Max Whitlock has always been a shy kind of sportsman. It does not matter now. The history books – and an army of fans – will shout loud enough for him, after he ended Britain’s 116-year drought with not one but two gold medals in the Olympic Arena and established himself as -simply the greatest gymnast the country has produced.
On a sunny afternoon when the beaches were full of weekenders in bikinis, the brutally air-conditioned interior of the Olympic Arena was, for once, the hottest place to be as Whitlock became an Olympic champion in his first floor final – having thought he would be lucky to make the podium – then added the pommel horse title half an hour later. At only 23 and with three bronze medals already in his kitbag he now has more Olympic medals than Britain’s gymnasts had earned in total until four years ago.
Whitlock said that competing in the pommel – in which he is already world champion – was actually made harder by his surprise win on the floor. “It was more tough because I wasn’t watching any of the floor routines before or after me so I didn’t know what scores were coming through,” he said. “Scott told me what I’d done and it literally just hit me like a ton of bricks. It was crazy.”
As for whether his feat – he is the first British athlete since the three-day-eventer Richard Meade in 1972 to win two Olympic gold medals in the same day – had sunk in, Whitlock still was not sure. “I don’t know what to say, I’m really, really speechless. I feel complete, I think?”
Louis Smith, who had to settle for pommel‑horse silver once again, wept during the ceremony, although less with disappointment than relief.
The man whose ambition reignited the sport in Britain and whose bronze in -Beijing can fairly be said to have set Whitlock on his path, has been under intense scrutiny since his decision to return to competition two years ago. “I got so many messages saying I shouldn’t be in the team,” a more laid-back Smith said. “To go through that routine in the final and pick up that medal, it means so much. There were so many people who have believed in me and that’s why I couldn’t hold back the tears.”
Falling in the team final had also taken its toll. “I pride myself on being someone reliable and stable,” he said. “I’ve been beating myself up quite a lot. It’s only the last day or two I’ve been back to my -normal self. I’ve had all these doubts. Even walking up to the pommel horse I was thinking, ‘What happens if it happens like the team final?’”
Smith stepped up to the pommel planning to complete his most difficult routine but a near-miss on his first skill made him change his mind. “I thought to myself, don’t fuck it up. So I did my easier routine.”
Whitlock, meanwhile, owns the three most difficult routines in the world. In
the end he chose the easiest of them – which still carries a three-tenths higher start value than Smith’s – and executed it all but flawlessly for a winning score of 15.966.
His unprecedented achievements here are the result of an unfussy but stoic determination. In the past two years he has quietly modified his training to cope with debilitating bouts of glandular fever; this week he shrugged off poor scores in qualifying to take bronze in the all-around final. “I sort of plod along and do my thing,” he admitted, when asked how he would respond to his new-found fame.
At the same time as Whitlock was on his way to his second Olympic title of the day, Andy Murray was going for his own -second gold, a hop, skip and triple somersault away in the tennis centre next door. One could argue that Whitlock is the -Murray of the gymnastics world; he prefers a quiet, even slightly dull life compared with the celebrity career his good friend Louis has carved out.
A few months ago he proposed to Leah Hickton – the sister-in-law of his coach, Scott Hann – with whom he has worked since he was 14. Hann has admitted that it was occasionally awkward to have Whitlock turn up at his house after a full day of training wanting to hang out with his wife’s little sister. But being part of a small, close-knit circle – Hickton is herself a coach at Hann’s South Essex Gym-nastics Club – is what he prefers. At 23 he is already thinking about having his own family – Hickton has stayed away from these games because of Zika concerns, and was watching him from holiday in Spain.
In training before his first final -Whitlock had sat quietly next to the horse that has become the silent partner of his sporting ambitions. His legs were set apart in the 10-to-two position that must now be their most natural pose and for a long while he simply stared down at the bag of chalk that rested between them. His ability to cut himself off from everything around him is one of his greatest strengths, although it also meant that he was the last person to see his gold medal coming during the floor final.
The firm favourite was Kenzo Shirai – known as the Twist Prince by his team‑mates because he packs nearly two dozen of them into his routine. In fact, if the men were allowed to perform their floor routines to music as the women do, the soundtrack this year would certainly have been Chubby Checker, because everyone here was doing the twist, including Whitlock.
However, it was his fast-moving flares – a skill he also uses to such devastating effect on the pommel – that really caught the eye. His signature ‘air flare’ – where he jumped from one hand to another mid‑move – could only have looked cooler if he had been shooting bad guys at the same time.
Whitlock’s performance had immediately followed that of the local hero, Diego Hypólito, whose routine had earned him a competition-best 15.533. The 30‑year‑old, who took Brazil’s first ever world title in the sport 11 years ago, fell competing this piece at both his past two Olympics, and he had postponed his retirement to compete at his home Games. When Whitlock’s score was revealed on screen – and was 0.1 points higher – the announcer had to beg the crowd to stop booing.
Then came Shirai, who begins with a start value a massive 0.7 points higher than his nearest rival, which is like giving Usain Bolt a 20-metre head start. But the 19-year-old’s knees crumbled beneath him midway through his routine. First a small stumble, and then a major topple, ruled him dramatically out of the running.
Only the American Samuel Mikulak, who had qualified with a massive 15.800, was left to deny Whitlock gold and a deep landing on his first pass and a step out on his second handed second and third places on the podium to Hypólito and his compatriot Arthur Mariano.
The crowd, who have been vocal all week about what they perceive to be underscoring for the home nation, cut loose.
“It reminded me of London,” Whitlock said. “I remember then, I couldn’t believe how loud it was, it was at this level where it felt like it couldn’t go any higher, and it was like that for the Brazilians today.”
Phlegmatic as ever, he will not be giving himself too much time off to celebrate. “I’ll be back in the gym, there’s always stuff for me to learn.”
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