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Why are Britain's gymnasts suddenly so good?

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Ollie Williams | 17:49 UK time, Sunday, 2 May 2010

"Another day at the office," declared breezy British gymnast Niamh Rippin, team silver medal around her neck and tongue firmly in cheek, as hundreds of fans greeted her outside Birmingham's National Indoor Arena on Saturday.

But it really isn't. British gymnasts have never had days like these.

The GB team are leaving the European Championships with a total of 15 medals (senior boys: team silver, individual gold, silver and bronze; junior boys: team gold, four individual golds, a silver and two bronze; senior girls: team silver, two individual golds).

That total is unprecedented, particularly the success of both the junior and senior men's teams, who have for decades toiled in the lower echelons of world gymnastics.

Why, though, is this all happening now? Who has flicked a switch to turn Britain from a gymnastics also-ran to a world power with an eye on medals at a home Olympics? Is it all down to money?

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Highlights: British women win team silver in Birmingham (UK users only)

Actually, one reason for this success may be down to a lack of cash.

Where Olympic sports are concerned, success at world or Olympic level is the biggest way to bring money in, through increased funding and increased exposure to the public. But, less than a decade ago, the British men's squad was performing so badly that it lost all but its most basic level of funding.

That forced British Gymnastics to change the way it worked. Until that point, the very best gymnasts in the United Kingdom would, at a certain age, be swept away from the clubs where they had been trained, and installed in an elite programme at the Lilleshall national sports centre.

However, with no funding to support that centralised system, it was scrapped. Instead, the focus was shifted to the clubs themselves, with more support for elite gymnasts to continue training with their club coaches, who in turn received training and guidance from the national governing body.

Then, as funding slowly returned because of the gradual improvement in results, that funding was ploughed not into a national elite programme, but directly back into the clubs and coaches working with those gymnasts. Top officials and commentators agree the results of this change have been remarkable, and that the new system - brought on by a lack of funds - lies at the root of Britain's resurgence.

"Suddenly, in the last four years, we've developed men's and women's teams that have taken Europe by storm," says Trevor Low, who chairs the British men's technical committee. Broadly speaking, that means he oversees the way in which men's gymnastics works in the UK, paying particular attention to club level.

"But it has been a long, slow process," he adds, "in particular building up the clubs and coaches. One of our early mentors, John Atkinson, preached his message over and over: if you make clubs stronger, you make coaches stronger, and you're going to start producing.

"What was missing was we didn't have the infrastructure, the tradition, the strength in our clubs and facilities. But now we've got some of finest facilities in Europe.

"Many of the teams this week have been amazed at the facilities they've seen in Birmingham and around the training halls. They ask how we did it. Well, it's what we've been doing for the last 20 years: building the resources to make this all possible."

Not so much flicking a switch, then. The renewed focus on coaches turns out to be the missing piece in the puzzle after decades of slogging away at grass-roots level - decades in which the Eastern bloc nations, pouring state funding into their centralised programmes, dominated gymnastics to Britain's detriment.

"We've replicated a lot of what the Eastern bloc used to have 20 years ago, but found a good balance which suits the British way," explains Eddie Van Hoof, the men's technical director, who is responsible for the men's elite team, including Daniel Keatings and Louis Smith. Below him sit the individual coaches, such as Paul Hall (who trains Smith and Keatings), who are the new stars of the system.

Louis Smith (right) with coach Paul HallLouis Smith, right, with coach Paul Hall at last year's Worlds. Photo: BBC

"We have a semi-centralised training regime - some gymnasts train with national coaches for quite a period of time - but the focus is still on clubs and the good work that goes on with club gymnasts and club coaches.

"However, those clubs and coaches are pulling together on the national programme and it's the first time, in my 25 years of national coaching, that everyone is so behind the programme.

"From eight years old, we can pick up elite-level gymnasts and guide them through with their coaches - there's a lot of coaching development work going on in the background as well.

"And now, we've seen we can make the transition from juniors into seniors - the senior men's team here were the junior European Championships team of 2006, en bloc. The current junior team did exceptionally well here, because they felt under pressure to replicate the performance of the previous junior team, who won the title in 2008.

"These juniors will move up towards senior ranks now, and they've got a year to establish themselves, so they'll be pushing the others. We've got nine or 10 boys in contention for the London 2012 team."

Giving gymnasts a clear route to the top, accompanied by coaches they trust and understand at all times, has played a big part in Britain's resurgence. But somebody has to be the first to start winning, to show the others it can be done. That somebody was Beth Tweddle, who picked up a World Championship title in 2006.

