TOKYO — Simone Biles and rest of the United States women's gymnastics squad will look to put an uninspired qualification effort in the rearview mirror on Tuesday when they defend their Olympic team title against a resurgent Russia.
The United States has won the team event in every Olympics and world championship since 2011 but Russia fired a warning shot at the Americans during Sunday's qualification round when they took top spot in the rankings.
Russia, competing at the Tokyo Games as representatives of the Russian Olympic Committee because the country was stripped of its flag and anthem for doping offences, have not won the women's team title since the United Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
But the Russian have recently looked equipped to reclaim top spot, finishing runner-up to the United States at the last two Summer Games.
Before arriving in Tokyo, a U.S. squad anchored by reigning Olympic and world all-around champion Simone Biles had been tipped to run away with the gold. But that dominance was challenged during qualifying and is likely to be tested again during the finals.
"Obviously there are little things we need to work on, so we'll go back and practice and work on that, just so we can do our best performance at team finals, because that's what matters," said Biles, who will be in competing in all six women's finals. "We're really striving for top three."
It is unlikely, however, that anything but the top spot will satisfy Biles and her team mates Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum.
USA Gymnastics high-performance coordinator Tom Forster warned that not too much should be read into Sunday's qualifying and that the U.S. team will be ready when medals are on the line.
"This is not the finals, this is getting into the finals," said Forster. "Sometimes, just like in any other sport, great athletes drop the ball in the end-zone or a quarterback throws an interception.
The ROC and the United States were a class apart from other teams during qualification, with just over a point separating the two powerhouses.
China ranked third, almost five points adrift of the ROC, but is expected to be in the thick of the medal fight along with France. Belgium and Britain also eyeing a place on the podium.
The ROC are led by Angelina Melnikova, who helped Russia to team silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but all eyes will be on a fearless new generation that features 16-year-olds Vladislava Urazova and European all-around champion Viktoria Listunova.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Tokyo; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)