'United' China in the lead

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European champion Russia, South Korea and world bronze medalist Germany trailed, with the United States in sixth.

"The whole team is united and very confident," Li Xiaopeng said. "So we hope our strong performance will continue."

Team finals are Tuesday.

"China and Japan, they will fight for gold and silver, and the other teams will fight for the bronze," said Germany's Fabian Hambuechen, who finished second to Yang Wei in the overall scoring.

The Chinese came into the Beijing Games as the overwhelming favorite, and nothing's happened so far to change that. They're winners of three consecutive world titles and seven of the last eight. They also have 10 individual world titles and an Olympic gold medal among them.

Their every move Saturday was greeted with adoring cheers. Even the Chinese women's team came out to see the show, looking more like star-struck groupies than gold-medal contenders of their own.

"We performed better than normal today," said Yang, the two-time defending world champion. "Although we made some small mistakes, we did a great job in general. We are competing at the right time and right place with support from the people of our country."

It's not just what China does but how it does it. The Chinese have the kind of confidence Tiger Woods brings to a major golf tournament, and nothing can shake it. They started on floor, one of their weaker events, and weren't particularly impressive. Xiao Qin, Yang and Chen Yibing all had shaky landings on some tumbling passes, and Zou Kai made a rare mistake.

Coming out of a tumbling pass, he was supposed to do a transition move that would get him into the corner of the floor so he could start his next tumbling run. He had to fall flat on his hands, but one landed out of bounds.

"It was not good enough," he said. "I have room for improvement."

Still, Zou's score of 15.7 was good enough to get him into the floor finals, and he and his teammates slapped hands and smiled afterward as if they hadn't even noticed the flaw.

Yang is a former world champion on the parallel bars. But when he went to push into a straddle above one of the rails on parallel bars, he hesitated, couldn't get enough power and had to take a seat on the bar.

Pommel horse is an event so tricky it trips up many a team. Yet the Chinese put up one impressive routine after another, capped by Xiao's textbook display. The three-time world champion's hands were a blur as he worked them around the horse in a staccato rhythm, yet he managed to keep his lower body perfectly still.

His score of 16 was almost a half-point higher than anyone else's, and China was so confident it didn't even bother sending up its fifth gymnast. (Teams drop their lowest score on each event.)

They were equally impressive on still rings, an event requiring so much strength that fans wince just watching it. Chen has won the past two world titles on rings. While the cables holding the rings shook and swayed on most other gymnasts' routines, they barely moved while Chen worked.

Then there was Li Xiaopeng. The Olympic champion on parallel bars in 2000, he's missed much of the past two years with injuries. He sure wasn't feeling any pain Saturday. His score of 16.775 was the highest of the day on any event. He also put up the highest score on parallel bars.

"There was indeed a lot of pressure, I was nervous," Li admitted. "But we overcame our nerves."


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