"The generation before me started it," she remembers. "They started to make finals and get team results. I took it one step further, and hopefully the generation below me can take it even further than I have.

"I remember making my first final, in 2002, and speaking to my coach (Amanda Kirby), telling her I didn't feel like I belonged. She told me I had earned that place, and I should make the most of it. After that, the way we trained changed. Once you've got one medal you're never happy unless you've got gold to come home with from every championships."

Beth Tweddle at the 2006 World ChampionshipsBeth Tweddle wins the 2006 world title that changed the face of British gymnastics. Photo: Getty Images

As the first British gymnast in history to win a world title, Tweddle broke through a glass ceiling. Now, the British men are following in her wake. As Tweddle continues to rack up major honours (world champion again last year, double European champion both this year and last), Keatings has added a men's individual world silver medal to the list, and Smith an Olympic pommel horse bronze.

"Beth's victory in 2006 launched our sport," says Colin Still, the women's national coach. He has fulfilled that role for decades but now, under the new system, acts mostly in an advisory capacity, watching major competitions from a distance while club coaches anxiously fuss over their charges.

"All the other gymnasts looked at that and said, 'If she can do it, we can'. It's comparable to when Olga Korbut did the first back-somersault on the beam. Everyone said it was so dangerous, they couldn't do it. And now everybody is. If Beth can get up there, other British gymnasts can. Now, juniors look at the sport and say they can go further than Beth, because they have the facilities and the coaches.

"There's a big difference, doing this job now. In previous years we were here just to participate, everybody just wanted a ticket on the plane, to have a good time. These days, we're only here to compete in finals, and we're looking for medals."

Low adds: "What Dan, Louis and Beth have done for this sport, you could never buy. You can't go into a shop or to a funding body and say, 'Give me this,' only athletes can deliver. And in this case they've delivered enormous benefits to us. The cascading effect is going to do us lots and lots more good.

"Everybody wants to be part of something they know is going somewhere. When people see those three on the podium, and see the British team winning medals, they want to be part of it. The interest in our clubs over the last 10 days, the number of phone calls coming in nationwide, has been overwhelming, and by the end of this week I think we'll be flooded."

Other factors cannot be ignored. Heading towards a home Olympic Games in 2012, it is natural for all Olympic sports in Britain to receive a higher level of attention, an elevation in funds received, targets set, drive to succeed. Gymnastics, alongside most Olympic sports in Britain, has been a beneficiary of that.

Additionally, the wider sport of gymnastics has changed dramatically. When those Eastern bloc nations were winning title after title in the 1980s, part of that lay at the door of the judging system, which, to phrase this delicately, was not exactly perfect. The break-up of the Eastern bloc saw that particular judging issue gradually diminish.

Previously, former British gymnasts will tell you, they could have nailed every last routine and finished outside the top 20. While some of the problem was that Britain didn't have the gymnasts, the other side of the coin was that the country didn't have the right reputation in a sport governed entirely by judging panels. It takes a lot to change that, and the emergence of true superstars like Tweddle, whose brilliance is simply undeniable when watched up close, is what Britain needed.

Perhaps other nations are getting weaker, too. The British team has come on in leaps and bounds, but it is helped by the financial troubles of teams like Romania and Ukraine, former powers in the sport now trying to maintain that legacy in a far less amenable political climate.

The British will not be shedding tears for teams who have had their chance. Now, the British organisation oozes an almost apologetic confidence, nodding sagely at the bright future ahead while trying to keep their feet on the ground.

"We've got countries asking us if this the best we've got. Well, they haven't seen anything yet," says Low, briefly losing all contact with terra firma. "We've got juniors beneath our juniors who are going to terrify the gymnastics world. They are absolutely awesome. I'm looking two Olympics ahead of London and I think we'll still be in this strong position."

For Van Hoof, the idea that not just one individual, but an entire team might get onto the podium in 2012, is the holy grail. He is relishing the next two years.

"Some of the most well-known gymnastics experts around the world are recognising our performance improvements and suggesting a team medal is not an impossibility," he concludes. "That's way above an individual apparatus final. To me, that's the be all and end all."


  • Comment number 1.

    Another brilliant blog - I've really enjoyed your reports and tweets the last few weeks! The gymnasts have done their country proud and its amazing to see how far they've come - I went and watched the mens last week and whilst the crowds were dissapointing it was fantastic to see it packed to the top this weekend for the womens.
    The point about pushing the focus back onto clubs makes very interesting reading, maybe something the LTA should take note of as they try to rebuild British tennis?!

