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Electric atmosphere lifts China's golden gymnasts

A triumphant roar engulfed Beijing's National Indoor Stadium on Tuesday as China's male gymnasts swept to Olympic victory on a wave of flag-waving, foot-stomping patriotic fervour.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2008 17:34 IST

A triumphant roar engulfed Beijing's National Indoor Stadium Tuesday as China's male gymnasts swept to Olympic victory on a wave of flag-waving, foot-stomping patriotic fervour.

A boisterous crowd of 18,000 arrived expecting a gold medal from the red-hot favourites and treated their heroes to a full-throated ovation as world champion individual title holder Yang Wei led them out.

Beyond the stadium, hundreds of millions of Chinese were willing on the gymnasts, who were on a mission to make amends for meekly surrendering their long-awaited Sydney 2000 title in Athens four years ago with a humiliating fifth place.

Rather than wilting under the weight of expectations, the Chinese gymnasts thrived in the stadium's cauldron-like atmosphere, which at times more resembled a football match than a gymnastics meet.

Rings specialist Chen Yibing whipped the spectators into a frenzy as he pumped his fists following a 16.575 point display and the Chinese gymnasts high-fived and hugged one another between routines.

While the red flag of the world's most populous nation dominated the stands, pockets of foreign supporters cheered on their teams, particularly when the unheralded US team took the lead at the halfway mark.

Chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A" rang around the stadium but were soon drowned out

by "Chi-na" and the name of crowd favourite "Yang Wei".

The fans were noisy but polite, applauding gymnasts from arch-rival and defending champion Japan and encouraging the Americans as they pulled out all stops late in the session unsuccessfully trying to snatch second place from Japan.

It was not only the Chinese athletes who drew inspiration of the stadium's electric atmosphere.

"I was very impressed, it's the best I've ever seen," France's three-time Olympian Dimitri Karbanenko said.

US gymnast Joey Hagerty was also buzzing after appearing before the biggest audience of his life.

"The crowd was unbelievable, they were cheering very loud, it was great fun," he said.

As the six-round event built to a climax, even the volunteers and food stall vendors who remained steadfastly in position for the early stages crammed onto staircases and aisles to see their heroes seal victory.

With Zou Kai needing only 8.725 to clinch the gold it would have taken a disaster for China to miss out, but the home fans were taking nothing for granted and the cheering faded to an excited murmuring as he prepared.

The tiny Zou nervelessly executed the routine for a score of 15.975 bringing the crowd to its feet as they applauded their team's Olympic redemption after four years.

"Gymnastics is a very special for the Chinese because we regard it as a traditional sport for us," Chinese journalist Li Li told AFP.

"People especially value the team medal because it represents the whole nation more than an individual medal, so this was a very important part of the whole Beijing Olympics for us."