Yang loses his way on springboard to success

Yang Hakseon was unable to reproduce his best form and had to settle for second place.

To watch Yang Hakseon take flight most days is to feel honoured. To watch the polish of his acrobatics is to be moved. To scribble notes almost feels redundant, like trying to capture a Beethoven tune in a few words. For Yang is the master of his tiny craft. He can do a gymnastic vault better than every single male on this planet. He's done it better at the Olympics, at the last two World Championships, at the last Asian Games.

Except yesterday. Except at home before his people. Except on this day he waits for.

At the mixed zone after collecting his silver medal, his voice is barely above a whisper. He seems to wipe his eyes. Sweat? No, says a Korean reporter, he is crying. A man always first is learning what second feels like.

The most poignant pictures of these Games are not of the athlete who takes his chance but the one who lets it slip.

The Indian squash player who leads his final by two games to love, with a matchpoint, and loses and sits alone and quiet with his forehead against a wall.

How, he will ask.

The Iranian shooter in the 10m air rifle men's final, who will win at least bronze with a low 9.9 but in fact shoots 9.6, is eliminated, and sits with disbelieving head wrapped in his hands.

Why, he will weep?

The young South Korean, with a choir boy face, who performs an immaculate horizontal bar routine, till he lands and momentum and imbalance take him flying off the mat. His coach turns away in agony and the boy bites his lip in despair and holds his head.

What happened, he wonders?

Errors happen. Mistakes occur. Tiny ones, minute ones. Costly ones. And so it is for Hakseon.

He sprints down a 25m runway, arrives at the vault at some velocity, transfers this energy from hurtling forward into what he hopes will be a polished piece of aerial acrobatics. Acceleration followed by elevation. Genius literally taking off. At his best, he rises three metres above the earth, but this time he rises less and falls more awkwardly to earth.

His leg, on landing, slips off the mat. It is an error. It will cost him .10 of a point. He stands with his hands on hips and his coach reaches out to him and the crowd celebrates him. But there is no comfort for the crippled vaulter.

The gymnastics vault has a tumbling grace, it is a five-second fragment of muscular ballet, but really it is not art but an explosion of technique. It is a complex mix of balance, strength, poise, with a hint of danger - vaulters have been paralysed in accidents.

But Yang has not lost his nerve at home, only his power. His hamstring is hurt and his shoulder is worn. He is a Yang too weak it seems to do "The Yang".

Vaulting may involve concise athletes in colourful tights, but it's so cool that if you invent a move they name it after you. The South Korean's triple-twist is known as The Yang; his talked-about quadruple twist was going to be the Yang II. Instead, yesterday, we got half a Yang.

At the 2012 Olympics, he said he "felt like a feather"; here, injured, he could barely leave the ground. The moment he touched the vault, he said, he knew he lacked the power to launch himself or do his signature move.

Even so he must do a second vault for the medal is decided on an average of both. Hong Kong's Shek Wai Hung has landed two strong vaults of 15.200 points and 15.233 and will eventually win gold with an average of 15.216. Yang's first errant vault is 15.000 and he needs a vault with a high degree of difficulty to win but to achieve that he needs a body with a high degree of physical perfection and that he has lost.

It has been an imperfect night. Even the North Korean veteran, Ri Segwang, the 2006 Asian Games champion, collapses forward on landing. Later he limps off but to applause from his cousins in the South. At least in the matter of courtesy, there is no error this night.

Then Yang reappears for his second vault.

This sport has rescued him, this sport cannot scare him. His father was a construction worker and they lived among pipes and plastic covering in a converted greenhouse. Vaulting has taken him to a proper home and onto podiums. Now he turns his back to the vault as always, then turns, runs, flies, nails the landing.

The crowd erupts. Even if it will fetch him only silver, he is still their vaulter.

After a while, his score appears on a screen. For sheer execution it is the highest-scoring vault of the night. It is too late, but it is sweet. For these five seconds he is the vaulter with the least error.


This article was first published on Sep 26, 2014.
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