  • Comment number 2.

    I think this is a really balanced commentary on the factors behind GB's emergence. You could also mention the favourable changes to competition formats - from loss of compulsories to 'three up, three count' team finals and increased opportunities for apparatus specialists, which have all helped "non-traditional" gymnastics nations.

    It's also probably a bit misleading to draw too many parallels between the men's and the women's sides of the sport - partly because they are run separately, by different national tech committees, and also because the broader, international picture has been different in each case. However, it's true in each case that there's been a move towards decentralisation.

    On that point, I also think a bit of expectation management might be needed when it comes to the girls. Beth is a phenomenon, but there's a big gap behind her. The next generation (which included junior European standouts such as Rhian Pugh and Aisling Williams) has been and gone without making the impact expected at senior level, and the current squad, which performed so brilliantly yesterday even in the absence of two key members, is nevertheless relatively shallow, and cannot look to an ultra- dominant junior squad for reinforcements.

    This is in no way designed to rain on anyone's parade. It's been a thrilling week and I'm so proud of the girls. I just think it would help, for the WTC and coaches at least, to keep a broader perspective.

  • Comment number 3.

    Really? Its a pointless sport, in fact its not even a sport!!

  • Comment number 4.

    Reallllly good input Fumaca.
    I have not the first idea about gymnastics, but I'll bet they have a great deal more talent and bravery in their field of 'expertise' (because despite being a physical activity it's clearly not a sport, right?) then you have in any shape or form.

    Great blog Ollie. I for one support the advancement and success of British athletes in any area. Let's hope this rise of our gymnasts continues until the Olympics


  • Comment number 5.

    ilfordtoon, not all physical activities are sports. Whilst I have nothing but the utmost admiration for gymnasts, thinking they are possibly the fittest people representng our country in any competition, I find anything which has an 'artistic merit' section to be not sport.

  • Comment number 6.

    Illumi-llama, every activity that involves competition is a sport. Driving is a skill yet a car race is sport. Just because half your score comes from how you look doing it doesn't make it any less of a competition. Sports like football have an objective goal (score more then the opposition) but sports like figure skating, gymnastics, diving etc have a subjective and aesthetic view.

    Brilliant blog, a lot of sports governing bodies could learn a lot from this. RFU, FA, ECB etc take note. You put the money in at grass roots and up skill the coaching staff and improve the facilities then people are surprised when you produce better talent.

  • Comment number 7.

    Excellent blog. Wonder if the LTA could learn from this?

    The debate around sport is odd. You dont need to argue what is and isnt a sport the dictionary defines it perfectly adequately.

    "1 an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment"

    Hard to argue it doesnt include physical exertion and skill...if you disagree with the definition I suggest contacting the Oxford University Press...

  • Comment number 8.

    I do agree that Britain's men gymnasts have made a significant improvement and have strength in depth, as exemplified by the success of our juniors, including such characters as Reiss Beckford, an outstanding all around gymnast who is also a strong rings specialist and who will likely progress to the senior team this autumn.
    However, much of the touted transformation of the women's team stems from the noteable success of Beth Tweddle on two pieces of apparatus. Without Beth, the team lacks strength in depth as we move forward to the Olympics and beyond. If Beth is hit by injury or an 'off' day at the World Championships this autumn, the team could struggle to qualify for the Olympic Games, let alone capture any medals. There is no stand out gymnast like Beth in the junior ranks, and once she has retired the British team will probably relapse into more familiar middling territory.

  • Comment number 9.

    Great blog Ollie. Interesting that Gymnastics success has been built from the clubs & as others have said maybe other sports could learn from this.

    I was lucky enough to be in the crowd yesterday in birmingham. We were sitting in the front row right by the A-Bars and seeing them that close up you fully appreciate what these girls do. Beth was the best by some considerable distance in both the bars & the Floor & thoroughly deserved her 2 gold medals. It was great to see the arena packed too.

    Also, whilst Gymnastics is a judged sport other than the women's floor there isn't much focus on presentation skills & even there you have to have the tumbling otherwise you will get nowhere. The new judging system has also improved the sport, with more exciting routines & difficulty fully rewarded.

  • Comment number 10.

    The BBC waste my licence money on a sport that requires no skill, goes along with Swimming, Athletics & F1, sports anyone could excel at. Maybe 5 people bothered to watch it, and no one in this country considers a gold at this pass time an achievement in any sense.

