British gymnasts secure historic bronze, but not silver, as China retains Olympic title
Monday, 30 July 2012
July 30 - Britain secured its first Olympic gymnastics team medal in a century in what was its first team final for 88 years on a night of huge drama here which saw a transformed Chinese team defend their title – but the colour turned from silver to bronze as the Japanese earned extra fractions of a point on appeal for their final exercise.
After a bewildering 10-minute delay during which all but the Chinese celebrations were temporarily suspended, the decision was greeted by some boos from a crowd that included Princes William and Harry – not that they joined in, of course.
Spectators in the packed arena had already been roused to uproar by the way in which Britain's inexperienced young performers (pictured top) had overtaken Ukraine to a podium place on the last of their six scheduled exercises, and then to incredulity when a botched dismount from the pommel horse by Japan's triple world champion and double Olympic silver medallist Kohei Uchimura put the home quintet into second place behind the peerless Chinese.
After that fleeting home prospect had been diminished by the judges' decision to award the Japanese five-tenths of a mark more after watching video evidence there was an inevitable and unfortunate sense of what might have been about the British reward.
But the disappointment was not profound – unlike that of the Ukrainians who suddenly found themselves out of the medals – given the historic magnitude of the achievement.
And as team captain Louis Smith – who generated so much of the good things which have happened in British gymnastics by winning Britain's first Olympic medal in a century at the Beijing Games – stood on the rostrum with his fellow 23-year-old, Kristian Thomas, 21-year-old Daniel Purvis and 19-year-olds Max Whitlock and Sam Oldham, there was an accompanying sense of further good things to come.
For Oldham, whose momentary lapse and fall in the high bar – the fifth of the six disciplines for the home team – had threatened to undermine their medal challenge, the sense of triumph will have been tinged with relief.
That said, the youngster – who might have followed a career in football had he taken up offers by Nottingham Forest and Derby County – remounted to retrieve a respectable score of 14.000 points and performed admirably overall in what was only his second big senior contest.
"It's just incredible to be in this position," Oldham said afterwards.
"If you had told us beforehand that we would finish third behind China and Japan we probably wouldn't have believed you.
"It's an amazing experience and something I will never forget.
"I was shocked when I fell, but I knew it was important to get back on quickly and finish cleanly, which I managed to do."
Smith had scored 15.966 points with a sound but above all safe routine on his specialist piece, the pommel horse, to ensure Britain moved onto their second event in first place overall, and although they finished last in their weakest event, the rings, they were still third after the vault, in which Thomas produced an exceptional effort worth 16.550.
After negotiating the parallel bars, without alarm, they needed only to hold steady during the high bar and floor routines; but in a massively pressurised atmosphere, where even world champions were under-performing on occasions, the British could not rely on immunity.
After rallying with an outstanding performance from Thomas, who scored 15.200 in the bar, Britain were still within striking distance of the third-placed Ukrainians in the final round of events.
Whitlock, Purvis and, with maximum pressure on him, Thomas all played their part to bring about a result so obviously desired by the majority within the arena.
As Thomas bounced away, high on adrenaline, from a final floor exercise which was shortly to be awarded 15.433 points, so assuring Britain of its second overall apparatus win of the evening, he upped both arms to the crowd, and the decibel level rose accordingly.
It was a scarcely believable moment of excitement for the home team.
"We had already exceeded expectations by qualifying in third place," said Smith.
"That meant we were able to go out and enjoy the competition, which is often when athletes perform best.
"The way Kristian landed his vault was a game-changer, and then the crowd got really loud.
"So I think it was a combination of things that helped us to the medal."
The British excitement had been mirrored among the Chinese, however, as they watched the clinching final effort of Chenglong Zhang on the pommel horse with their arms round each others' shoulders like footballers witnessing a penalty shoot-out.
Amid the fluctuating fortunes of the evening, their determination to make good on their woeful effort in qualifying, where they moved through to the final down in sixth position, had been constant.
The Chinese – Zhang, Yibing Chen, Zhe Feng, Weiyang Guo and Kai Zou – finished with 275.997 points after an evening of almost faultless gymnastics, more than four points clear of the Japanese who eventually totalled 271.952, with Britain on 271.711 and the unhappy Ukrainians on 271.526.
"After getting out of bed this morning I knew we were going to win it because in the qualifications we didn't do very well," said Chen.
Uchimura's score was amended on appeal after the jury raised his difficulty score having decided that "credit had to be given to his dismount from the apparatus".
Meanwhile, two of the powerhouses of the event, the United States and Russia, who had qualified first and second ahead of Britain, had to settle for fifth and sixth place, respectively, with 269.952 and 269.603.
The US hopes hit the deck along with the desolated John Orozco as he fell on his landing from the vault.
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