No tomorrow for rhythmic gymnasts
Tomorrow died for Britain's rhythmic gymnasts on Tuesday.
A group of seven teenage girls who, with their parents' help, funded their own bid for Olympic glory, fell a minuscule fraction short of the standard required to reach London 2012 - missing their target by the sum of 0.273 marks.
If that sounds small, it is. The margin between the greatest success they could have imagined, reaching their home Olympic Games, and the horror of failure after all that time and money, could scarcely have been smaller.
Everybody cried. The girls, some of them lying prostrate on the floor in tears, hid behind a gigantic black curtain away from the crowd and media.
When, eventually, the team and officials emerged to face the music, even British Gymnastics' performance director was close to tears. He gave interviews with moist, reddened eyes, in which he confirmed that the deal struck with the British Olympic Association was such that there was no leeway. This was it. The team had a target to hit, they had missed it, no Olympics. End of story.
The British team were distraught to learn they had failed to reach their target (Photo: PA)
If every word from his mouth appeared to hurt him, imagine how it felt to be one of the gymnasts.
The crowd, which booed in horror as Britain's score appeared on London's O2 Arena scoreboards, did its best to encourage them. But by that point, slicks of mascara had already stained their heavily made-up faces.
"We're all ready to fight tomorrow," Rachel Smith, the team captain and the one most prepared to face the cameras at her lowest ebb, told us defiantly.
"This isn't the end to us, this isn't the last you're going to see of this group. We're not messing around. Nobody's having a joke here. We're being serious. We want to go."
And that was the heartbreaking moment when it became apparent that the team did not believe their fight was over. They believed in tomorrow, but tomorrow did not exist.
"I don't think it's the end," said Smith's team-mate, Lynne Hutchison. "We can show a credible performance, show we're good enough and hopefully we might get something."
Here were the team, insisting they would come out for the Olympic test event's finale on Wednesday and show something more - do something, anything - to convince the powers-that-be to send them to the Games.
And yet the message from British Gymnastics and the British Olympic Association, who between them set the target in the first place, was incontrovertible. This was the end, they confirmed to us. Wednesday mattered not one jot. The rules laid down said Tuesday's qualifying score had to beat 45.223. It did not, and there could be no appeal, no reprieve, no mulligan.
Tim Jones, the performance director, fought to mask his sorrow as he delivered the fateful words.
"We went through a process with the British Olympic Association of agreeing a standard we felt would show credible performance," he said.
"It would have been a score that gave us a platform to launch rhythmic into the next four years, but there wasn't any leeway. They will not be nominated."
But still the gymnasts would not, could not accept this. It did not sink in. Jade Faulkner, the reserve for Tuesday's performance who had watched her Olympic dream evaporate from the sideline, insisted afterwards it was not over.
Can you blame them? Can you blame a group of teenage girls who have sacrificed years of their lives, and thousands of pounds of their families' cash, in pursuit of a dream that has been taken away for the sake of a fraction of one mark? If it were you, would you be any different?
But then, if you were the British Olympic Association, could you possibly act any differently?
The target score had been established for some months now. Having decided to set the bar at 82% of the top score at last autumn's World Championships, in Montpellier, British Gymnastics and the BOA gave the rhythmic squad many weeks to wrestle with that benchmark and develop a way to reach it.
The BOA even brought in legendary ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean to advise the squad on the best way to show off their artistry and impress the judges. Anything which squeezed an extra tenth of a mark out of the panel would be worth it. The team listened, too - their routines inside the O2 Arena were packed with finishing touches gleaned from a couple of hours in the exuberant Dean's company.
Torvill and Dean coach GB rhythmic gymnasts in December
That it all came to nothing is sad for the gymnasts and their families, whose sacrifice has been great and whose reward is now nothing but the memory of having been on a journey. It is hard to see how they can possibly continue as a group.
The money is not there (rhythmic gymnastics receives no UK Sport funding) and the four years to Rio 2016 - where qualification is even less likely, since Britain will no longer have access to host-nation places - must seem a lifetime to the teenagers whose eyes are still drying.
I asked their coach, Sarah Moon, if her team could be expected to find the cash to carry on for another Olympic cycle. "No. No, of course not," she said, swallowing tears. "We're not sure what happens next. We'll think about that."
The target score need not have existed. Nothing, really, is stopping the BOA sending the rhythmic gymnasts to the Games with its blessing. Britain has a guaranteed place in the group event, courtesy of hosting the Olympics.
But the BOA and British Gymnastics decided to impose this benchmark regardless, as a way of showing that British athletes would only be sent to their home Olympic Games if they proved they had the talent to go. For all the hurt, grief, bewilderment and disbelief it has caused this group of teenagers, that is a laudable stance.
They know, now, that to turn around and find a loophole with which to include the youngsters at the Olympics would open them to ridicule. It cannot be done, much as performance director Jones - who is already taking a battering from the gymnasts' families and friends on Facebook - may wish it could.
Instead, the gymnasts are victims of the BOA's promise that every British athlete stepping into an Olympic arena this summer will be delivering both a competitive performance and a lasting legacy for their sport.
Sadly for the rhythmic gymnasts, they are left with neither. This remains a sport with no money, few prospects and plenty to cry about. That Britain's Olympic ideals have been upheld will be of scant consolation now.