Whitlock seals incredible double
Briton wins first ever gymnastics gold medal Smith has to settle for silver on the pommel
On a startling, stupefying afternoon at the Rio Arena, Max Whitlock ended Britain’s wait for a first Olympic gold medal in gymnastics by winning two in two hours. Gone are the days when brilliance in this sport used to be the exclusive preserve of identikit, hot-housed gym rats from the Eastern Bloc. Britain, with stunning implausibility, is now the rising power, and it is all courtesy of a young man from Hemel Hempstead who couples supreme physical grace with an implacable resolve to carve his name among this country’s sporting legends.
There is little doubt of that now. Whitlock has entered territory once deemed unthinkable for British gymnastics. A bronze for Beth Tweddle at London 2012 was considered the apex of accomplishment. Aged 23, he is already a titan, perhaps even a knight-in-waiting, after recording a pair of unforgettable triumphs on the pommel horse and floor. The pommel victory he had dared hope for, given he was the world champion on this piece of apparatus, but his masterclass on the floor, deposing the great Kenzo Shirai of Japan, was a bonus of which not even he had dreamt. Whitlock can be a reticent, even taciturn figure at times, but his smile would not leave him. After all, he had become the first British athlete to win two golds in a day since 1972.
“I am trying to describe this, and I really can’t,” said Whitlock, struggling to suppress tears. “My coach and I can stand here and be extremely proud. I never go into any competition thinking about medals, but just thinking about doing my job.” There is something reminiscent of Andy Murray – understated, emphatically no-nonsense – about the way Whitlock conducts business. Like Murray, who abandoned Scotland for Barcelona as a teenager to pursue his ambitions, Whitlock followed his childhood coach to Slovenia in his quest to be world-class.
“You only get a couple of minutes to show what you have been working on for four years,” said Whitlock, who also won a bronze in the individual allaround event. “I Golden glow: Max Whitlock performs on the pommel horse and is given a hug by team-mate Louis Smith (below) wasn’t watching any of the other floor routines, so it just hit me when I realised what I had done. That’s why I got so emotional.” He was not the only one. Louis Smith took the silver behind Whitlock on the pommel, and was a bundle of conflicting sensations. He suffers, by his own admission, from attention-deficit disorder and has attracted censure more than once this year. First, he openly criticised a judging panel after losing out on the British title to Whitlock in Liverpool in April. He then found himself accused of sexualising a teenager after posting a provocative picture of a 16-year-old gymnast to his Instagram account. That he feels unfairly maligned was evident from his comments last night, as he lashed out on Brazilian television at “negative critics”. Smith hails from a starkly different background to Whitlock. His English mother, Elaine, separated from his Jamaican-born father, Claude, when he was just three, and he struggled to find sports that would hold his interest. He rejected a choral scholarship in favour of gymnastics and finally appreciated, amid the ecstatic tumult of yesterday’s events here, that he had made the right choice. “It’s so many different things at once, this feeling,” he said. “I have been speaking to my mum a lot this week, as I have been under so much pressure. Having got through it, I am just really lost for words.”
The atmosphere inside the arena had been febrile all day. Amplifying the noise inside the arena was the fact that two Brazilian gymnasts, in an Olympics so far denuded of medals for the home country, seized silver and bronze. For Diego Hypolito, the runner-up behind Whitlock, it was all too much, as he cried throughout his post-competition interviews. As for Arthur Mariano, in third, he looked bemused on the podium, endearingly standing to salute during God Save the Queen.
Whitlock harboured faint hope of usurping Shirai, such a master of this section that he has three separate exercises named in his honour. But he has shown definitively at these Games that he is not one to be cowed by reputation.
In a rare show of raggedness, Shirai stumbled twice. Then, when the American Samuel Mikulak planted a foot outside the square to cue a flag from the judges, Whitlock knew that the gold was his.
There was barely time to digest the feat as he stood atop the rostrum, needing to escape to his dressing room and prepare for the pommel. Smith set a dauntingly high benchmark, but it was nothing to which he was not equal. Whitlock was lithe in his flares around the handles, judging his dismount to perfection as his coach, Scott Hann, punched the air. Hann has said his pupil can develop one day into one of Britain’s sporting immortals. Here, on a dizzying day, was all the proof he needed.