Gymnasts ready to team up for gold
Coming men of the sport confident they can deliver in team event tonight
In the build-up to these Games, the ever-garrulous Louis Smith told
Telegraph Sport why he had decided to return to the arena after a sixmonth career break. “To the normal person the best way of saying it is that my ability in gymnastics is like sitting on a winning lottery ticket. Why wouldn’t you cash it in?”
As we head into tonight’s men’s team final, Smith’s confident words typify the transformation in British gymnastics over the past few years.
Going into the London Olympics, parallel bars and balance beams still seemed as much a part of our sporting make-up as hurling sticks or baseball gloves. But Smith and his team-mates surprised everyone by capturing four medals – more than anyone except the traditional powerhouses of China, Russia and the USA. Then, last year, Max Whitlock nailed his pommel-horse routine in Glasgow to become the first male world champion from Britain.
There is pedigree, then, in this team. But there is also expectation on their shoulders, in a way they have not experienced before. Smith, Whitlock et al are dark horses no more. That pressure may have played a part in a slightly wobbly showing in Saturday’s qualification event, in which Great Britain finished fifth after Whitlock and two of his team-mates had fluffed their landings on the vault.
The pommel horse, however, is the banker for Great Britain. Whitlock and Smith took gold and silver in Glasgow on this apparatus and led the qualifying standings once again on Saturday. These friends and rivals share the highest respect for each other, despite an unguarded moment in April when Smith tweeted his fury at the judges’ preference for Whitlock in the national final. In person, they could hardly be more different. Smith is the wild card, a non-stop talker who not only won Strictly Come Dancing in 2012 but also auditioned unsuccessfully for The X Factor four years earlier. He loves showing off his tattoos – which include a pair of angel wings across his back with the message “What I deserve I earn” – and when
Telegraph Sport interviewed him before these Games, he held forth on everything from his ADHD childhood to his fondness for kebabs.
Whitlock, on the other hand, could hardly be quieter. The British head coach, Eddie van Hoof, describes him as one of the most extreme perfectionists he has met, and this fervour spills over into obsessive-compulsive habits. When Whitlock takes his shoes off, for instance, he has to leave them with one nudged slightly further forward than the other, and his teammates have learnt not to disrupt the pattern. In fact, shoes are a Whit- lock preoccupation: during a frustrating bout of illness in May, he spent five straight hours sketching trainers on his notepad.
The team are completed by Thomas, an easygoing 27-year-old whose superb Yurchenko vault brought home the team bronze in London, and two relative newcomers in Nile Wilson and Brinn Bevan, 20 and 19 respectively. Regular followers will notice the absence of Dan Purvis, the Scot who has claimed 14 international medals. But the pressure for places is intense and British gymnastics keeps on turning out world-class athletes. With rising participation figures and a performance boom which mirrors that of British cycling a decade ago, it is hard to think of a better-run sport.
“When I worked in Great Britain in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, I remember being impressed by the coaching set-up, which was then led by Andrei Popov,” says Klemen Bedenik, now president of the Slovenian Federation of Gymnastics but who was Whitlock’s first coach.
“Now you have people like Paul Hall [Smith’s coach, who works out of Huntingdon] and Gheorghe Predescu [who runs the squad at Loughborough University]. These are truly master coaches, and their expertise is feeding through into the national team’s success.” With BBC head of sport, Barbara Slater, promoting gymnastics via primetime broadcasts (as befits someone who represented Britain and competed against Nadia Comaneci) all in the garden appears rosy.
Now, if the athletes want to back up their reputation as the coming men of gymnastics – and take advantage of the ongoing drop-off from the former Eastern bloc powers – they need to deliver in Rio. It is time for Smith and company to cash in that winning ticket.