Sport

British men land bronze in gymnastics stunner

Wednesday, August 01, 2012    

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LONDON, England (AP) — Louis Smith grabbed the bronze medal draped around his neck, stared at the sea of Union Jacks flying in the O2 Arena and drank in the moment.

It was even better than he imagined.

Yes, that really was Britain's first team medal in men's gymnastics in a century in his hands. Yes, that really was Prince William and Harry standing and applauding. Yes, the sport the flamboyant Smith has dedicated his life to really does matter — finally — in a country that spent decades treating it as an afterthought.

"It's a beautiful day for the sport of British gymnastics," Smith said.

One that came at the expense of some pretty big names.

The US, which soared through qualifying on Saturday, flubbed its way to fifth. The re-energised Russians, so calm on Saturday, cracked under the exquisite pressure the Games provide.

Not the Brits. Not this time. Not on this stage. Not after so many years of serving as a mere field filler.

Even the powerful Japanese needed a late assist from the judges, who bumped up Kohei Uchimura's pommel horse score by 0.7 points to keep Britain from grabbing silver.

And even the Chinese, who rolled to their second straight team gold and third in the last four Games, took notice.

Asked how impressed he was with Britain's rise from doormat to medal contender, China's Chen Yibing began applauding and said, "very good".

It was a fitting tribute to a programme that finally shook itself awake 10 years ago, pouring in resources to revitalise the junior ranks.

Getting the 2012 Games only gave them added incentive and Smith was their first success. His exquisite pommel horse routines are sublime, his legs seemingly magnetised together as he slowly, effortlessly works his way from one end of the apparatus to the other.

Smith captured bronze in his signature event in Beijing four years ago, the confidence-booster the programme needed to know it was headed in the right direction.

The 23-year-old, known as much for his eccentric haircut and massive tattoos, dreamt of a day when things would get a little more crowded on the podium.

It hardly seemed likely nine months ago, when the Brits imploded at the World Championships and didn't earn their way into the Olympics until they won a test event in January.

Yet suddenly, there Smith was, in front of the royals, in front of the world, showing off his team bronze for the cameras with his four teammates, two of whom — 19-year-olds Sam Oldham and Max Whitlock — are barely old enough to drink in the local pubs.

"The beauty of what we've got is that this team isn't a one-hit wonder," Smith said.

The Brits certainly didn't perform like one on a night so many more seasoned rivals stumbled. They started on pommels, where Smith anchored a solid set for which the bumbling Americans would trade away a stashful of individual medals.

When Smith erupted after drilling his dismount to earn a 15.966, the Brits had the solid footing they needed and the jitters vanished. Then the team captain spent the rest of the night doubling as head cheerleader.

As the mistakes from the Ukrainians, Americans and Russians piled up, Smith did his best to keep his teammates loose and leave "all the worrying to me and the coaches".

Smith kept reminding his buddies the hard part was already over. They'd stormed through qualifying, finishing third. Anything else was gravy.

"We weren't like some other countries that were expected to do well and have that type of pressure," Smith said. "We could just go out and enjoy it."

They certainly looked relaxed when burly Kristian Thomas drilled his difficult Yurchenko double-pike vault, his feet slamming into the mat with such force they could have been suctioned to the ground. The 16.550 score was the highest of the night on any event.

The arena, perhaps sensing it was time to get a bit ambitious, thundered its approval, the two princes included.

During the next hour, momentum built. Even a rare fall by Oldham on high bar couldn't slow Britain. Moments after Oldham slumped off the stage, Thomas posted a solid 15.2.

The Ukraine actually entered the final rotation in third, but the Brits were heading to the floor, an event they've transformed from a weakness to a strength.

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