(UPDATE) China wins women's team gymnastics Olympic gold

Agence France-Presse

BEIJING -- China won its first women's team gymnastics Olympic gold medal here Wednesday, holding its nerve as the United States made crucial errors in front of a fiercely loyal hometown crowd.

The win avenged China's narrow loss to the United States at last year's world championships and added to the team gold claimed by the home nation's male gymnasts on Tuesday.

Defending Olympic champions Romania won bronze but looked a shadow of the side that won four women's gymnastics gold medals in Athens four years ago.

China finished on 188.9 points, 2.375 points ahead of the United States on 186.525, with Romania on 181.525.

Chinese head coach Lu Shanzhen said the victory was a historic moment that heralded a new Olympic power in the sport and credited the 18,000-strong crowd with helping cheer his team to victory.

"This is the most important gold medal...the great atmosphere here in China allowed everyone to be filled with enthusiasm and good morale," said Lu, adding he had transformed a women's team that failed to win a single gymnastics gold in Athens.

With eight teams in the final, China and the United States were paired together as they went through the four sets of apparatus, making for high drama as the teams slugged it out head-to-head for the Olympic title.

They began on the vault, a strength for a Chinese team featuring world champion Cheng Fei.

Cheng managed a 16.0 but US star Shawn Johnson matched her and the US took a 0.6 point lead into the second round.

Next up were the uneven bars, where both teams faltered during the qualification rounds, including a trip on landing from Nastia Liukin of the United States.

Liukin did not repeat her mistake in the final, scoring 16.9 to put the US in a strong position.

The crowd, which created a wall of sound as the Chinese men's team stormed to gold on Tuesday, then tried to lift their team with chants of "China, China."

It paid off as He Kexhin, who fell off in the qualifiers, was awarded 16.85 for a routine that helped give China a lead of 1.125 at the half-way point.

But potential disaster struck in the next round when Cheng Fei fell off the balance beam and received just 15.15, although Deng Linlin almost made up for it with an eye-catching routine that scored 15.925.

Cheng's mistake gave a United States team containing Liukin, the world champion on the beam, the chance to establish a decisive lead but they blew it when Alicia Sacramone fell attempting a jumping mount and received 15.1.

Her teammates Luikin and Johnson both scored highly but China remained a single point ahead going into the final apparatus, the exercise floor, regarded as a US stronghold.

But Sacramone, her nerves shot after her tumble from the beam, again fell over and scored 14.125, while Liukin and Johnson both stepped out of bounds.

US team coordinator Martha Karolyi said Sacramone lost her concentration when officials held her up as she was preparing for the beam and she never regained focus.

"We really worked hard and we were well prepared but unfortunately we made two mistakes and you can't win a gold with two mistakes," Karolyi said.

"It's a disappointment, totally, because the fight was extremely close, equal to equal, two very strong teams. Unfortunately we had this break otherwise we would have come out the winner."

After the US stumbles, strong performances from Deng Linlin and Jiang Yuyuan meant Cheng needed just 13.075 to seal gold and make amends for her earlier error.

A hush fell over the crowd as she prepared for her routine, erupting into a roar of approval after a dynamic performance to traditional Chinese music that was awarded 15.45 and so clinched victory.

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