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Sssh! British gymnasts keep their 2012 secrets

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Ollie Williams | 16:42 UK time, Saturday, 23 October 2010

Britain's gymnasts may have produced a public display of Olympic intent during a medal-packed weekend at the World Championships in Rotterdam, but the secrets they are keeping will prove the difference in 2012.

Gold for Beth Tweddle, silver for Louis Smith and bronze for Dan Purvis rounded off the latest in a string of competitions which have obliged journalists to stick the word "unprecedented" in their reports.

That's on top of an Olympic bronze for Smith in 2008 - Britain's first gymnastics medal at a Games since the 1920s - and world gold for Tweddle a year later, alongside world silver for Daniel Keatings, who didn't even compete in the Netherlands this year through injury. These are heights Britain has never hit before, nor even come close.

Keatings watched from the BBC studio, sending the sound man's dials to 11 as he roared "Go on Louis!" and "Oh my God, Dan!" as his team-mates went about the business of winning medals in his absence. Such is the strength and depth of the British operation now.

What promised to be a tough test for Britain - a World Championships away from home (unlike last year's in London), minus Keatings and with added expectation following previous successes - ended in one frantic day of medals.

Despite that success, the week has to be looked at in context. In the team event, Britain's men and women both finished seventh, an indication that none of the usual medal-winning hyperbole will mask the fact there are still better countries out there.

So what happens next? How do the Brits sort that out? The answer is, you're not allowed to find out. Because Britain's gymnasts are keeping secrets that they'll only reveal in 2012.


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Video: Inside the World Gymnastics with Beth Tweddle (UK only)

The European Championships, in May this year, saw the last major marker laid down by the British men and women. There, they wrapped up silver medals in both the men's and women's team events, making European champions of Tweddle and Keatings in the process.

As a result this year would have been incredibly successful even without winning medals in Rotterdam, and it is further evidence of the sea change in the fortunes of British gymnasts that nobody stopped after May. Instead, medals kept coming off the production line in October.

For Tweddle to do it is one thing. She has long since proved herself a one-off, a genuinely world-class British talent from a generation where she was alone in meriting that description, now operating as the leading light in a team of them.

For the British men's team to produce silver and bronze in a World Championships, without the help of their world silver medallist from 2009 - not to mention qualifying in fourth place for the men's team final, the first they have ever reached, having been 15th three years ago - is off the gymnastics radar. Few, if any, teams have matched that stratospheric rise in gymnastics history.

Not only that, what was effectively a 'B' team was dispatched to the Commonwealth Games, where some of the younger talents saw off more experienced Australian rivals, the same Australians now competing for world medals in the Netherlands.

Imogen Cairns graduated from double Commonwealth glory to the British women's team at the Worlds, and prodigious talents like Sam Oldham and Reiss Beckford are waiting in the wings on the men's side. Oldham will certainly compete in this event next year.

The reasons why this strength has emerged, and in such numbers, are manifold: a change in the way British Gymnastics is structured, a change in coaching strategies, Tweddle's game-changing foray into the medals at world events, and even the gradual weakening of other nations (witness the slow decline of Romania and other former Eastern Bloc nations, such as the Ukraine and Belarus).

All play a part in the rise of the British gymnast, and I wrote a blog focusing on Britain's sudden emergence in the aftermath of their European success. But the likes of Tweddle and Smith will not be dwelling on what got them here as they move on from Rotterdam; they will be plotting where they go next, and how they convert World Championship success into Olympic medals in two years' time.

When it comes down to determining who wins those medals, scoring in gymnastics is based on two factors - difficulty and execution.

It doesn't matter how well you perform, and how high your execution score subsequently is, your routine must be of sufficient difficulty, because the two scores are added together for your final total.

In order to compete with the best in the world, Britain's finest are therefore engaged in a constant search for new manoeuvres, grips, flips and tricks which will up that difficulty score (as decided by the judges) and boost their overall tally.

