Gym­nasts ready to team up for gold

Com­ing men of the sport con­fi­dent they can de­liver in team event tonight

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - FRONT PAGE - By Simon Briggs

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.

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