between the tiniest of "heavyweights," the home team just had too much for a U.S. women's gymnastics team plagued by some key errors.
There wasn't any margin for mistakes, and so the Americans paid for them, taking the silver medal behind China to the delight of the flag-waving, chanting fans at National Indoor Stadium on Wednesday.
The Chinese won 188.900 to 186.525. The disparity on the second event the uneven bars was also a big part of the story, along with the subsequent U.S. miscues. The Chinese scored 49.625 on bars to the Americans' 47.975.
And the other factor was the on-going intrigue about whether all the Chinese gymnasts meet the age requirement they must be 16 during the Olympic year and whether there was any gamesmanship in terms of making certain athletes on the U.S. team wait a longer time than normal before they did their routines.
In the end, though, U.S. coach Liang Chow said simply, "I think it wasn't our day. But the kids gave it 100 percent. We just had two big falls we had to handle. The Chinese had an excellent day, and they deserved to win."
But U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who goes way back to her days in her native Romania in terms of rivalry with China, suggested that maybe not all things were above board.
She claimed one of the Chinese gymnasts was so young that she had recently lost a tooth and that at least twice during the two days of competition, officials seemed to use some stall tactics before American athletes were to perform.
"I have no proof," Karolyi said. "If that's true, which possibly could be because one little girl has a missing tooth ... it's totally unfair because that doesn't give an even playing field for all the people from all over the world."
This all might be taken as sour grapes. Still, The New York Times and The Associated Press reports have uncovered documents that suggest at least three of the Chinese athletes are underage. And there was no question that Alicia Sacramone waited an inordinately long time before her beam routine Wednesday.
She then fell off the beam after her springboard mount. And that was really the beginning of a slide the United States just couldn't overcome.
"I've had better days," a tearful Sacramone said afterward.
The United States and China were on the same apparatus on each rotation, giving the competition a kind of "OK, beat that" feel to it.
It started on the vault, with the Chinese going first. They ended that with an overall score of 46.350. The Americans were up next and topped that, 46.875. Bridget Sloan got the nod here over Nastia Liukin, who was doing the other three events and will be in the all-around competition along with Shawn Johnson.
Sloan's vault was considered strong and consistent enough for her to open for the United States, and she scored 15.200. Johnson got a 16.000 and Sacramone, who is usually particularly good on vault, scored 15.675.
So the United States was ahead after one rotation, and the two titan teams were headed next to the uneven bars. There were worries here for the United States. The first competitor, Chellsie Memmel, has been dealing with a lingering ankle injury and lost her hold on the high bar during the qualification round.
And Liukin, who has the highest degree of difficulty in her bars routine among the Americans, had fallen backward on her dismount on the first day.
But Wednesday, things went well on bars for the Americans just not well enough. Memmel was able to stick her landing, the relief and happiness visible on her face when she finished. The rest of the team celebrated that, and Memmel got a 15.725 score.
Johnson, solid as usual, got a 15.350. Then Liukin's bar routine was excellent, giving her a 16.900, the highest score anyone got in any event in the finals.
"It could have been a little bit better," she said. "I was hoping for one more tenth (of a point), to get a 17. And that's what my goal is for all-around or event finals."
It was China's dominance on the bars that put the U.S. behind, and it wasn't able to catch up. And this event, especially, is where the age controversy comes in. The three athletes who did the uneven bars He Kexin, Yuyuan Jiang and Yilin Yang may all be no older than 14.
Whatever the case, the United States still had a chance to rally with solid routines on the balance beam and floor exercise. The Chinese went first, and had one fall among the three and some other shaky moments. They finished with a total score of 47.125.
Then Sacramone was first up on beam for the U.S., and she had a noticeable wait before receiving the OK to start.
"I was eager to do my routine and get the show on the road," she said. "The judges held me up, and I let my nerves get the best of me."
Her teammates tried to console her afterward, but Sacramone had a hard time fighting off tears as she waited for her score, which was a 15.100.
Liukin had a 15.975 on the beam, and then Johnson got the best score of the day on it, a 16.175. So going into the final rotation, the U.S. was still in striking distance of gold, 143.100 to 142.100.
The floor exercise, though, was nearly a disaster. Sacramone, a former world champion in this event, was first up again. She fell at the end of an early tumbling pass and also stepped out of bounds on her last pass. She scored 14.125.
"It was hard to get out of that funk," she said of the fall on the beam. "It definitely affected me on the floor."
Karolyi said, "We do so much training of making them tough and keeping their focus and concentration. And still, that happened. So it's disappointing."
Liukin was next on floor exercise, and she stepped out of bounds on her first tumbling pass. She earned a 15.200. Johnson anchored the Americans' performance, and she also stepped out of bounds on her first pass, scoring 15.100.
By that time, the team silver already was pretty much a done deal, so long as the Chinese gymnasts didn't fall all over the floor. Which, of course, they didn't. The crowd clapped and celebrated through their performances.
U.S. star Shawn Johnson wasn't about to apologize for second place. She still has gold in her sights in the all-around competition and individual event finals.
"I honestly think our team did great," she said.
"We are proud of each other no matter what we do. In the end, we are more than happy to represent the USA, winning silver. We respect China for what they've done. They had a great day."
AFTER COMPETING, MEMMEL REVEALS BROKEN ANKLE: Chellsie Memmel's ankle injury was worse than anyone realized.
Memmel said after the U.S. women won the silver medal in team gymnastics Wednesday that she'd been competing with a broken bone in her right ankle. The 2005 world gymnastics champion hurt the ankle during training Aug. 4, but competed on uneven bars in both the preliminaries and the team finals.
"I have mixed emotions," she said. "I would have loved to compete on four events, but the silver medal for my team is great."
After missing much of the last two years with a devastating shoulder injury, Memmel became one of the feel-good stories of the summer when she finished behind reigning world champ Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin at both the national championships and Olympic trials. She missed the 2004 Olympics with a foot injury.
The Americans expected to put Memmel up on all four events during qualifying, but that became impossible after she hurt her ankle. She was still able to do uneven bars, though, because it doesn't put much pressure on the ankle, and the Americans badly needed her score on the event. Memmel won the world title on bars in 2003, and has one of the most difficult routines in the world.
"I just had to believe in myself and know that I could do it," she said. "That's exactly what I did."