However, the reverse also applies. It's pointless having a high difficulty score if your routine proves so difficult, you can't actually do it.

So there is a fine balance to strike, but it's one the British seem to be broadly getting right - to the point where Tweddle, the new uneven bars world champion, and pommel horse silver medallist Smith are keeping their best stuff in the locker for 2012.

They are refusing to let anyone see their ultimate routines until there's an Olympic medal on the line.

"I pushed up the difficulty here but I'm saving some of my top-secret stuff for the Olympic Games," 21-year-old Smith, who brims with confidence even when he hasn't just stepped off the world podium, told me.

"There's no point me doing my hardest routine now - I'll increase it next year, then by 2012 I'll have a massive start score. I can do it now but I don't want to do it too early, otherwise people will be able to copy it and beat me."

Smith's nemesis is Hungarian Krisztian Berki, a 25-year-old who has had the Huntingdon gymnast's number since they first started competing together. Once again it was Berki frustrating Smith in Rotterdam, winning the gold by a tenth of a mark.

"When I hit my routine and finished I was praying to be in first place, I've never been able to pip Berki," said Smith.

"But in two years' time we'll all be smashing out bigger, better routines and hopefully getting more medals."

Cynical observers may argue that Tweddle was handed her gold medal on a plate as two Chinese gymnasts, both of them not so much nailed-on for medals as welded to them, engaged in what gymnastics fans are inclined to call a "splatfest".

First, top qualifer He Kexin - easily the favourite - fell from the bars, and she was joined moments later by compatriot Huang Qiushuang, in the gymnastics equivalent of both Manchester United and Chelsea being relegated.

That left the path clear for Tweddle, who first won this title in 2006 (and won the floor title in 2009), to take the gold medal. Which makes it sound easy, but you still have to produce one of the best routines in the world to do it in an eight-woman final.

However, Tweddle isn't satisfied despite the gold medal and still has more up her sleeve, having chosen to stick to the "easy" routine this week.

"I decided before I came out here that I wasn't going to put the new dismount out," she told me, referring to the end of her bars routine, where she can choose from easier or harder finishes.

"I had a week's illness before I got here and that lost a bit of training for me. It was easier to play safe and luckily it paid off.

"There are skills that I'm working on back home which weren't quite ready, like the dismount, and maybe a couple of other combinations. I'll probably take some time to get those new connections ready for next year.

"But if you start putting too many new things in it affects the consistency, and that's one thing I feel like I have on my side. For this year I haven't upgraded my routine, but by 2012, there will definitely be an upgrade."

Tweddle knows that upgrade is vital. It's impossible to say where the gold medal would have gone had both He and Huang remained on the bars, but few observers would have been able to look beyond them, and Tweddle is well aware. Having failed so utterly with so much at stake, the Chinese duo will come back with even more firepower next time, and the Liverpudlian must prepare for that. She cannot rely on lightning striking twice in 2012.


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Video: Beth Tweddle's guide to the uneven bars

While one or two elements may materialise for 2011, that is why you will have to wait until 2012 to see Tweddle, Smith and their team-mates truly push the envelope. Meanwhile, all these new components will be fine-tuned behind closed doors - Smith joked about banning video cameras from training at his base in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

But secret weapons can wait for another day. The rest of the weekend will be devoted to a celebration of their achievements in Rotterdam, judging by the smiles on show as the team were interviewed, medals around their necks.

Paul Hall, the men's coach responsible for masterminding the ascent of Smith and Keatings among others, returned to the mixed zone (where reporters are allowed to mingle with the gymnasts) after Tweddle's gold medal, even with none of his charges present, just to savour the atmosphere.

"It's getting better and better," he said. "On the men's side it's no longer just Louis and Daniel, it's Dan Purvis and the others, the stage is set for 2012. We're making slow, steady progress and getting some great results, we've just got to hold it together."

Tweddle added: "The team spirit is so good. I was trying to warm up at the same time as Louis was performing, but (fellow gymnast) Imogen Cairns was keeping me updated. Three-two-one, you can't ask for more than that."

