China Diary : A look back at the 1999 World Gymnastics Championships

by John Roethlisberger

The Competition

The competition was awesome. We made team finals and it was incredible. Coming down to the last event, the last few routines, we knew we had to hit. We just made it by 0.2 over the Ukraine and we were fired up. It was a very tight competition. We found ourselves up in a situation in which he had to have hits. We had a couple of misses here and there. We needed to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and get a hit. We did and it was sweet. It was definitely one of the highlights of my gymnastics career.
Our team was tight and had great chemistry. We went out there with the attitude that we were never going to give up and fight for every tenth. For me it was special because it was my last World Championships and I wanted to make it a good one. Personally, my competition went well. I hit pretty much all my events. I had a glitch on the second day in high bar. I had to catch my release with one hand and took an extra swing. Other than that, I competed the best I ever have at a World Championship.
It’s disappointing that we didn’t win a medal, but we are proud of the job we did. We gave it all we had from the beginning to the end. I think we are in a good situation to win a medal next year at the Olympics.
I was able to watch all the event finals. Spain’s Gervasio Deferr was incredible on floor. He did a double layout with a full twist, punch front one and a quarter that was unbelievable. It was a perfect routine. I thought he was going to win, but Alexi Nemov (Russia) went after him and won. I thought Deferr got robbed.
There were some sweet pommel horse sets. I just missed making pommel horse finals by like half a tenth, even if I had, it would have been really tough to make it in the top three, because there were some amazing guys out there. Romanian Marius Urzica did a lot of stuff on one pommel. He camped out there for at least half of his routine! Nemov won pommel horse, but I thought Urzica was the best.
On rings, Zhen Dong did strength moves similar to Paul O’Neill…flat inverted crosses, flat Malteses better than anyone else. It wasn’t as deep of a ring finals as it usually is.
I thought vault finals were really disappointing. About five of the eight guys crashed their vaults. We saw some pretty vicious crashes.
The Chinese and the Koreans were awesome on Parallel Bars. Again, a bunch of people had mistakes. I think only four of the eight guys hit their routines.

The Chinese and Koreans were doing some amazing stuff like double pikes in between the bars. They made it look so easy.

A bunch of people missed highbar. I wanted Jesus Carballo from Spain to win and he did. He does the same release move I do, but he does it quite a bit better than I, but hopefully by next summer I will be able to do it as well as he. He does a Stalder, full-twisting Tkatchev.
The Chinese men were phenomenal. They are going to be tough for anybody to beat. And Russia was good, but they are beatable. Blaine (Wilson) showed that he’s a contender for the all-around and hopefully, a couple more of us can get up there. I definitely think we have a shot for a team medal.

Sights and Sounds of China

China is wacky, to say the least. First of all, you’ve got about 11 million people living in Tianjin and 10 million bikes on the road at all times! The scariest thing you can do in China is to take a taxi ride. We found this out the first night. We got in a taxi and the driver just started flying. There are bikes, cars, pedestrians, all on the road and taxis don’t stop for anything. They pass on the sidewalks, on the wrong side of the road and practically knock over bikes–it’s something you have to see to believe. One day, in a taxi coming back from shopping, our taxi was in the middle of about a million bikes and a million cars. Our female taxi driver proceeds to run out of gas in the middle of the road. So we get out in the middle of a sea of traffic, practically killing ourselves and we try to push the car to the side of the road. So here I am, in the middle of traffic, helping some Chinese woman who ran out of gas! It was pretty funny.
In addition to regular bicycles, the Chinese drive three-wheel bikes with like a flat bed trailer on the back. They pile tons of stuff on the back, like furniture, matresses, dressers, garbage and piles and piles of coal. On their bikes, they haul anything that you would normally move in a pick-up truck, or a semi-struck— they just pile it on. There are a lot of really old people driving these bikes too. They look like they are about 110, but they are just pedaling away, practically getting hit by cars. It was nuts.


I took my video camera with me and videotaped everything. I saw this old lady selling incense on “Culture Street,” a popular shopping district. She looked like Yoda from “Return of the Jedi.” I wanted to get her on video because she was a classic, great old Chinese lady. So, I start and she does not want to be taped. She starts yelling at me in Chinese. Then she grabs her cane and starts coming at me. She stops about 30 feet away from me then throws her cane directly at me! Evidently, many Chinese people do not like to be photographed or videotaped, but luckily, I managed to record the whole thing, so it’s pretty funny.

Shop till You Drop

Everybody did tons and tons of shopping. “Culture Street” had lots of typical Chinese stuff like teapots, jade and silk scarves. We went to a fresh-water pearl market. China is the only country which produces freshwater pearls and they showed us how the pearls are cultivated. I correctly guessed how many pearls were in an oyster and got a free pearl. But it’s real tiny. Everybody coming home seemed to have an extra bag that was packed with about 1,000 pounds of new clothes. A lot of people bought knock-off Nike and Adidas clothes and knock-off designer watches for about $1. Sean Townsend bought a suit. T-shirts from the meet were about $2 so everyone stocked up. They’ll make perfect souvenirs.
I didn’t really buy anything for myself because I really don’t need anything. I had a lot of fun watching everyone else. The Chinese people are hilarious when you go shopping. They are out in your face and are aggressive sellers. You always have to bargain. Usually, you can get your item for at least half of what they tell you it costs. They don’t want you to walk away from their stand or shop without buying anything, so they are pulling at you, trying to throw stuff in your face. Once you say, “how much,” the shopping experience has begun! They bring out a calculator and punch in the price they want, then you punch in the amount you want to pay and the negotiating starts.
The most aggressive vendors were the postcard sellers at Tiananmen Square. They were in full force. There’s like 1,000 of them. They are pushing postcards in front of your face, one after another. You can’t say “no” enough times. They are all over you.

Seeing world-famous landmarks

Tiananmen Square was amazing. Some parents, myself, and Steve McCain went along. It’s the biggest public square in the world and it was neat to see all the history. We got to see the Forbidden City, built in the 1400s and was the palace for dynasty emperors. It was awesome and very big. We were pretty exhausted after we got through the Forbidden City but we went on to the Great Wall which is one of the great wonders of the world. One of the great hikes of the world, too. We got there, hiked up this thing , not realizing how high and steep it is till you start climbing. We wanted to get to the top of this mount