Olympics-Gymnastics-Russia and China primed to end Japan's reign

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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan have secured gold or silver in the men's team event at the last four Olympics but as the hosts will be relying largely on a group of novice gymnasts at the Tokyo Games, the stage is set for a new champion to emerge.

Since making his Olympic debut in 2008, Kohei Uchimura had spearheaded Japan's bid to win the team gold in three successive Games but in Tokyo he has opted to compete in just one event to preserve his battle-scarred body.

The 32-year-old became the first man in 44 years to earn back-to-back all-around Olympic golds in 2016, capping a remarkable streak of topping the podium in all major international competitions for two full Olympic cycles.

But with age and injuries taking their toll, the gymnast known as "King Kohei" will only be competing on the horizontal bar - and even then he was lucky to make the cut by the narrowest of margins.

The odds-on favourite for the all-around crown - where men compete on the floor exercise, vault, parallel bars, horizontal bar, pommel horse and the rings - is Russian world champion Nikita Nagornyy.

The 24-year-old has not lost a major all-around competition since placing third at the 2018 world championships and he will be backed by a Russian squad gunning for team gold after they narrowly lost to Japan in the Rio Olympics five years ago.

The Russians, however, will be competing without their flag and anthem because of doping sanctions.

An experienced Chinese squad, whose hopes of completing a hat-trick of men's Olympic team golds in Rio fell short when they could only finish third, will be seeking redemption.

Former world all-round champion Xiao Ruoteng, two-times parallel bars world champion Zou Jingyuan, Olympic team bronze medallist Lin Chaopan and Sun Wei, the only first-time Olympian on the China team, make up the class of 2021.

China won gold at the 2018 world championships and finished second, behind Russia, in 2019.

But with the Russian team plagued by injuries over the past year, taking Olympic team gold for the first time since 1996 could prove to be an uphill challenge.

A big question mark hangs over Artur Dalaloyan, the 2018 all-around champion, who had surgery for a torn Achilles tendon in April, though the team said at the time that he would be ready for Tokyo.

Japan's team may be lacking in Olympic experience but some members of the squad were part of the set-up that grabbed world championship bronze in 2019; including Kazuma Kaya who won the parallel bars bronze. Uchimura himself remains a formidable force on the horizontal bar.

Among those to watch out for in the individual events will be Carlos Yulo, who will be hoping to become the first Filipino to win an Olympic gold.

The 21-year-old, who has lived and trained in Tokyo since 2016, took gold on the floor exercise at the 2019 worlds and Southeast Asian Games, and hopes to do the same at the Olympics.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Pritha Sarkar)

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