It's down to Cairns to sound a warning. She knows full well that upping your difficulty can be, well, difficult. After finishing last in the women's vault final, she heads back to the drawing board in a different frame of mind.

"As soon as I get back in the gym I've got to up my vaults, they're too easy now," said the 21-year-old.

"It's not like we haven't been trying to up them. We have for a couple of years, it's hard. But we've got to push now."

Tweddle, Smith and Cairns are under no illusions. They all need to push, because you can guarantee every other gymnast here - not least the two Chinese gymnasts who fell from the bars and were then sent, tears streaming, through the mixed zone - is going home determined to come up with something better.

By the time we reach July 2012 everyone will reveal their secrets, but only one (in each event, at least) will turn out to have the secret to success.


  • Comment number 1.

    This has been a great week for British Gymnastics topped off by today's three medals.

    I don't think the team results were in any way disappointing. This was the 1st time that the men had made a team final at world level & I don't think the women have made too many finals over the years either. Realistically the team has to get used to competing in these big finals before you can talk of winning medals. I also think that the best chance of team medals in the future is likely to be from the men, with Keatings back from injury and youngsters like Folwell & Beckford challenging for team spots there is more depth on the men's side. It is also likely to be the likes of Keatings & Purvis who challenge for Individual All Around honours, whereas on the women's side a top 8/10 finish would be more realistic for the likes of Hibbert.

    As this week has shown individual apparatus is still likely to be where Britain has the best chance of winning medals. And great to hear the guys are not resting on their laurels and upping the difficulty of their routines. However, I am sure the opposition are doing likewise. They will also need to get the balance right in terms of not showing their cards too early but also doing their routines in big pressure competitions.

    Finally, whilst Purvis & Smith are to be congratulated on their medals, a special word for the Brilliant Beth Tweddle. This is her 3rd world title now which is some achievement. She started to win medals when it was unheard of for British Gymnasts to do so and without her you wonder if the youngsters coming through would have the belief that they can win medals. To say she only won gold because of the Chinese misfortune is harsh - at the end of the day top lvel Gymnastics as with all sport is about getting it right under pressure and the likes of He Kexin didn't do that today. Beth fell off the bars in qualifying last year too. Even the top gymnasts can make mistakes and it's part & parcel of why watching gymnastics is so exciting, especially on apparatus like the bars & Beam. Let's hope Beth gets nominated for Sports Personality Of The Year & does well in the vote. I would love her to win it but doubt that will happen somehow.

  • Comment number 2.

    Don't these gymnastics results at world level throw the commonwealth games results into perspective?
    Australia won more golds in gymnastics at Delhi than the home nations but that was in the absence of leading English and other British competitors.
    This week in Rotterdam British and English competitors have won three medals one of which is gold;Australia have won a single bronze and their men did not reach the team final or have any men in the top twenty all round male competition though Britain had four.
    arguably, these world gymnastics results throw Australian golds gained in Delhi in all sports in the absence of leading English and other British competitors into true perspective.

  • Comment number 3.

    2 Archleftback
    were you taken by a dingo when you were a baby or something ?
    I've just checked your form and EVERY post you've made is about denigrating Australia and Australians (..and I mean every )
    Still I suppose you've come to the right website.....
    PS do you attack Israelis and Americans under a different name ?

  • Comment number 4.

    Good to hear from you bigotboy.
    You seem a little hot under the collar if I may say so!
    Mate, I see my role as providing evidence to balance the sporting hubris and bombast of Australians.

    You must admit that Many-possibly most-Australians crow about their alleged preeminence and have been doing so following Australia's recovery from the debacle of the montreal olympics-if not before.

    This crowing has been rather waring and i hope that you would agree that in the posts that I've published I've attempted to base an argument on facts,though earlier posts were lost when I had to sign back in to this site this year.

