MONTREAL (AFP) - Kohei Uchimura's eight-year reign as the undisputed king of gymnastics came to a dramatic end on Monday after the hobbling Japanese star was eliminated during qualifiers at the World Championships.
Reigning Olympic champion Uchimura, who had been chasing a remarkable seventh straight individual all-around title in Montreal, saw his hopes go up in smoke after the vault rotation.
After a superb jump, the 28-year-old could be seen clutching his left ankle and was in visible discomfort as he limped away from the podium. He bravely grimaced his way through the parallel bars routine but stumbled badly on his landing, clearly struggling with his lower leg.
The two-time Olympic champion then scratched from the horizontal high bar, ending his attempted defence of a title he has held since triumphing at the 2009 World Championships in London.
"I feel very sorry for the people who came to support me," Uchimura told NBC Sports.
"I apologise to my teammates," he added, revealing that he feared the worst after the vault. "After the vault, I couldn't even walk," he said.
"I just wanted to keep trying to finish the competition."
He was later seen on crutches as he gave support to his Japan team-mates. Uchimura had foreshadowed his sad exit on the eve of the championships, admitting that after nearly a decade at the pinnacle of his sport he was finding it harder and harder to arrive in peak form.
"When I participated at the World Championships for the first time, I was 20 years old, and now I'm 28 now and at my seventh Worlds. So the question of age is a new element," Uchimura had said.
"With age, one loses some muscle tone and also makes mistakes in complicated routines. Maintaining strength and muscle tone requires a completely different kind of preparation beforehand," added Uchimura, who took up the sport at the age of three under the guidance of his parents, who were both competitive gymnasts.
The Japanese star will now turn his attention to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. He has already hinted he may prefer to concentrate on one or two apparatus specialties rather than another all-around title.
With Uchimura out of the reckoning, the leading qualifier for the all-around title which will be settled on Thursday was Cuba's Manrique Larduet with a lead of 86.699.
Uchimura's great rival Oleg Verniaiev of Ukraine - who came within a whisker of beating the Japanese star at the 2016 Olympics - was second with a total of 85.431. Uchimura's exit on Monday also further deprives the championships of star power.
The women's competition is already missing the undisputed queen of the sport, Simone Biles of the United States. Biles has taken a year-long sabbatical following her victory at the Rio Olympics in 2016.