  • Comment number 11.

    A top notch blog Ollie. As someone who knows next to nothing about the sport, yes it is a sport! It shows a great insight to what has been happening behind the scenes to improve.

    When I see blogs highlighting the improvements Team GB has made in various sports, such as: Cycling, Swimming, to a lesser extent track and field and now gymnastics, I get more and more excited about 2012 and I think we could better our medal haul from bejing.

    What are your views for what Team GB can achieve in two years Ollie?

  • Comment number 12.

    I'm thinking Fumaca is just trying to get a reaction out of us readers, because it is ludicrous to suggest that the likes of gymnastics, swimming, athletics and F1 are 'sports anyone could excel at' and sports that 'require no skill.'

    These are some of the best athletes in the country, and they make me proud to be British!

  • Comment number 13.

    There are some seriously mentally challenged people - aka Fumaca.

    He probably plays darts down the local eating his pork scratchings and drinking a pint of beer. This being also classed as a sport is where he gets his work out.

    People should have to pass an exam of some sort before they are allowed to put moronic messages on the boards. Or at least prove they are over 12.

  • Comment number 14.

    Actually....i am in agreement with those who worry about sports that are scored. It is not a question of getting points for artistry but the fact the points are awarded in a subjective manner. Figure skating has the same problem.

  • Comment number 15.

    Jonb...have you done that exam? Seems you are suffering from the same problem.
    He is perfectly entitled to voice his opinion...or are you one of those who believes in free speech but only if it fits in with your way of thinking?

  • Comment number 16.

    Freedom of speech if it's not moronic:

    3. At 00:29am on 03 May 2010, Fumaca_aka_you_knacker wrote:

    Really? Its a pointless sport, in fact its not even a sport!!

    Point proven i would say - if he came up with a valid reason i wouldn't have an issue.

    You came up with a valid reason for it, which can be discussed, but if you want to defend him, more fool you.

  • Comment number 17.

    This is great news. If we can keep doing great stuff in sports like these then the feel-good vibe that will be produced at the Olympics could be the making of this country.

  • Comment number 18.

    Re; the team lacking strength and depth without Beth.

    I was curious about this so looked up the results of the team competition and did a little back of the envelope calculation. If you replace Beth's (huge!) scores on the bar and floor with the average of the other 2 counting marks still gives a total of 165.something still in silver medal position.

    I'm sure Beth's influence on the team is far more significant than her actual scores and the confidence the rest of the girls get from knowing she'll be there to get extra points if they slip up is huge. However this clearly shows that although she is a phenomonon the others are fully deserving of their new status among the best in europe.

    The boys juniors were awesome and it's not surprising that the future for them is being hyped up but just because the girls juniors didn't have the same success does not mean the reverse is true.

    In womens gymnastics, far more than the mens version, there is a tendency for peaking and retiring early. I would contend that we need more female gymnasts like Beth, who weren't necessarily winning international titles at 15/16 but has put in many years of solid international performance (and hopefully will contnue til at least 2012!). This would not only give the team a bit of stability and reliability but also be better for the gymnasts themselves. I'm always sort of worried by those you see winning world championships early and barely hear of again.

    I'm not suggesting that we should be expecting British gymnastics to conquer the world in the next few years but I think it's important (and I think this blog sets a great tone!) that we're hopeful and excited by the new talent emerging.

  • Comment number 19.

    @Zanderzelle -- I was thinking exactly the same thing while reading this! The LTA would do well to think about their model in the wake of the Lithuania defeat and all the well-documented problems with British tennis.

    Re: judged competitions being sport or not, we should remember that until 1948, you could win a gold medal for sculpture, poetry, and shearing sheep. At least we now require Olympic competitors to be athletes in both the ancient Greek and the modern senses. (Though, with the admission of golf to the Olympic fraternity, how far behind are darts, snooker, and chess?) Besides, even in sports like athletics, where you could reasonably say there are clearly defined criteria for winning, there is an element of judging introduced when there's a photo-finish. And the tightening of the judging in gymnastics as in other judged events (diving, etc.), means the judges have very little leeway. It's really only the aesthetic components of e.g. ice dancing, rhythmic gymnastics, and the like where any quibble could be made. And why should we not call these sports, when the same effort and strain goes into it? There is still a contest -- that the contest is not physical (or, not only physical) makes no difference to whether it is a contest or not. And any contest with a marked physical element (which cannot be denied in any judged Olympic sport) emphatically deserves the label 'sport'.


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