    This site is full of Australian's boasting about their sporting prowess and this seems to require denigrating the achievements of English and other British sportsmen.

    I try to respond with measured arguments though I admit that the rhetoric that accompanies those arguments may be a tad strident.

    I hope that you reply to this post.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    This is about appraising the performance of British gymnasts, not a childish game of one-upmanship.

    Tweddle was quite brilliant yesterday. It's unfair to attribute her win solely on the Chinese girls' falls. They folded under the pressure: Beth did not. I was also very admiring of the way the German gymnast got up and carried on after two falls which must have severely bruised both her body and her pride. They looked extremely painful.

    The British teams and individual performances at these championships will hopefully inspire a load of youngsters to take up the sport. In areas like Toxteth, that's really important.

  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks for the comments all.

    Tiger Rose, I agree that the team results aren't disappointing, but they do reflect the reality of the situation, which is useful when the medals GB are pulling in might otherwise lead people to conclude that suddenly Britain are near the top of the pile. GB are heading in the right direction, and at a fair lick, but there is still some way to go and the team finals reflected that.

    I definitely agree with your observation on the men being the stronger long-term bet for a team medal, too. Sam Hunter, Dan Purvis, Theo Seager and Ruslan Panteleymonov are an excellent engine room for that British team, each with different assets and each now proven capable of delivering under pressure. With Keatings back in the mix, that becomes a very strong line-up.

    And no, Beth didn't win gold purely because the Chinese duo fell. But He Kexin had already posted two 16-point-plus routines by that stage, and if she'd repeated that feat, she'd have won gold. One of the GB team admitted as much to me today, saying Beth "doesn't have the firepower" - yet. But of course, it's about managing the situation under pressure, where Beth has herself come unstuck in the past. As she said in our main report, this one was theirs to lose, and they lost it.

    Archleftback - Without getting embroiled in this Aussie furore, these results only through the Australian Commonwealth results into perspective if you didn't have them in perspective in the first place.

    Those who follow gymnastics will know that England sent a B team, and Australia sent their top gymnasts. So you could not simply compare like with like, as I'm sure you know.

    However, don't imagine you can therefore totally write off those Aussie performances. Lauren Mitchell won four Commonwealth gold medals and, on the back of that form, became a world champion earlier today.

    Singinghannahj - Tweddle was indeed superb, because - as I say above - you still have to win it, even if the favourites remove themselves from the occasion. And Beth knows better than most how easy it is to fall, having done it last year. But her victory comes in the knowledge that two Chinese gymnasts, who were widely expected to beat her, fell. So she will go away knowing that she needs to do more to ensure that, if everyone performs clean routines near to the brink of their potential, she is still in the reckoning.

  • Comment number 8.

    Thanks for the reply Ollie,
    I did have the Delhi gymnastics results in perspective.
    I only posted my post becauase I feel that sports journalists in the British written media still write articles comparing British sport unfavourably with Australia in spite of trends in evidence since 2000.
    by the way, might it be argued that Lauren Mitchell's gold yesterday was at least in part a result of errors by other competitors one of whom is the defending olympic champion in the discipline?
    all the best,

  • Comment number 9.

    You could argue that, yes, although Mitchell is good enough to deserve a world title after two world silvers last year.

    However, as above, the exact same argument could be made of Tweddle. And Smith. And, frankly, any of the medallists at the Worlds last week, that being the nature of gymnastics and most sport - very few people win gold medals by being better than everybody else with the entire field at 100%. Most win by making fewer errors and handling the pressure better, but the ability to do both comes with skill and experience. That's the part where GB can boast vastly improved resources compared with, say, four years ago.

    In gymnastics, it's very difficult to compare the Brits unfavourably with Australia. Britain unquestionably has the stronger squads in both the men's and women's events. However, the Aussies still have outstanding individuals, Mitchell and Prashanth Sellathurai (men's pommel horse) being the two that come to mind.

  • Comment number 10.

    I quite agree with the last paragraph in your last post Ollie.


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